Using Design Thinking to Create a School from Scratch

PK-12 School Models

Using Design Thinking to Create a School from Scratch

By Will Eden     Aug 7, 2014

Using Design Thinking to Create a School from Scratch

“Yes, I’d love for him to go to college here,” said Jaime, the father of 9th grader Roberto. “But we’re going to move back to Mexico in a few weeks, so we’re not planning for college here.”

Quotes like these remind us of the depth of the challenges we face in education, and the equally deep understanding we need of those challenges to overcome them. Seemingly small insights like this one, insights that reveal the roots of challenges, are why we chose to use “design thinking” to create our first high school at Alpha Public Schools.

Too often, school designers conceive new schools behind closed doors with a surface level understanding of the community they will serve. But with design thinking, school designers must listen first and let the experiences of the people they serve--rather than expert analysis, previously-held conceptions, or the system as it exists--direct the design process.

Design Thinking

“Design thinking” is an iterative approach to innovation and problem solving that starts by empathizing deeply with the people in a particular community. While design thinking has been talked about a great deal within the context of education, seldom has it been used to design school models from the ground up. As an organization designing its first high school from the ground up, we had the advantage of designing free from many of the structures and constraints of an established school, such as a set school schedule and staffing structure.

The Design Process


In 2012, a group of organized families in East San Jose founded Alpha Public Schools to provide secondary school options for their community. To ensure that the East San Jose community continued to guide our work, we chose to use design thinking to design Alpha’s first high school.

Working with a volunteer team of professional educators, non-educators, parents, and local high school students, Alpha’s process began with the large open-ended question conceived by our founding families:

“How might we increase the number of high school students in East San Jose who are prepared to persist in higher education?”

From this wide scope, we began our “Discovery” process, immersing ourselves in students’ and families’ education experiences through over eighty interviews. In addition to speaking with students and parents, we also sought the perspectives of local educators, government leaders, and community members.

In these interviews, community members discussed the community’s many assets and challenges. In addition to Jaime’s beliefs about college, we heard many other challenges related to college persistence:

Cynthia, former CSU-Monterey Student

“My Dad told me that I was going too far away and would be back.”

Jon, Youth Advocate in East San Jose

“It takes the few students from our community who do get a four-year degree an average of nine years to get one.”

These conversations focused our design efforts, and allowed us to see the underlying causes of the challenges Alpha was designing to solve.


After narrowing our design focuses and gaining an insightful understanding of needs, we generated solutions in the “Ideation” phase. At this point we dug into academic research and the practices of top-performing schools to understand the “state of the art.” One example of a solution that came from a clear need was a comprehensive college readiness program designed to invest families in higher education, and to prepare them for higher education’s emotional and financial realities.

However, our research came with a risk: confining our thinking to existing solutions. To navigate this risk and protect the creative process, we used extreme design constraints to push our team’s thinking beyond conventional solutions--by actually pulling from real constraints. For example:

  • Alpha’s very real financial constraints, resulting from our operation of one of the leanest per pupil budgets in the country, led us to create the following extreme constraint: “Your solution can cost a maximum of $1 in total.”
  • Another extreme constraint came from the finding that parents' most trusted sources of information were other parents: “Your solution must only be implemented by parents.”

From these extremes came many solutions, ranging from conventional to entirely impractical or wholly illegal within the existing system--a good outcome from a design thinking perspective. Keep in mind, Alpha did not expect to embrace all of these ideas on the whole to become the high school’s solutions; rather, we expected kernels of each to coalesce into a creative solution. For example, from the extreme constraints above, came the following ideas:

Solution can only cost $1--> Use volunteer college counselors
Solution can only be
implemented by parents-->
Train parent leaders as college promoters

Kernels of these ideas led us to design a College Promoter Parent Leadership program in which our college counselors train parent leaders to lead affinity groups of parents through the college preparation process. We plan to prototype this at an Alpha middle school before opening our first high school in the Fall of 2015.

Prototyping, and What’s Next

While we've traveled far, our journey has just begun. We are only beginning the prototyping phase of design thinking where we make, break, and continually refine the different elements of our school model with user feedback. Alpha is excited to take what we’ve learned from this first cycle forward as we continually iterate through the discovery, ideation, and prototyping phases to continually improve Alpha’s model, even after Alpha: Cindy Avitia High School opens next Fall.

Throughout this process, we tackled a multitude of challenges to create a high level understanding of Alpha’s high school model, a model that builds from its community’s unique assets to navigate its challenges, to ultimately meet the real needs of its community. For those interested in more, we've published a case study detailing Alpha’s successes and challenges implementing design thinking.

As schools look to reinvent themselves to better serve communities, we expect more educators will take advantage of design thinking’s user-centered approach to discover obscured needs, question the conventional, and push beyond the constraints of the system--with the ultimate purpose of rapidly improving outcomes for all students.

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