I recently had the privilege of spending a couple of days at
One Stone, a tuition-free independent high school in Boise, Idaho. I’ve visited countless schools across the U.S. over the past two decades, and One Stone, better than any other, captures the essence of a what a 21st-century education should be. Let’s start from the widely accepted premise that today’s students will enter a world of work very different than their parents have experienced. Automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization are driving warp-speed changes to a variety of workplaces, and the pace of change will continue to accelerate into the indefinite future. This means that newly minted high school and college graduates will need to be agile and adaptable, and in constant learning mode. Many of them may never work in what we call “jobs,” but rather will move from gig to gig, performing important tasks under contract for a variety of companies and individuals. Who will thrive in that environment? Precisely the kind of students One Stone produces: those who can direct their own learning and go deep in pursuing their passions. The high school is in just its second year, but it grew organically out of a non-profit organization that since 2008 has provided Boise-area high school students with hands-on experience designing and implementing large-scale service projects, running a creative studio cleverly named Two Birds, and incubating start-up businesses. A high school modeled on those popular programs seemed a logical next step. And it’s already drawing national attention for being student-led. There’s no shortage of schools that profess to honor student voice, or give students a place at the decision-making table. At One Stone, though, the board of directors is led by students. Bylaws mandate that student board members must outnumber adults. Students help conceive classes as well as design-thinking workshops that businesses pay to attend at the school, to tackle actual challenges that are impeding their success.
How Empowering Students Deepens Their Engagement
During the time I spent at One Stone, I observed two events that demonstrated how empowering students deepens their engagement and learning, and produces confident, sophisticated young people always seeking the next challenge. The first event, called “Catapulting Into Adulting,” was created by Two Birds for its client, the Idaho Immunization Coalition. Students from schools across the Boise area worked in teams to navigate through five “learning pods” staffed by industry experts and One Stone coaches (adults who would be called teachers at other schools). At each pod, students gathered information about topics including health and wellness, preventable diseases and immunizations, life-mapping, basic financial acuity, college and career, and personal branding. Then, teams would earn beanbags at “challenge stations” by demonstrating what they had learned. At the end of the evening, each team, using narrow, elastic fitness bands, catapulted their beanbags toward a cluster of buckets filled with prizes. If a beanbag landed in a bucket, the team divided up the loot. As the evening wound down, I visited with three second-year One Stone students who organized the event. They were basking in the satisfaction of having created a successful program from scratch. Like much else at the school, putting the event together fell primarily to students, with light guidance from adult coaches. “Doing things this way is an adjustment for sure,” said Naomi Priddy, one of the organizers. “As students we are so used to being told what to do 24-7. Here, you have to figure it out. At One Stone you can’t sit and wait for things to happen. You go out and do it. It’s self-advocacy. Be in charge. Make it happen.” The second event I witnessed was a highly structured design-thinking workshop, called a CrashUP, co-led by eight students and two adult coaches. RedBuilt, a national building materials manufacturing company with its headquarters in Boise, paid Two Birds, the One Stone creative services business, to help work through a challenge that had been hampering the company. Communication between departments sometimes faltered, RedBuilt executives explained, and they needed help figuring out how to “enhance creative collaboration.” Clearly skeptical at the outset that a group of fresh-faced 16-year-olds could help think through these tough issues, the 30 adults left after five intense hours of small-group work led by students thoroughly impressed. “The students were awesome,” marveled Cornelia Sprung, the RedBuilt executive who had cajoled her team of 30 into attending. “You can tell they’re real creative thinking experts. They were great leaders, and I guarantee we’ll use the ideas they helped us come up with.” Expect tiny One Stone to continue having this kind of outsized impact, not just in Boise, but in education circles from coast to coast.
Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He's currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at
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