IN 2013, PRINCIPAL SONYA WRISLEY CAME TO HER SUPERINTENDENT WITH A CRAZY IDEA to reimagine school: What if we designed a place with the learner at the center? What would it look like? How would it work? Sonya gathered five teachers to explore these very questions. Once they had a vision in mind, they enlisted parents, learners, and even more educators to design a whole new learning ecosystem from the ground up.
Today, over 1,000 learners pass through the doors of Design39Campus at Poway Unified School District, CA every day. Housed in a beautiful new facility with natural light filtering through its glass exterior; learning happens in pods, makerspaces, imagination studios; and collaboration characterizes every interaction and relationship. This community nurtures curiosity and creativity in everyone.
At D39C, kids are not cohorted by traditional grades. Instead, they are grouped in age spans, known as “pods.” In these pods, educators set the stage for their kids to understand. They create environments where learning becomes relevant and contextualized. Learners are the ones asking questions, exploring, discovering, and probing deeply into why things are the way they are. Through this inquiry-based design, learners have the full freedom to progress at their own pace, move between learning spaces, and discover how they learn best. This personalized approach inspires kids to see learning as a journey rather than a destination. D39C partners with the learning management system provider itslearning. Based in Norway, they’ve work closely with D39C to modify the platform to ensure a personalized learning experience for each learner, and to improve the communication with parents regarding learners’ experience and progress.
It takes a special kind of person to create these dynamic, lively learning environments. Educators at D39C live what they teach. They are constantly learning, inquiring, and creating together—and always with the learner at the center. This takes real teamwork and a willingness to innovate beyond what’s been done before. Each pod is led by a team of educators who gather together each morning to make decisions about the day ahead, ask questions, and support each other.
At a broader level, all D39C educators have gone through Adaptive Schools training. They take field trips together for professional development and meet twice a month for team building exercises. They stand by the idea that “productive teams are developed, not born.”
At D39C, growth mindsets are nurtured in everyone. Persistence and tenacity are known as the keys to achieving great things. Failure is seen as a chance to learn from mistakes. Others’ successes are celebrated. Challenges are embraced. D39C has also partnered with Thrively, a company that has developed an online strength finder for learners, to pinpoint each learner’s superpowers. It then provides activities, videos, and articles for the learners to explore in their areas of interest. Sonya Wrisley sums it all up, “We think deeper, dream bigger, and connect globally, with the courage and intellectual mindset necessary to change the world.”