Defining School Design

In the second post in a multi-part blog mini-series, Carolyn Gramstorff, Director of Educate78’s emerging School Design Lab, continues to share her journey to launch the Lab through the lens of the school design thinking process.  Click here to read Carolyn’s earlier insights from the Empathy phase of her design work. 

Please join us in an interactive design process shaped by your insights and ideas! After all, this School Design Lab belongs to Oakland’s public schools across all 78 square miles of our city. Who better to inform and shape it than you?

Defining Towards Design

While I am somewhat new to the design thinking process, it feels remarkably like kin-folk to Harvard Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding (TfU, a curriculum design framework my colleagues and I used at North Oakland Community Charter School).

Within the TfU framework, we always started by “mucking about”. We’d seriously and intentionally play, explore, and build connections with a juicy topic. Similarly, in design thinking, we launch with empathy and inquiry.

Former students “mucking about”.


In TfU, “mucking about” is followed by sense and meaning making to understand about an idea, concept, or topic.  In the world of design thinking, there is a parallel second phase of “defining”.  According to the Stanford dSchool’s  Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide, the Define mode is “an endeavor to synthesize your scattered findings into powerful insights.”

Scattered findings?  Indeed!  After months of powerful engagement with the school design community both here in Oakland and across the country, synthesis was the perfect next step in my journey to build Educate78’s School Design Lab.

Early mapping of the School Design Lab concept

As a result, here are my Top 10 powerful insights about the work of school design here in Oakland:

#1: Apply the contractor’s rule of thumb.

Ash Solar, the Executive Director of GO Public Schools, shared a word of wisdom, “Pick two:  you can have it fast, good, or cheap.”  In other words, when engaging in a project as complex as school design, we must be mindful of the incredible investment of time, talent, and resources and trade-offs that come between the three.

To go beyond “good”, we need to give this work the time and resources it needs to get there.  In the absence of tons of talent and fiscal resources, we need to give this work the gift of time.  If we have a sense of urgency around the time, we need to invest some serious resources to ensure a high quality outcome.  We can’t have all three – so we need to be smart and strategic with the resources we do have.

#2: School Design Requires Thoughtful System Redesign.

Oakland has a rich history of school design work dating back to the Small Autonomous Schools Movement.  This period arguably launched some of the district and city’s most successful schools: Urban Promise Academy, Met West, Think College Now, Life Academy, Manzanita Seed, and Ascend K-8.  Yet there is also a list of schools from this movement that fall short of this mark, and still others that no longer exist.

While complex and multifaceted, one reason often referenced is the lack or regression of systemic transformation needed to sustain the innovation generated by these new schools.

If we want high quality, innovative schools, we need to ensure that the ecosystem is aligned with appropriate supports.  As we work to transform schools designed for a factory-model era, we must retool both the operations and mindset of the systems in which these schools exist.

#3: Keep the End-User Front and Center.

The brilliance of the design thinking framework is the concept of user-centered design.  This mandates we focus our attention on the needs, wants, and limitations of the “end user” at every stage of the design process.  For school design teams, that means unwavering focus on students, families, and communities.  In designing the Lab, this means attention on the design team.  Like designing a school, with all the rich diversity that exists within our communities in Oakland, this is a mighty challenge, as there is no single school designer archetype.

Each design team comes with a different set of resources, skills, experiences, and needs.  Each design team will be designing for a unique community of learners, in a diversity of areas in our city – each with a unique history, set of assets, and varying needs.  To best support our design community in this complex work, the Educate78 School Design Lab will need to take on the challenge of being designer-centered. It will need to be personalized, nimble, scrappy, resourceful, equitable, data-driven, and reflective in its approach to organizing and supporting the work of a design team.

#4: Leadership Matters… A Lot!

In education, “aces in the right places” is a critical component to student achievement. Leadership matters in order to see a school design through to successful, high quality implementation. Without a great leader – and I would argue, a great team of leaders — the work is doomed. Why?  This work is harder than brain surgery. This work requires skills, experience, knowledge, and….perhaps, most importantly, a gritty mindset, vision, resilience, and ability to connect with people. We must focus on cultivating, finding, investing in, and sustaining a robust pipeline of educators, leaders, and community members who have the will, skills, and mindset to do this work.

#5: Community Engagement = Make It or Break It.

Oakland is a unique place to be engaged in this work.  As a city, we have a deep history and enduring legacy of powerful community-based efforts.  Some of the best and most successful schools in our city were designed in deep and authentic collaboration with parents, students, and teachers.  What these schools have embedded into their DNA is that real community engagement is not only a good thing to have – it is critical to successful school redesign.

Engagement goes far beyond gathering signatures on a petition, or holding a meeting to say that something is happening.  Real, authentic engagement and relationship building starts by focusing on building deep, authentic, caring relationships with the people who are or will become a school’s community.  Like any important relationship, this means taking the time to learn and grow to deeply care about one another.  This means meeting and eating together, being introduced to the elders and neighbors of a community, listening to the stories, playing with the kids, and understanding the world through the lived experience of those in the community.

Once this relationship is growing, it then means authentically involving community members in all phases of the design process – starting from exploring great schools that help the group to imagine what’s possible, coming to consensus around what a great school is or could be, designing based on the visions and rooted in the hopes of the community, engaging students and parents as critical friends who shape and improve prototypes, and empowering parents and other community members to play key roles in the launch and leadership of the school.  True engagement means checking in with the community, and using their feedback as a key indicator of success and/or work that needs to be done in moving a school forward.  Without strong community engagement processes, we stand to make a huge design error – we may have built a school, but will it succeed if it is not built for and by the community it intends to serve?

#6: There’s a Spectrum of Design Work – Let’s Be Clear What We’re Working On.

Oakland lacks a solid definition for “school design”.  Definitions range from program improvement  (such as integrating technology, revamping school climate through restorative justice practices, adding a maker space, implementing a new NGSS curriculum) to whole school design focused on all or multiple aspects of a school –climate, curriculum, governance, and talent.

As we build the School Design Lab, here’s our definition: significant, whole school design.  We are not about tinkering in one area. We mean constructing equitable schools characterized by a clear and powerful vision and operating principles and tightly aligned systems and practices that enable powerful outputs in the form of student achievement and experience.

We’re about all the design on this end of the spectrum: teams designing completely new schools, existing high quality schools moving toward replication or significant expansion, and existing schools endeavoring to significantly or completely transform.

#7: Personalization is Critical.

School designers are risk takers, creative, entrepreneurial, visionary, inspirational, bold, and courageous – yet no two designers are alike.  Successful schools have been created by smart, dedicated folks from an array of backgrounds – from teachers and parents to activists and entrepreneurs.  Here in Oakland, there is a rich array of pathways for working to design a school:  design teams are working through the district’s Call for Quality Schools, creating school plans to quality for Measure N Linked Learning funding, and leveraging the Next Generation Learning Challenge.  Some of our city’s most successful and respected charter schools are working to replicate or expand.  And visionary teams seek to join Oakland’s successful history of community-based single site charters.

We need a diverse range of quality, student-centered schools here in Oakland.  As such, we need our support systems for school designers to be nimble, flexible, responsive, and relational.  Each design team will need a playbook and coaching built to match the specific strengths and needs of its players.

#8: Use Cohorts Strategically.

My first vision for the School Design Lab was a cohort meeting weekly to bi-monthly.  Before running with this idea, I included the exploration of the power of cohorts in my inquiry process.  As I’ve engaged with a variety of experienced school leaders and designers with cohort-based incubators, here’s what I’ve found.

Universally, what the leaders of cohort models love are the relationships formed. Many leaders talked about the engagement with peers who pushed their thinking as a key outcome from these experiences.

A key frustration of the cohort-based programs, however, was that working as a group often constrained their time and did not focus on what they needed most to advance their work.  This parallels the critiques we hear from our students who are express a need for greater personalization around content and pacing, but still value and need connection and community from their peers to push their work and thinking forward.

In the building the Lab, we are working to be mindful of the circumstances and needs of our school designers.  We bear in mind that often our designers are leading a design process on a part time basis.  Some will be able to focus more work time on the design and build of a school.  And so we need to keep in mind that while we need to nurture the design community, we also can’t treat them the same and expect to get exceptional results from all of them.  Experienced educators know this.

We know that cohorts are powerful.  Relationships are key and shared values and understandings around equity and quality are critical.  As such, our school design lab’s model must find ways to strategically harness this power and to find the right balance between the power of the cohort and the need for personalization.  This will be a tricky and dynamic process – stay tuned to see what we learn.

#9: Execution, Execution, Execution.

We live in a world where design is valued.  And it should be –exceptionally designed technologies are marked by both beautiful form and state of the art functionality.  In the world of school design, we need to care about thoughtful design.  We need to create thoughtful, thorough, rigorous plans that help us think through various students, scenarios, and situations and ensure that we are equipped to handle them.  Don’t get me wrong – design and planning is critical.  But it’s not enough.

In the world of school design, we must focus on high quality execution and pragmatic implementation.  We  need to be prepared to support our design team, to be responsive, iterative, and nimble when reality deviates from the plan.  To do this, we need to continue to support our school designers as they transition into school leaders and operators as their plans and designs are translated into lived experiences for students, families and educators.  This is long term work – and we need to ensure that we have resources in place to see this work through to implementation and beyond.

#10: High Quality Design Never Ends.

Call me a change junkie (I admit it – I am), but I believe that our very best schools actually never finish designing.  We might spend 2-3 years before opening a school, and then another several getting it up off of the ground only to think – we did it! But that’s just the beginning.  And while some things should move out of “start up mode” and begin to institutionalize, we believe that the best, most successful, high quality schools really never leave the design-thinking process.  A school must constantly take stock of its strengths and growing edges.  It should engage its stakeholders in examining its mission and vision, and adjust to reflect its ongoing growth, maturity, and understanding of self.  It should set even more rigorous and stretchy goals for itself and challenge its community to continuously reach, improve, and build on its past successes.  It is our job, as school designers, to build this idea of continuous improvement and innovation into our schools’ DNA.

There you have it!  10 design principles we’ll hold up while creating a world class school design system for our Oakland school design community.  What resonates with you?  What’s missing?  Which of these feels most important to you?  Let us know what you think.  We need your collective wisdom to get this work right!

Keep an eye out for our next blog post where we’ll share how we’re attempting to put these principles into practice through our School Design Prototype.  Stay in touch, and stay tuned!

Empathy and School Design

Design Thinking: Past and Present

Prior to joining the Educate 78 Team in August, Carolyn was the Executive Director at North Oakland Community Charter School.

Its been about five months since I left my former life of 14 years as an Oakland public school leader and jumped into my exciting new role as the Director of Educate78’s School Design Lab.  There are many things that I find different in my new role — I no longer get hugs and high fives from children as a daily acknowledgement of the importance of my work, I haven’t cleaned up vomit from a floor, and I get to ride my bike to work much more often than in the past.

What is similar to my past and present work, however, is the importance of entering a new context and project by engaging in a deep and rigorous listening and learning process prior to jumping in and taking action.

This important “entry step” has been a critical part of my work at every stage of my career.  As both an AmeriCorps Member and novice teacher, I was trained to begin my work by first getting to know the people, place, and history of the communities where I was beginning my work.  Likewise, as a school leader I was always very intentional that the beginning of each year prioritized a process that helped our teams to develop relationships, deepen our appreciation of the strengths and assets in our community, and to sharpen our understanding of our collective history and the context we were engaging in together.

In my most recent entry into the school design community, I’ve come to learn that this stage of the design thinking process is called the “empathize mode”.  According to my new friends at Stanford’s dSchool, in this phase it is the responsibility of the designer(s) to observe, engage, and watch and listen.

This phase of taking the time to listen, learn, build relationships, and understand the context and connections of the people and place where you’ll be working, is a critical skill and mindset of anyone who wants to design or redesign anything.

View users and their behavior in the context of their lives. As much as possible do observations in relevant contexts in addition to interviews. Some of the most powerful realizations come from noticing a disconnect between what someone says and what he does. Others come from a work-around someone has created which may be very surprising to you as the designer, but she may not even think to mention in conversation.

Sometimes we call this technique ‘interviewing’ but it should really feel more like a conversation. Prepare some questions you’d like to ask, but expect to let the conversation deviate from them. Keep the conversation only loosely bounded. Elicit stories from the people you talk to, and always ask “Why?” to uncover deeper meaning. Engagement can come through both short ‘intercept’ encounters and longer scheduled conversations.

Certainly you can, and should, combine observation and engagement.  Ask someone to show you how they complete a task. Have them physically go through the steps, and talk you through why they are doing what they do. Ask them to vocalize what’s going through their mind as they perform a task or interact with an object. Have a conversation in the context of someone’s home or workplace – so many stories are embodied in artifacts. Use the environment to prompt deeper questions.

Learn more about these concepts.

The design thinking processes also stress that empathizing is critical not only at the outset of the process, but throughout.  I am certainly reminded of that everyday, as I feel I have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the complexities of designing and implementing high quality schools here in Oakland.


Over the past several months, I started with empathizing as I set out on the exciting path to build Educate78’s School Design Lab.  Our audacious vision is for the lab to support school design teams in creating high quality, innovative new schools.

In launching this work, I am thoroughly relishing my first round of empathizing.  In a relatively short amount of time, I had the opportunity to: watch and listen, engage, and observe from an incredible cast of courageous educators and innovators taking on the task of transforming our schools.

 Watch and Listen

Since August, I have watched and listened to over 40 Oakland public school leaders and teachers from many of the diverse public schools here in Oakland – from district managed neighborhood schools to charters schools at varying stages of their own organizational development.  These school teams are engaged in different stages and forms of transformational design work in their existing, freshly hatched, or soon to be launched schools.  And man is there some inspiring stuff taking place.

  • Ashley Martin and her team at Hoover Elementary School are doing some great empathizing of their own through a listening campaign with parents that she will build on this Fall as her community engages in OUSD’s Call for Quality Schools focused on the West Oakland region and continues to bring high quality STEM practices to her school community.
  • Principal Nima Tahai and his team, including Abdul-Haqq Khalifah, from Garfield Elementary School are focusing on using technology and a blended learning approach to support effective literacy instruction as a centerpiece of their school redesign efforts as they prepare to answer the Call for Quality Schools focused on better serving their newcomer population.
  • An amazing team at Lighthouse Community Charter School is spending this readying for the launch of their first “replication” school – Lodestar, which is on track to open in the Fall of 2016.  This inspiring design team, led by Yanira Canizales, recently gained approval of their charter petition to OUSD and is methodically knocking down the myriad of tasks involved in the ramp up of a new school – from writing inspiring job descriptions to recruit talent to building and selecting curriculum that will fit into their personalized, project-based educational model.

Yanira Canizales, Paul Koh, and Jenna Stauffer led their team and community in support of Lodestar’s charter petition at OUSD’s public hearing.

  • There are also some very promising schools emerging from the school design pipeline and launching for the first time this fall including Youth Uprising’s Castlemont Community Transformation Schools and Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Vidrale Franklin’s Roses in Concrete Community School. As these schools get up and running they are tackling the challenges of early implementation and aggressively transforming an inspiring plan into quality implementation and outcomes focused on our most vulnerable students and communities.


I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time engaging with the exciting and rapidly proliferating community of school designers and leaders – both here in Oakland throughout the country – who are working through the complex tasks of simultaneously envisioning, designing, supporting, and building the schools that will propel us into the future.  There are some great school design lab models out there that we can benefit and learn from, here’s just a few that I spoke to:

  • Denver Public Schools’ Imaginarium serves as the engine of innovation to help to transform public schools. The Imaginarium makes significant investments in this work with design teams moving through transformational redesign processes starting with small “tests”, moving to small implementation, and then scaling over a period of 2-3 years in order to incubate and launch schools that are “joyful, rigorous, and personalized”.
  • Innovate Public Schools, located in San Jose, supports aspiring school developers through a multi-year program that focuses on supporting effective and aware leaders, building aligned schools, rigorous instructional designs, caring school cultures, and authentic parent and community engagement.
  • 4.0 Schools supports communities of entrepreneurs, educators, and families to create new education startup companies and schools. They use a unique incubation process, built of design thinking principles, that support extensive testing of innovative educational innovations prior to launching a full blown school model.

What’s incredibly exciting is that many of these folks now operating these school design labs often point to Oakland’s Small Schools Movement as a significant progenitor and proof point in this work and movement.  I was to lucky sit down with some very significant players who led and shaped this work, in addition to learning from the research and case studies that emerged.  This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is still so much more to learn from these innovators, both from the wild successes and the challenges that they inevitably encountered.  Continued engagement with this group – leaders, organizers, and parents from this game changing movement – is absolutely critical.


Like a lot of kids, I learn best from seeing things in “real life”.  And in my empathizing process, I had the opportunity to observe in a variety of newly designed and launched schools where they have endeavored to bake excellence, innovation, and transformation into the school’s DNA in order to better prepare students for the exciting prospects and challenges they will face and the leaders and movers of the 21st century…and beyond.  I am finding some great schools that are developing as exciting models for our next generation of school designers to visit and learn from. One of the supports we hope to provide in the lab is compiling a great list of school exemplars and helping teams to visit and experience these types of school communities first hand.  While there are many, here’s just a few that I visited or am eager to see from the standpoint of effectiveness, innovation, and serving a diverse student population:

In my next post in this series, we will continue our journey through the School Design Lab with a discussion on the DEFINE step for clearly identifying the problems we want to solve.

Know a Great School?

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