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Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ is backing 2 new NYC high schools

XQ is supporting new robotics and design-themed high schools, the city’s new virtual academies, and three other projects.

People sit around a table indoors, with a man wearing blue in the foreground.

Educators gathered at a 2019 information session about NYC’s Imagine Schools initiative.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

With his final term winding down, former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a flashy proposal to open or overhaul dozens of public schools, backed by $15 million from Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ Institute and the Robin Hood Foundation.

Less than six months later, the coronavirus pandemic forced the city’s schools to shut down, pushing the “Imagine Schools NYC” competition onto the back burner. Enrollment losses accelerated during the pandemic, posing fresh challenges to launching new schools. And Robin Hood, which initially planned to spend $5 million to support 10 new schools, did not disburse that money and is working to “reshape” its funding commitment, officials said.

But the initiative was not completely shelved, and XQ is moving forward with funding for six high school projects in New York City, Chalkbeat has learned, including two new brick-and-mortar schools — one of which will open this September. XQ is also backing the city’s two virtual academies that will launch this fall. (More detailed descriptions of each project can be found below.)

“Obviously the work has fundamentally changed since 2019, and the pandemic is a huge component of that,” said Ursulina Ramirez, XQ’s chief program officer and the former chief operating officer for the city’s education department. “We came back to the drawing board with DOE and tried to think about ‘what is the strategy?’”

XQ launched in 2015 with the goal of “reinventing” the conventional high school, arguing that the experience is often not relevant to students’ lives and remains stuck in century-old ideas. Backed by Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the deep-pocketed organization has spent at least $200 million to create and support innovative high school designs, though the winning teams have a mixed track record.

In New York City, officials planned to run a competitive process where teams of educators, community members, and students submitted ideas for projects to open 20 schools and restructure 20 others. XQ promised $10 million to open or overhaul 10 high schools but has spent just over $3 million so far. Unlike some of XQ’s earlier competitions, the scale of funding among the six projects in New York City has been more modest, ranging from $200,000 to $400,000. Ramirez said the organization’s total $10 million commitment “hasn’t shifted.”

XQ is generally “model agnostic” about how high schools should change, though Ramirez said the organization is committed to funding grassroots efforts to re-think high schools with input from students. Still, one idea XQ clearly supports is “competency-based” learning — in which students only move on after mastering specific concepts — and one of the six local projects they’re funding involves expanding that practice at an existing high school. 

The pandemic appears to have altered the scope of the project — and a new administration has taken over since it was announced. The projects XQ funded appear to align with Chancellor David Banks’ focus on promoting career and technical programs.  

XQ and the education department are no longer describing the project as a competition, and some of the projects that XQ has funded were not part of the original application process. Department officials did not say what criteria they used to select the six projects for XQ funding, whether they still plan to open and overhaul 40 schools, or if the city is still committing $16 million to it as initially promised.

Among the six efforts XQ is supporting, the funding is helping to pay staff to give them time to coordinate and plan the projects, Ramirez said. The organization also funded $20,000 “momentum grants” for 18 high school teams to aid with their reopening plans during the pandemic. 

Ramirez said XQ plans to work with the education department this summer to help chart the program’s future. “We still want to support what New York City is trying to do,” she said. “I feel confident that we’re going to be working with New York City for the next five years.”

Here’s what you should know about the six projects XQ is funding so far:

  • A School Without Walls, projected opening September 2022. The education department is launching two virtual academies that will initially serve 200 ninth graders. One will be fully remote and the other will include a mix of remote and in-person experiences. Internships and project-based learning will be a big part of the model, city officials said.

XQ’s funding commitment: $200,000

  • Gotham Tech High School, projected opening September 2022. Based in Queens, the school will have a focus on robotics and a partnership with NYC First, an organization that runs after-school robotics leagues and offers other STEM education opportunities. Every student who attends will learn about robotics and will be required to complete a capstone project, said Michael Zigman, CEO of NYC First. “Robotics is a powerfully engaging vehicle for learning and for success,” he said, adding that it can give students experience with coding, fabrication, and engineering — and also broader topics like climate change. The school will initially open near Queens Plaza, but officials plan to ultimately move it to a new facility in Woodside. 

XQ’s funding commitment: $300,000

  • High School for Design and Social Justice, projected opening September 2023. The school will have an expansive view of design, Ramirez said, including architecture, urban planning, graphics, and more. The school is still in development in partnership with the Pratt Institute and the Bank Street College of Education, but Ramirez said one idea is students may participate in “community-focused design challenges” where students could “take a walk around your neighborhood, understand an issue that’s impacting your community, and develop a design challenge that is related to that.” (Education department officials didn’t answer a question about where the school will be located.)

XQ’s funding commitment: $200,000

  • Thomas A. Edison Career & Technical Education High School, existing school. Ramirez said XQ is interested in helping the Queens school expand “competency-based learning,” an approach that typically allows students to move at their own pace until they’ve mastered content rather than moving a classroom of students along to new subjects at the same time. School leaders at Thomas Edison have already experimented with that approach and are interested in expanding it, Ramirez said. Enthusiasm for those approaches grew during the pandemic, and advocates say they can allow strong students to move quickly while allowing other students more time to master a concept. Still, there is not solid evidence that competency-based approaches boost student learning.

XQ’s funding commitment: $200,000

  • Manne Institute, The Bronx High School of Science, projected to open by February 2023. Thanks to an $18 million donation from Bronx Science alum Stanley Manne, the school is planning to add a science facility to the school’s campus, which will include three “professional grade” labs. The facility will be available to a handful of high schools and a K-8 school. Ramirez said XQ will provide support so each of the school’s leaders can collaborate. “The exciting part, at least for me, is bringing all these principals and school teams together,” Ramirez said.

XQ’s funding commitment: $200,000

  • Brooklyn STEAM Center, existing program. The STEAM center, located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, offers career and technical programs to 11th and 12th grade students at eight partner schools. The city is exploring ways the STEAM Center can expand its existing model, potentially reaching students outside of Brooklyn and adding an apprenticeship model for 9th and 10th graders. XQ will help support that planning process. 

XQ’s funding commitment: $400,000

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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