A high school model that bridges education and the business community through a joint venture, operating as a school within a school.
Jack Harris, President & CEO, 3DE Schools.
Jack Harris is President & Chief Executive Officer of 3DE Schools, an outgrowth of Junior Achievement – an organisation dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to own their economic success, plan for their futures, and make smart academic and economic choices.
In 2015, Harris spearheaded the pilot launch of the first 3DE high school in one of metro Atlanta’s highest-poverty and lowest-performing high schools.
“There are two big problems we’re trying to solve for at the same time. First, how do we re-engineer education in order to create greater paths of economic opportunity for all students. And then if we can deliver on that objective, how do we do that at scale to actually create systemic change.”
The Big Change
3DE strategically blends the core competencies of School Districts, Junior Achievement and the broader business community to initiate transformation from the inside out.
Their methods include:
- A school-within-a-school model of implementation – 3DE’s model is initially introduced to a designated section of each host school, with the intention of expanding the methodologies and strategies throughout the broader school and district.
- A holistic and comprehensive school model for the modern era: 3DE’s fully-packaged model re-engineers education – from school structure, to curriculum design, to teacher development – connecting learning to the real-world.
- Integrated and interdisciplinary learning: case studies sourced from business partners are a consistent anchor for interdisciplinary pedagogy, relevance and authentic project-based learning, and exposure to a variety of industries and careers.
The ambition for change
The big vision for 3DE Schools is: re-engineering high school education to unlock academic potential and expand economic opportunity for all students.
They seek to do so through a high school model that breaks through traditional barriers and redesigns the framework to create equitable access to high quality education.
A shift in direction
During his time at Junior Achievement of Georgia, Jack recognised that while there were great intentions on the part of the education system and the business community, it was like they were speaking two different languages.
A lot of those intentions ended up as very sporadic or episodic engagement; not enough to move the needle or create any form of systemic change.
During his time at Junior Achievement of Georgia, Jack recognised that while there were great intentions on the part of the education system and the business community, it was like they were speaking two different languages. A lot of those intentions ended up as very sporadic or episodic engagement; not enough to move the needle or create any form of systemic change.
When posed with the question, “if you could take a blank slate and completely redesign high school education for the country, what would you do?”, Jack and colleagues saw an opportunity to do things differently, leveraging the strengths of both school districts and the business community into a new type of public/private partnership or joint-venture.
“What has been tried in the past that hasn’t worked, and why it hasn’t worked.”
Making change happen
1: The start point
Learning design for real world engagement
To meaningfully and authentically bridge the gap between the education system and the business community, 3DE sought to re-engineer education by integrating the learning that happened in schools with the realities faced within the business community. By integrating curriculum content and skills development into projects based on cases sourced from the local business community, they ensured rigour met the real world.
“As students are learning maths, and science, and literature, social studies, and history, they’re learning all those concepts through the lens of how they’re applied in real-world scenarios. That relevance drives higher student engagement, and higher student engagement unlocks academic potential that then expands economic opportunity for all students.”
Strategically sharing responsibilities and assets
From the start, Jack was clear that no single organisation had all the core competencies to implement this learning design, nor to address the disconnect between the education system and the real world more broadly. Roles and responsibilities were mapped out through a collaborative effort between partners. Some sat with school district leadership and some with the 3DE senior team. The responsibilities which both partners need to be able to influence were negotiated and shared.
“It’s based off of this joint-venture structure, so really thinking about what are the core competencies that each entity most brings to the table, and then leveraging those against each other in a way that actually creates higher levels of impact.”
2: Taking off
Having the right personnel in place
Being realistic about the challenge they faced, Jack recognised the importance of having the right people doing this work. That meant bringing in teachers who were willing to embrace change, had an entrepreneurial mindset and could be a team player.
“The initiators of change at a school level must have enormous degrees of emotional intelligence and very high levels of inclusivity. At the same time, they have to be able to stand so firm in the face of so many barriers that come up against them, of knowing what it is we’re actually trying to break through at the end of the day.”
Prove effectiveness on the ground, with scale in mind
The 3DE ‘school-within-a-school’ implementation model was explicitly designed to break down barriers to change in existing schools. Taking a portion of the student population and putting them in a different learning environment gave a proof of concept that shifted sceptics’ mindsets. By demonstrating better outcomes they showed the rest of the school there was a different path forward.
“Proofs of concept allows people to trust and start to lean in. They don’t have to necessarily accept this whole big new world at once, but they’re able to start stepping in carefully, seeing success, and then as those proofs of concept grow, they’re a lot more likely to jump in full force, and become carriers of the flag.”
3DE put two of their own personnel on site at every school they work with, to support the team through the change process. Jack emphasises the importance of this additional support, compared to more traditional, one-day, or one-week teacher training bootcamps.
“There are inflexion points or forks-in-the-road where people can either continue forward or they say “forget it, it’s too hard” and go back to old ways of doing things. If there’s not somebody on site with a helping hand to guide them through that process, then the whole thing flips backwards.”
3: Keeping going
Making engagement easy and meaningful for businesses
The level of partnership with the business community required for this work is not one that businesses have necessarily seen before. Jack emphasises that 3DE allows businesses to invest in education in a way that supports their strategic business priorities. The direct link to strengthen workforce development or talent pipeline is continually positioned front and centre.
“In order to get them to engage at a deeper level, our role has to feel ‘turn-key’. It can’t feel burdensome or overwhelming, otherwise it doesn’t really get anywhere.”
Influencing policy from the ground-up
Jack and colleagues chose to work at the grassroots because they saw a level of fatigue at the policy level – they’d been talking about the same issues for decades without finding a policy-fix. 3DE invested in a scaling strategy that would produce a number of proofs of concept across different school districts, communities, social demographics and academic baselines. Having piloted in six schools in the Atlanta metroland area showing consistency in outcomes and in implementation, they are now scaling up to 26 schools in the region to persuade districts that this is a systemic solution, not just a side-project. They also plan to test the model in markets and states that they have identified as having strategic implications for national education policy.
“We took a purposeful approach to actually learn as much as we can at the ground level first. Let’s be sure that we understand things here, then as we understand and look to scale, we bring those learnings up to a policy level that helps people think entirely differently.”
Balancing codification with local identity
Jack and 3DE are ambitious in how far this work can travel and how it can be of systemically significant. But to replicate and scale their impact from five schools in Atlanta to thousands across the US, they recognise the need to find a balance between codifying key aspects of the model, while being respectful and faithful to the power of local partnerships.
“We really need to think through how we codify bits like the business community engagement, so that there’s consistency school-to-school without taking away the local integration and authenticity that drives student engagement”.
“What we’re probably most proud of is being able to do this in a way that all stakeholders don’t feel like change is happening to them, but they actually feel a part of it, that they’re proud of it and they can actually claim credit for it. That pride that they feel allows that change to be sustainable.”
Taking change wider
Reflective system leaders who knows their limitations
3DE was born out of an invitation from an Atlantan superintendent to do something in response to a root-systemic issue that he recognised the education system could not address on its own. Without thoughtful, open and honest system leaders, initiatives like 3DE are more difficult to instigate. 3DE expects to begin an expanded pilot to extend to 55 schools in seven states by 2024, building towards 500 schools by 2030.
“He talked about how education system leaders reference that learning today should be more relevant, more engaging, more experiential, more interdisciplinary, more interconnected with the economy and the business community, but that, frankly, it was not in their core competencies to deliver on all of this on their own.”
The impact of change
Across the six schools in the Atlanta metroland, 3DE have been able to demonstrate consistency in outcomes and consistency in implementation, to star
Banneker High school – the first school 3DE worked with – was the lowest performing high school in the Atlanta area – 42% graduation rate, 96% of students lived below the poverty line, with a 56% transiency rate. Now in their fourth school year at that school, 3DE have:
- 500 9-12th graders enrolled in their model, representing a little over a third of the entire school, with the Principal planning to operationalise the model across the entire school starting in 2020.
- This year, their Seniors will be graduating at an 85-90% graduation rate.
- They’ve outperformed their peers on all milestone assessments and 80-85% of students are continuing on to 4-year universities – the rest will be going to two-year colleges.