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Designing the Super High School of the Future

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 31 May 2016


New Hampshire Students, Teachers, and Extreme Networks Are Advancing in the $50M XQ Super School Competition

Student members of the Socrademy XQ Super School team with Justin Ballou in the center.

As optimistic as you may be about the state of high school education in America, there are still major challenges. The nature of work has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, yet the basic structure of high school remains the same. Our students are not fully engaged. According to PISA rankings, they are under-performing their peers in other countries: American students are 17th in reading, 20th in science and 27th in mathematics.

As a response to this growing issue, Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective decided to take action to spur innovation in education and stimulate more creativity in designing schools to better address student needs, both today and into the future. Borrowing from the successful XPRIZE concept, Jobs created the $50M XQ Super School Challenge. The idea (see the summary box below) is that teams across the country design new public high school models and compete for $2M per school per year to implement the models. XQ is provoking audacious, unconventional, unconstrained designs.

The XQ Super School Project

The Goal

To rethink and create a new approach to high school that gives every student the tools and opportunity to succeed.

The Prize

$50 million over five years. Five or more promising new public high school models will be selected and awarded $2 million per year per school to build out their new ideas.


  1. September 11, 2015 Project kick-off
  2. November 13, 2015 Preliminary concept review
  3. Feb 11th, 2016 Discover & design applications due
  4. Week of April 4th, 2016 Develop invitations issued
  5. May 23rd, 2016 Develop applications due
  6. August, 2016 Winners announced

Even before Jobs began coalescing the XQ competition, Justin Ballou, a teacher at Campbell High School in Litchfield, New Hampshire, was becoming frustrated with the structure of traditional high school. Justin has been involved in education for a decade and teaches behavioral sciences and world history to juniors and seniors. He has pursued competency-based learning since college and helped write legislation to transition from Carnegie time-based credit units to a system in which students demonstrate competency to get credit. The challenge is that tools for this style of learning are lacking, especially integrated tools.

To fill the vacuum for competency-based learning tools, Justin created his own system in his classroom: Socrademy. He included an open re-take policy. Students can stick with a concept or subject until they demonstrate competency. The system was working and student engagement went up. As it grew, Justin worked with other teachers to find ways to spread the success. He spec’d out the system and looked for the funding to finish the development. But, unfortunately, that’s where it ended. In a classical chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, potential investors wanted to see more proof of success beyond student traction before they would put up the development funds. So the Socrademy project moved to the back burner…But then a couple things happened. The XQ competition launched and Justin submitted the Socrademy concept for preliminary eligibility review. The concept was accepted, along with 696 other submissions. It would be a challenge to craft a proposal to stand out among the almost 700 other proposals from around the country. If Socrademy could pass that hurdle, it would enter the Discover & Design Application stage, and be in the final competition for a piece of the $50M prize.

The “aha” moment for the project came on December 18th during a cognitive psychology class. The discussion centered on the purpose of education; how we learn from the environment and experiences. It didn’t take long for the topic to shift to how the current education model could be improved. The students’ passion kicked into high gear and, on a whim, Justin tossed out the Socrademy XQ competition proposal. The class loved the idea and wanted to run with it as a group. Justin now recalls the discussion and the enthusiasm of the students as one of the best experiences of his teaching career.

The newly-constituted team completed the Socrademy XQ Discover & Design application by the February deadline. After a tense waiting period, the results were announced in early April and Socrademy was among the successful projects designated to move into the final competition and submit a “Develop Application.”

What is Socrademy?

Socrademy is a personalized learning ecosystem that pairs educators and students together to validate learning through engaging experiences centered on personal relationships which transfer to credits at the high school and collegiate level. The name itself is a portmanteau of: Socrates – the ultimate teacher and Academy – where students go to experience education. The project is designed around five pillars of learning called the 5Cs:

  1. Conceptual understanding
  2. Critical thinking – in application and synthesis
  3. Creation – of web sites, papers, and documentaries
  4. Curation – collecting data and information, reading, bio-lab, primary and secondary research
  5. Communication – through listening and speaking, as well as written word

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There are three major elements to the project: The Socrademy Platform, Socrademy Labs, and HackEDU events.

The Socrademy Platform – the C5 scaffolding

Teachers and students connect on the C5 platform. The Teachers build apps called aporia (from the Greek for difficulty or perplexity) or chapters, which are a combination of lessons and project-based assessments that are aligned with state and national standards and Socrademy’s five Cs.

Students get feedback on each chapter and provide remedial or extension content.

The C5 tools include:

  • Dashboard for easy access to content
  • Slack-style communication
  • Playlist of resources
  • Socrademy storefront
  • User profiles
  • API for integration with other edtech tools
  • Grading analytics 

Socrademy Labs – the physical infrastructure and resources 

The plan is to refurbish a 60×30 space within existing high schools. This acknowledges that districts are resource strapped. They cannot afford to build entirely-new free-standing structures to house Socrademy within their districts. Instead, existing space can be modified with new flooring, lighting, and furniture. The districts can see it in action for a relatively small investment.

HackEDU events – professional development

Special training-oriented events will be hosted at the Socrademy Labs. For example, a design challenge with prizes for the team of teachers who win. The idea is to support the people who are building the culture and make it fun.

Socrademy Project Team

Justin Ballou leads the Socrademy team that includes students, faculty, and industry members with the full range of skills needed for a successful school design remodel and implementation. Andrea Angie is the library media specialist at Campbell High School, certified and on her way to a doctorate. She is taking on the role of chief academic officer. Nate Cooper is a social studies teacher. Kevin Doxey, an alum who graduated from Campbell High School in 2009, is an architect working on the blue prints and 3D models. Randy Kime, Adam McGowan (whose wife, Jennifer Adams McGowan, is senior legal counsel for EdX), and Jeremy Sewell all work for Firefield, a web site and mobile apps company. They are the technical development branch of the project.

Other key team members include Michael Perez assistant principal and behavior specialist; John Webb, guidance counselor at Goffstown Regional High School and an adjunct professor, leading the guidance arm of the project; Bruce Ballou, a tech integrator at Pittsfield who is Google apps certified;  Al Grove championing the physical structure and building; Anne-Marie Fiore, CIO at Chelmsford Public Schools helps with technology; Bob Nilsson of Extreme Networks provides support for marketing and communications, as well as technical consulting; and most importantly, 15 students ranging from sophomores to seniors at Campbell High School.

Next steps for Socrademy

The team has now put the finishing touches on the final plan and submitted it on May 23. Next comes the long wait for the finalists to be announced by August. Assuming all goes well, the Socrademy will launch in September, 2017.

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