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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 Steven Pearson

Great idea! I think that this is very useful and necessary for students, since the development of technologies creates new specialties and directions, therefore, follow this and have an idea of ​​different areas (especially related to each other). In this case, if this idea is implemented, it will be easier for students in terms of the experience that they need to get now in different jobs. If now many solve their tasks on online resources, such as (or other), in subjects that are not relevant to their main activity (for example, humanities for technical students), then in the future it will be easier for them to navigate in other areas.

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!

Photo of Liz Taylor-Kerr

Fantastic! I have quite a synergistic and complimentary idea to yours - financial education for school age kids using practical activities so if there’s some way we can help them let me know! Good luck!

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

This is vital to our work, for sure. We'd love to learn what you've found to be effective with high school students?

Photo of Charles Betterton, MSCED

Thank you Stefin and congratulations to you and your team for sharing for your powerful and practical project idea! Because of the synergy and potential for collaboration between your Living School and our University for Successful Living, perhaps we should get in contact and explore the possibilities. The idea we shared here is "Facilitating Prosperity, Peace and Planetary Sustainability by Providing Expanded Access to Successful Life, Work & Entrepreneurship Skills!"

A couple of years ago the MacArthur Foundation issued a $100 million dollar Request for Proposals to "address problems that affect people, places and planet." Based on decades of experience in the community economic development principles and practices of self-help, empowerment and capacity-building, we responded to the RFP with an invitation to develop a collaborative response and we introduced our Expanding the Circle of Success Education and Empowerment strategy as "Bridging the access to creative-thinking, problem-solving and other successful living skills divide" (

Perhaps some of the materials and resources we have developed and or obtained access to may be helpful in support of your programs. For example we have materials on: Creative Thinking and Problem Solving; Developing a Positive Mental Attitude; Harnessing the Power of Affirmations and Visualization; Using Effective Decision Making Strategies; Setting and Achieving Goals; Motivating Yourself and Others; Developing a Success and Prosperity Consciousness; Getting the Greatest Value Out of Self-Help Materials, etc. We are also presently working on evolving 14 stand-alone publications for Solving Life's Ultimate Success Puzzles into additional Successful Life, Work and Entrepreneurship Skills training programs that you MIGHT be interested in helping us demonstrate and evaluate.

You may also find value in the resources developed by the Foundation for Inspired Learning including the Standards of Presence and Inspired Learning Model White Paper that are available at And finally, since you are located in 1 of the 30+ US States that have authorized the Benefit Corporation model, perhaps establishing an affiliated "cause-oriented" social enterprise company or entering into a strategic alliance with 1 or more existing Benefit Corporations might be helpful in attracting additional financial resources to ensure the ultimate success of your projects, especially your envisioned expansion throughout the county and perhaps even the world! (An overview of the potential advantages of combining the Benefit Corporation model and Community Economic Development strategies for self-help, empowerment and capacity-building as a strategy for generating up to a million dollars a year in equity crowdfunding is available in 1 of our forthcoming publications and training programs at

Congratulations again on your project submission that I predict just may be recognized as a Top Idea! If you would be interested in exploring possible collaboration, please send an email to Best wishes on your project and congratulations for sharing it here!

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Thanks for the great resources and affirmation, Charles, and kudos on y'all's beautiful work, too!

We're excited to learn from y'all and will spend time with your resources with our staff. As you consider specific opportunities to collaborate, don't hesitate to reach out at

Photo of Haseeb Shaikh

Hey Stefin, I loved the story behind how the project turned into reality. Could you share what strategies helped you get the industry on board in terms of having high school students work on actual projects with them? What was their initial response to your approach and how did it evolve to the current state of affairs?

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Great question, Haseeb.

So many of these are long and slow relationships that build. We started by casting a wide net. Using a combination of direct outreach (lots and lots of calls & emails), social media, and connections through our allies to see if we could identify just one or two key partners to launch the relationship & project. Then, once we found our first partners, it became vital to ensure the quality of our work & collaboration so that our first partners would speak highly of us to all of their networks and share the power of the experience. I guess it's cliche, but it's the grassroots strategy of a spark leading to a blaze.

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

It's rare to see others connecting education to peace and the environment, equity, and sustainable income generation. Our interests in Ta-Valema Learning Lab are so similar--and we do very intentionally partner with US schools and educational programs, both K-12 and undergraduate. Would love to consider the possibilities together some time.

Photo of Stefin Pasternak


Absolutely! I'm a permaculture designer and Living School has many of its roots in permaculture, too! Let me know a good time & way to connect.


Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Stefin Pasternak  great to have you in the Challenge! I am curious to learn more about how you see the work you are currently doing creating peace or social cohesion within the communities you work with?

Looking forward to learning more!

Photo of Stefin Pasternak


Love this question! We see our work creating peace on a number of levels. First, our students study power, conflict, and harm and seek to understand how to manage the first two effectively to minimize the third. We study this both at a personal level and at a historical/civilization level. Our school is grounded in restorative practices that actively seek to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and give our students true expertise in resolving all kinds of conflicts constructively and peacefully. Furthermore, we also know that a lot of the violence in our local context comes from systemic oppression & generational poverty. Our mission is to cultivate equity by helping our students graduate with college acceptance, a living-wage job offer, and the habits of a holistically healthy life--all of which will contribute to the dismantling of both of those catalysts of violence.

In terms of social cohesion, we are an intentionally biodiverse school. We've chosen to locate in New Orleans's most diverse neighborhood (New Orleans East) and build a school that effectively serves students from across lines of difference (race, ethnicity, class, belief, gender, and so on) in a single, cohesive program. Part of that program is having our students do all of their work collaboratively with one another and with the community outside our walls, so that these connections don't just pertain to our immediate school community, but to neighbors and local businesses/organizations alike.

Thanks for these great questions and please let me know what else would be helpful!

Photo of Scott Goyette


I like this. I think you are doing something good here. We would be a perfect partner for you and we have proven results in Austin, TX and Houston, TX as well. We should connect.

With Gratitude and Love,


Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Thanks Scott, sounds like y'all do great work. Let me know next time you're in New Orleans so we can connect!

Photo of Tuba Naziruddin

Stefin Pasternak Thanks for sharing. Great initiative. Have you considered scaling the idea beyond New Orleans. Can you list certain programs and projects that your organization is currently working on. Prototyping the program into a brochure or an experience map at high level would be helpful.

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Hi Tuba,

We'll certainly consider this down the road once we've had an opportunity to prove the potential of it in New Orleans. We've learned from folks across the globe and believe deeply that education is contextual and place-based in nature, so we are always open to sharing our work with others who are deeply embedded in their communities.

As for prototyping, we've now updated our website ( with details about the 4 pilots we've run so far and are working on a one-pager. If you have any compelling examples that we can learn from, we'd love to see them.

Thanks for your feedback & question!

Photo of Adriana Santamaría

Hi Stefin!

This is a great education initiative.
I am curios to learn more about how families participate on their kids education in a model like yours.


Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Hi Adriana,

As a democratic school, students each have an equal vote in the Student Legislature, and families have one vote per enrolled student on the Family Advisory Council. These bodies help make the decisions at the school about everything from rules & discipline to budget & hiring.

Then, all work at Living School is collaborative and project-based. This allows us to invite families into our work to share their expertise, become teachers and mentors, and intimately involve themselves in their child's education.

Finally, each student's journey with us is guided by their Personal Learning Plan that they revisit and revise quarterly during Student-Led Conferences where their family & faculty advisors help weigh in on the goals they are working toward and the path they're taking toward those goals.

Happy to elaborate on this if it would be helpful!

Photo of Tanita Preston

Hi!! wonderful work. I just stopped by to introduce you to one of the amazing entrepreneurs’ in our network: I am not an expert in the education sector, but I am a big fan of connecting people that know their craft and Henry May, co-founder of Co-School has been doing amazing work democratizing active education platforms where people share their selves as individuals with dreams and passions blurring the lines of social class and race beautifully. Hope their story brings some inspiration. I will share yours with Henry as well.

Good luck and thanks for the work your do!

Photo of Stefin Pasternak

Thanks for this Tanita! It sounds like they do really inspiring work. We'd love to connect with them and will reach out.