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You may recall that Laurene Powell Jobs decided to reinvent the American high school by creating a design competition for new models. In 2026, she offered prizes of $10 million each to the ten best plans. Over 700 proposals came in. She called it the XQ competition. She hired leading lights from the Obama administration, including Arne Duncan and Russlyn Ali, to advise her. She bought airtime on all three major networks to bring together celebrities to proclaim the failure of U.S. education and the need for Mrs. Jobs’ XQ Initiative.
The awards were announced. Earlier this year, an XQ school in Delaware closed. It was called the Design Thinking Academy.
About 5he same time, an XQ project in Somerville, Massachusetts, was killed by the School Committee, the Mayor, and the superintendent, who were once enthusiastic about it.
The Boston Globe tells the story, which is behind a pay wall. I will try to summarize it briefly and hope to do it justice.
It begins like this:
ALEC RESNICK AND SHAUNALYNN DUFFY stood in Somerville City Hall at about 6:30 on March 18, a night they hoped would launch the next chapter of their lives. The two had spent nearly seven years designing a new kind of high school meant to address the needs of students who didn’t thrive in a traditional setting. They’d developed a projects-driven curriculum that would give students nearly unprecedented control over what they would learn in a small, supportive environment. Resnick and Duffy had spent countless hours shepherding this school through the political thickets that all new public schools face. Approval by the teachers union, which became the most time-consuming obstacle, had finally come through in early January. Tonight, the School Committee members would cast their votes.
Resnick had reason to be optimistic. Mayor Joseph Curtatone sat on the School Committee, and he had been the one to suggest Resnick and Duffy consider designing a new public school in the first place, back in 2012. Mary Skipper, Somerville schools superintendent, had been instrumental in keeping the approval process moving forward when prospects looked bleak. She wouldn’t be voting, but she planned to offer a recommendation to elected officials. And then there was the $10 million. Resnick and Duffy had won the money in a national competition to finish designing and ultimately open and run their high school, and the pair knew it had helped maintain interest in their idea. Voting against them would mean walking away from a lot of outside funding.
The two had met as students at MIT. THey became interested in how children learn. They began making plans and trying them on a small scale in 2012. They called their school Powderhouse Studios. At full capacity, it would enroll 160 students. They intended to match the diversity of the district. The heart of their plan was “ambitious, self-directed, interdisciplinary projects focused on computation, narrative, and design — unheard of in a typical high school. Their work would be driven by goals laid out in individualized learning plans geared toward real-world concepts and would be supported by faculty serving more as mentors than as teachers. The school day would last from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the academic calendar would stretch year-round.”
In 2016, the pair had worked with middle-schoolers, trying out their project-based ideas. That year they applied to the XQ Project and had the support of the mayor and the superintendent. And they won. What could go wrong?
Finances. That’s what went wrong. Despite the initial enthusiasm of the school officials, they realized that the Somerville High School would lose $3.2 million each year to the new school when it had 160 students. The budget for the entire district is $73 million. The district’s comprehensive high school has 1,250 students. The new school planned to enroll about 13% of the existing high school’s students.
On the night of the decisive vote last March, the superintendent told the School Committee that “opening the new school would force the district to cut at least 20 teacher or counselor positions and to eliminate most before- and after-school programs districtwide. “As someone who believes in and has championed the power of new ideas my whole career, it pains me deeply to not be able to solve this problem,” she said. “In this case, the investment to create something that may only add an unknown amount of benefit to 2 to 3 percent of students, at the expense of the remaining 97 to 98 percent, is one I cannot recommend making at this time.”
The School Committee voted unanimously not to open the school. The Jobs grant of $10 million was alluring, but when the startup money ran out, the district would have to absorb the ongoing costs.
And a second XQ project died.