Cristina Alvarez spent 15 years planning what would become Delaware Design-Lab High. She envisioned a place where students would be challenged to learn by solving real world problems in their own communities.
This month, Design-Lab High was one of 10 schools recognized by the XQ Super School Project. The XQ Institute will give the Newark, Delaware-based Design-Lab High $10 million over five years so that the school can “serve as a catalyst for change, making high school more relevant, engaging and effective for every student, everywhere.”
For Alvarez — Design-Lab High’s co-founder and CEO, and a graduate of Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership — winning the prestigious XQ prize will help the school become a model for innovative schools that can be replicated around the country.
“Ultimately, the goal of Design-Lab High is to produce young people who’ll make the world a better place,” Alvarez said. “Our vision is to develop this school as a prototype for using design thinking as a curriculum model that produces extraordinary leaders.”
Design-Lab High opened as a charter school in 2015. It is the most ethnically diverse high school in Delaware, Alvarez said, and 25 percent of its students have a special needs.
Every subject is taught using design thinking, the process designers use to understand a problem, think about a possible solution, test the idea, and refine that idea until it can work. Students pick their projects that attempt to solve problems in their community. Ultimately, students present their work to fellow students, teachers, and professionals with expertise on the subject.
“Design thinking has a bias for action,” Alvarez said. “It’s not theoretical. It’s real-world learning. We believe through human effort the world can be made a better place.”
Alvarez was raised to believe education can make a difference.
“I come from a family of educators, all the way back four generations,” Alvarez said. “Education is the family business in every sense of the word.”
She began her career teaching English language learners at Philadelphia’s Hartrantf Elementary, the school where she first learned to read. When she was principal at Hunter School in North Philadelphia during the early years of the No Child Left Behind era, she bucked the trend by allocating more of her budget to arts, music, and cultural programs.
She served as assistant principal Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) when it was struggling. As the school improved, she rose to principal and then CEO. At CHAD, she saw students who entered the school reading below grade level become engaged working in the design labs, and she developed relationships around this work that were crucial in founding Design-Lab High.
After CHAD, she worked in the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Accountability, and was then tapped for several school turnaround projects.
“I knew I had a choice,” Alvarez said, “to keep leading these school turnarounds one after the other — which was good and important work — or I could push the model of using design to teach all the subjects in a deeper, more systematic way and create a school that could become a model for replication.”
That’s when she enrolled in Penn GSE’s Mid-Career program, which prepares students to become experts in instructional leadership, organizational leadership, public leadership, and evidence-based leadership. In the program, Alvarez exchanged ideas with other working principals and administrators, and brought what she was learning into her daily practice.
“I knew I wanted to take my leadership to a higher level in order to make a deeper impact on students, and particularly the most underserved students,” Alvarez said.
As a leader of an XQ Super School, Alvarez is having that impact.