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Making Science Fiction a High School Reality

August 16, 2016
Washington Leadership Academy uses innovative technology to serve high-needs students

Washington Leadership Academy welcomed its founding class of ninth graders this week for the first-ever day of school — but this isn’t school as usual.

Co-Founder and Board Chair Seth Andrew addresses students on the first day of school

“It’s your job to say, ‘We can change what school looks like,’” Seth Andrew, the co-founder of Washington Leadership Academy, said, looking up at his new students. “We don’t say, ‘That’s impossible.’ We say, ‘Why not?’ You, as a founder, have a responsibility to say, ‘Why not?’”

Earlier in the day, the students saw a tiny drone land in their principal’s hand — just a hint of the technology they’ll encounter in their four years at the Washington, D.C., public charter school — and they met Duane Rollins, a user experience designer, who led a group exercise in lateral thinking to help students realize that human problem-solving skills can amplify the power of computers.

“We’re interested in the kinds of things that sound like science fiction, but aren’t,” Andrew explained.

The school plans to use 360-degree cameras to capture lessons. It plans to develop virtual reality science labs, to teach computer science all four years to all students and to make technology-enabled personalized instruction the norm. Principal Joey Webb hinted that the school might even create its own drone racing team. Another member of the founding team, Stacy Kane, said holograms might come in handy.

The technology focus attracted students from across the city to the new school, which is one of 65 new public charter schools supported by the Walton Family Foundation, as of August, that are opening across the country for the 2016-17 school year.

Derriann Johnson, 14, said she learned about the school at a high school fair and was excited to try 3D printing. Jerome Foster, 14, said he thinks WLA will get him ready to study environmental science and astrophysics at an Ivy League college. Zyquan Thomas, 14, said he hopes the school will help him prepare to be a mechanical engineer.

In addition to using technology to power learning, WLA is committed to making everything it does as a school open source.

“The most frustrating thing about running a great school is that not enough people copy you,” Andrew said.

Students using new computers during orientation

Washington Leadership Academy plans to share lessons and tools it develops on GitHub and other platforms with the goal of scaling great ideas far faster than is possible in more traditional models.

WLA’s technology focus started on day one, when each student received a laptop computer and a t-shirt with the word “Founder” emblazoned on the back.

But the first day of school wasn’t all about tech; it was also about helping the students get to know each other, understand WLA’s goals, expectations and culture, and to learn their way around their new school.

Webb said his first job is cultivating joy among his students: “I want kids to feel like they belong here.”

This is the first in a series of stories about Washington Leadership Academy, one of the Walton Family Foundation-supported public charter school startups opening for the 2016-17 school year. As of August, there are 65 public charters opening this school year with foundation support.

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