Latitude High School: A Conversation with Lillian Hsu

Q&A   19 March 2019
By Lillian Hsu, Latitude High School


My memory as a student tells me their most powerful education experiences were ones that were experiential, sensory-based, and shared amongst a community of people who had similar passions and could support one another to be our best. That’s always stayed with me.

Lillian Hsu

Q: What was your education experience like as a young learner?

A: I grew up in Edison, NJ after my family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was five years old. The town was very diverse. Many of my peers were first generation immigrants, which made for a powerful learning experience.

I went to public school my entire life, and I loved middle school. It was really hands-on. I remember studying diatoms in the Science Club and participating in our Odyssey of the Mind program, which made a really big impression on me. We had a chance to build balsa wood structures where the goal was to make them hold as much weight as possible. As a sixth grader, we were making our own plays inspired by The Old Man and the Sea. I also played the flute in our middle school band.

I was lucky to be part of a vibrant public middle school where there were many enrichment programs that made me love school and develop a really strong sense of community and self-confidence. It wasn’t until I began high school that I became really disengaged with school. So much of it felt like it was about memorization, rather than application. I went to school to access the after-school opportunities.

I was really involved in Model United Nations, the school newspaper, and French Club. I saw after-school programs as the space to continue doing hands-on work and take on leadership responsibilities, which weren’t available during the school day.

I did Model United Nations for four years. When I participated on the Security Council, we would be woken up in the middle of the night and told there was a coup in the Russian Federation. As high schoolers, we would have to decide what our best course of action would be in that scenario. Experiences like that provided me the creative space and energy to take a lot of initiative and try new things.


You can’t dream of growing up to become something if you’ve never heard of that career.

Lillian Hsu

When I got to college, I began studying psychology. I had a particular interest in social psychology and how different conditions can impact human behavior. At the same time, I realized I wanted to teach. I wanted to know how to design learning experiences in a similar way to how psychologists look at ways to design conditions that enable people to be at their best.

During freshman year of college, we had a “shopping” period where freshmen could audit any course they wanted to. I would often use that time to explore the bookstore and the books that were most fascinating to me were in the education section. That led me to auditing a course in Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program where I had the opportunity to visit many New Haven schools. That was the first time my eyes were really opened to the disparity in education experiences.

Q: Have all of these experiences led to the way learning is designed at Latitude High?

A: My memory as a student tells me their most powerful education experiences were ones that were experiential, sensory-based, and shared amongst a community of people who had similar passions and could support one another to be our best. That’s always stayed with me.

When I began teaching in Oakland in 2003, I was part of the founding team for a new charter school. What I quickly learned again was that for a lot of my students, the most powerful learning experiences were ones that were contextualized and rooted in the community. Some of the design at Latitude High definitely comes from my childhood experiences; and as an adult, seeing the impact it had on my students in Oakland, I knew this type of learning was important.

Q: How did you enroll your first cohort of learners into attending Latitude High?

A: This has been an unusual year. We weren’t authorized to open our doors until July and we began our academic year in August. However, during the first half of 2018, we spent time going out into the community and helping community members understand how and why we were going to be different than other schools. We received a lot of interest through those conversations.

Since we weren’t authorized until July, many of the students who were interested in what we were offering had already chosen other schools before we could officially say we’d be opening in the fall. Due to this reality, some of the kids who enrolled in July had heard about us in the past, while others simply hadn’t thought about applying for school until July or August and their parents were looking for anything that still had spots available.

We have an interesting mix of kids. Half know what they were getting into and the type of model we were implementing, while the other half came in asking, “Where are the pep rallies and the lockers.” They were looking for traditional components of high school. We had to do a lot during that first month and semester to help students understand what we were about and what we had to offer.

Q: Latitude High is just getting the ball rolling. What have you discovered during your first year that you wish you would have known from day one?

A: Since we started, we’ve been doing Experiential Learning Opportunity (ELO) visits to different companies around the Bay area to demystify the access to a wide range of careers that exist in the Bay. Over time, we’ve been much more intentional about how we organize these visits—preparing our professional partners to ensure the experience will be really powerful for our kids.

Early on in our ELO cycle, we visited a big tech company in Silicon Valley, and our students came back and said, “That company is racist.” We asked, “What do you mean by that?” They mentioned how they felt like the only people of color walking around the campus and felt like they didn’t belong there.

Since then, we’ve been able to be really intentional and explicit in asking that some of the people we are going to meet with match the demographics of our learners—we want them to be able to speak to how they navigate the workplace when they may not be in the majority. Having those explicit conversations from the get-go and making sure our students can see themselves in the settings we visit would have been good to pay attention to when we started.

We also learned to scale down the number of students who are paired up with an interviewee at the site we are visiting. Rather than 15 kids for every one adult, we now aim for two or three students for every adult. This allows students to get more in-depth with the conversations they have with these professionals.

Q: What is the overall purpose of the ELO visits?

A: The way we think about our model is that the first year of high school is a time for students to expand their sense of possibility. We don’t try to place kids into internships in their first year because you can’t dream of growing up to become something if you’ve never heard of that career.

Due to a lack of exposure, many of these kids don’t know what exists out there. And, due to previous schooling experiences, many of these kids limit themselves to what they could accomplish. We’re really trying to have our first-year students simply be able to go out more and discover new ways of being.

During our ELO visits, we make sure to tell our students we’re not trying to make everyone become an engineer or a computer scientist. Rather, we want everyone to investigate the anthropology of workplaces. For example, we had our students investigate a startup company with two employees, a startup company with 20 employees, and then a really big corporation like Mozilla Firefox.

When our students come back, they write reflections about what they saw and ask if they could see themselves in those various environments. Do they see themselves working individually or collaboratively? Do they see themselves working for a smaller non-profit or a large corporation? It’s not specifically about the job type—”Do I want to be a lawyer or an engineer?” It’s a lot more nuanced than that.

Q: What question are you grappling with most right now?

A: One of the questions I’m most in-tune with right now is: In such a creativity-demanding setting, how do you continue to sustain and inspire teachers over time? When I was a principal at High Tech High Chula Vista, we would do teacher internship days. Teachers would spend a day at the local NPR affiliate or an architecture firm or an engineering company. Our thinking was that if our teachers are designing experiences that simulate what real-world professionals do, they need to have those real-world experiences themselves. We would also do community networking days where 30 community members would be invited to come in and do these speed dating sessions between the members and teachers. Out of these, new project ideas would emerge.

For example, we had a teacher who met a local architect who was trying to solve the crisis of local artists leaving San Diego. From that conversation, they came together and decided to build tiny houses that would be affordable workspaces for those artists.

Those type of inspirational experiences are what keep teachers in education longer. It’s not just about perfecting their craft, but it’s also about continuing to stretch themselves in new directions.

Q: Do you believe knowing how to be in community with others is an innate skill or that it needs to be explicitly cultivated?

A: Community needs to be explicit. When we started our work at Latitude, many of our students came into our community having experienced a lot of adversarial relationships between themselves and adults at their previous schools. Our students come from 20 different middle schools all across Oakland, so they all have had very different experiences.

We have had to do a lot of explicit work by having conversations with students about what a community built on trust looks like—we really care about relationships and the way we have conversations is not about the adults castigating the students. We explain our reasonings and the values we want to enact in our school. A lot of our students have never experienced those conversations before.

I do think it requires a lot of calibration among a team of adults—how will we talk to students when situations come up that normally result in punitive decision making? Beyond the students, how we communicate these values to our families shows the type of community we are trying to build here.

Q: How have the adults made this transition to being in community with the young learners?

A: My former boss and mentor at High Tech High, Larry Rosenstock, used to say there needs to be a “thick symmetry” between the way you treat adults and the way you treat students if you want your community to be what you want it to be.

If you want kids to collaborate and work with each other, then the adults need time to collaborate and work with each other. The adults arrive at Latitude one hour before the students do, so they have time to collaborate, calibrate, and celebrate—helping each other do the work and problem solve. All of the rhythms and rituals we have as adults allow us to be in-tune with one another as we move throughout the year.

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