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Living School: An equity-focused, democratic, project-based education model

We cultivate peace, prosperity, and biodiversity through an education focused on holistic health, active citizenship and entrepreneurship.

Photo of Stefin Pasternak
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Living School is a totally new vision for how schools might be organized to improve the lives of students, communities, and the environment. We are a community organized, democratic school where students earn dual college-and-career diplomas through multidisciplinary real-world projects, professional internships, and a focus on holistic health, citizenship, and entrepreneurship. In New Orleans, this will look like public high school students helping local engineering firms with the billions of dollars of coastal restoration and storm water management work that needs to be done in the coming decades, thereby improving the resilience of our beloved and vulnerable region, while funneling more and more of the economic impact of government investments back into the prosperity of the immediate community. A second project will include students learning to design, build, manage, and maintain our eventual Living Campus including off-grid, sustainable building, a multi-operational organic, permaculture farm, and renewable energy generation systems. Still other projects will include students doing citizen science research contributing to scientific research spearheaded by local universities and firms in biotech & stem cells, Earth sciences, and social science or students contributing to a more equitable legal process by auditing court-room operations, supporting defense campaigns for the local Innocence Project, and educating community members about their rights and resources. The result of all this will be our graduates leaving us with 3 outcomes in-hand: college acceptance, a living-wage job offer, and the habits of a holistically healthy life. This way we're not only improving our students' futures, but also their present lives, communities, and environment.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

We think of our beneficiaries in three groups: our students, their communities, and our environment. Our students are New Orleans children up to age 21 who are working toward a high school diploma. As an intentionally biodiverse school, we recruit students from every one of our city's racial, cultural, and economic groups and we've built a program to equitably serve both the most vulnerable, struggling students and the most advanced, capable ones. For our students we expect to see improved longitudinal health across three categories: physical (low prevalence of preventable disease & high-risk choices), mental/emotional (self-efficacy & diverse relationships), and achievement (college and career attainment). For their communities we expect to see improved employment & prosperity, more peaceful & restorative justice system, and stronger kinship & relationship networks. For the environment we expect to see greater biodiversity, healthier resources, and a more stable climate.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Too few schools define their mission and outcomes through the lens of holistic health & equity. Many schools claim to focus on college and careers touting rigorous subject-siloed academics and test scores instead of authentic, collaborative work with real value. We're building the wrap-around systems and structures to help kids to attain BOTH before graduation in a holistically healthy way. This includes universal internships & dual-enrollment classes, multidisciplinary project classes co-taught be 2 teachers and a special educator, communal chores & PE, and an embedded health clinic, credit union, and food coop.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Early Adoption: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have begun to expand the pilot for early adoption.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Living School started as a community organizing project that has evolved into a comprehensive vision for an equity-focused, democratic, project-based high school which we're in the process of piloting, organizing, and launching.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Five years ago, at what was then New Orleans's highest-performing, open-enrollment school, a group of students, parents, and staff got together to ask the question, "What kind of education did we want to be facilitating?" After a year and a half of community organizing, we articulated a vision for an equity-focused, democratic, project-based school that we've been working to open ever since. Since then, dozens of community leaders have joined forces with us to bring the vision to life!

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

The violence in New Orleans is primarily perpetrated by individuals who haven't been served well by the education system, leaving them socially isolated with few economic opportunities. Our equity-focused education has the potential to help them learn more peaceful means of conflict resolution while giving them concrete pathways to more prosperous futures. Similarly, we're embedding key resources (like a health clinic, credit union, and food coop) into a community and giving our students direct access to capital, internships, and professional mentorship to help build greater prosperity in their families. Finally, the work we'll be doing will be Earth-connected, focusing on sustainable agricultural and culinary practices, renewable energy, gulf restoration, and stormwater management, helping us improve the quality of our surrounding ecosystems.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We have a long list of partners from the local to the international. At a local level, we've first and foremost partnered with dozens of students and families who have been tirelessly working to bring this vision to life. We also have the support of New Schools for New Orleans, YouthForce NOLA, 4.0 Schools, Communities in Schools, Daughters of Charity Health Services, ASI Federal Credit Union, Concordia Architects and a coalition of other local schools, school leaders, and non-profits. Nationally, we've earned recognition from Big Picture Learning, High Tech High, and one of our first grants from New Schools Venture Fund to help us build the appropriate capacity we need to launch this ambitious project effectively. Locally, we worked last summer with The NET Charter High School and Good Work Network to launch a student-run pop-up restaurant with a mission that earned students high school credit AND a small salary by being social entrepreneurs.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

New Orleans is probably most famous for its incredibly rich cultural patois. Obviously, the arts (music, dance, culinary, etc.) and food (agriculture and fishing) are rich local strengths upon which to draw. So much of this cultural tapestry derives from New Orleans's rich diversity and community of participation. As one of our country's oldest cities, many different communities have deep roots that galvanize belonging, participation, and more pathways toward resilience & equity.

Geographic Focus

We are first focused on New Orleans, Louisiana, though we anticipate the vision has potential beyond

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We are 14 months away from launching the school and would love support through the first year of operation at least, so roughly 26 months.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Sue Weber

Pushing the boundaries of education. Brillant. Check out the New World of Work.
Blessing on the journey.

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Great resource! Thanks for putting us onto this!

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