Company to Watch: Delaware Design-Lab High School

Cristina Alvarez, co-founder of Design-Lab High School

Many high schools prepare students to follow specific career paths. At Delaware Design-Lab High School, they’re teaching teenagers to be innovators.

The charter high school, housed in the Faith City Church complex near Christiana Mall with an enrollment of about 270 students, is just completing its second year, but it has already made its mark in significant fashion. In 2016, it was named one of 10 winners in the nationwide Super School competition, earning a $10 million prize that will be used to design a future-oriented high school prototype.

The school’s staff, students, parents and board members worked on the competition application last year, and this year they’ve begun planning what their model school should look like, Design-Lab Co-founder Cristina Alvarez says.

“We’re a research and development high school,” she says. “We’re embracing the fact that our students and our teachers are developing and evaluating our curriculum as we go along.”

This means that, while students must meet state graduation and course-content requirements for classes in English, math, science and social studies, they have a voice in defining what they want to learn. “Their interests and passions are a starting point,” Alvarez says.

At the heart of Design- Lab’s instructional model is a four-step process called “design thinking,” says
Co-founder Martin Rayala. It starts with identifying a problem, followed by testing multiple solutions, testing a prototype of the best possible solution and, finally, presenting it in a clear and compelling way.

“It’s the process designers use,” Rayala says, “but we’re not training them to be designers. They can use this process to solve any problem they encounter in life.”

The Super School grant requires that Design-Lab incorporate seven essential elements into its prototype: internships, place-based learning, dual enrollment, making, service learning, exhibitions and culture. Those elements ensure that the school will offer its students diverse approaches to learning, Alvarez says.

“There are multiple ways of showing learning,” she says, and Design-Lab students will demonstrate their knowledge in many ways other than on written exams — by telling stories, creating media projects, giving performances and preparing exhibits.

Rayala compares Design- Lab’s position to the role Tesla has played in the development of electric-powered cars.

“General Motors and Ford will likely become the primary manufacturers, but Tesla forced the issue,” he says.
“Our little school will not be the solution for every high school in the country, but others will be able to replicate our prototype.”

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