As an elementary schooler, I loved school and loved learning new things. I would spend hours learning, creating, and imagining how I could make the world a better place.
SCHOOL AND I WERE PRETTY GOOD FRIENDS, but then, on the first day of middle school, I met grades. The fun of learning went by the wayside, so we could focus on more “serious” things. “You are middle schoolers now,” one of my teachers said to us. “I have tons of material to get through, and there is no more time for fun.”
As I grew older, school and I had a tougher time getting along. Instead of feeling inspired, I started to feel restricted. I couldn’t try new things anymore or experiment and fail. When I got to high school, I was treated to new surprises, like SATs, GPAs, ACTs, and APIs. By the second month of high school, I was convinced that school was nothing more than a glorified checklist. Memorize these facts, complete these worksheets, take these tests, get these scores, earn these credits, and repeat. I couldn’t really influence how I was learning, let alone what. I didn’t have a voice. I felt like another widget on the assembly line, shuffling from classroom to classroom at the sound of a bell—graded by an arbitrary rubric at every step of the way.
Our meeting came to a close, and as we walked back to the lobby, she asked me, “So, Neel, would you like to help me build it?”
As a student growing up in the traditional education system, I felt like I was living a dual life. I lived one part of my day in the connected collaborative world I call “home” and another part in the increasingly strange and alien environment they called “school.” My school wasn’t reflective of the world I lived in, and I wanted to change that.
It’s December 2012 during my freshman year. School and I were really not getting along. After spending time learning about all the ins and outs of high school, I was ready to make a difference. I asked questions. Lots of questions. I had ideas and shared them with anyone who would listen. I frequently had heated arguments with my teachers, constantly debating with them about what school could be. Many of them agreed that things needed to change, but they understandably preferred that I remain quiet and complete my work. I had a voice, but most people didn’t want to hear it. In the end, I decided to keep quiet. There was no point in trying to influence something that wasn’t ready to be changed. Change has to happen with the right people at the right time, and my high school probably wasn’t the best place to start.
It’s April 18, 2013, and I’m walking into the District Office with my mom and younger brother. I was here to meet Sonya Wrisley, my former middle school principal. At the beginning of the school year, our Superintendent charged all of the schools in our district to change the way they do school, and Sonya was given the opportunity to design and build a new K-8 school from the ground up. I wanted to learn more.
Sonya leads us to her office, and we all sit down at a table. “So, tell me Neel,” she begins, “I want to know what your dream school looks like.” As I talked, she smiled, asked questions, and was genuinely interested in what I was saying. I had a voice, and for the first time, someone was listening. After I was done sharing, she turned around to grab her laptop. “I think you are going to like what I’m going to show you,” she said, turning on the computer.
Scrolling through the architectural renderings of the new school, she shared her vision of a school where kids and teachers aren’t tied to specific classrooms or grades. A school where the schedule would be flexible and wouldn’t be governed by bells. A school where learning was personalized and relevant to every learner. It was music to my ears. After an hour of us talking and sharing ideas, I was beyond excited. Our meeting came to a close, and as we walked back to the lobby, she asked me, “So, Neel, would you like to help me build it?” Without hesitation, I replied enthusiastically: “Yes!”
Change is a two-way street; it happens when we listen and bring people together.
Once I joined the Design39Campus team, I watched as our school was constructed from the ground up, helped with everything from hiring new teachers to designing the day, got to work with organizations and schools around the world, and learned about all the little details that go into creating a school. While everyone on our team passionately believed in the vision for our school, I think we all shared another common belief. In influencing change, our job wasn’t to simply impose our idea of what school could be on our community. Rather, we needed to listen, learn, and design solutions with people in mind.
Radically changing people’s mindsets is no easy feat, and empathy and clear two-way communication were key throughout the process. With this in mind, we held numerous community feedback sessions, listened to diverse voices and perspectives, and developed collaborative relationships with all of our stakeholders. Despite opposition from some, we kept pushing forward—partnering with more people to join us on our journey to change the way we did school. After a year of designing, planning, and growing, we opened our doors for the first time in August 2014. As we welcomed our first kids on campus, I felt my elementary school excitement in each of their beaming smiles.
Fast forward, it’s August 24, 2015. Since Design39Campus opened, I have gone on to represent the students of my district to our school Board. I wanted to bring the amazing things we were able to accomplish at Design39Campus to the rest of our schools. On the day of my first board meeting, I remember thinking, “Here I am, sitting next to the people who have a direct impact on the direction of our district.” The meeting was called to order; the District made its report; and the Board President turned to me. My mic was on. I had a voice, and I had an audience. But, as I started to speak, I realized that my job was much more than just speaking my mind at Board Meetings. Just like Sonya did to me three years ago, my first job was to listen.
It’s July 2016. Design39Campus has been open for 2 years, and my 1-year term on the Board is complete. Since joining the Board, I have strived to be a listening ear to anyone willing to share their voice. I started my journey to influence change as a kid with a crazy idea. As I progressed through this journey, I realized that change doesn’t happen by itself and certainly doesn’t happen when we forge our own path by having the loudest voice in the room. Change is a two-way street; it happens when we listen and bring people together. And, I’ve realized that if we truly want to change an organization as big as the school system, we have to start with people.