(L-R) Keaton Wadzinski, a 3rd year student at the University of Virginia, and Chad Ratliff, director of instructional programs for Albemarle County Public Schools, pitch ReinventEd.

Albemarle County Public Schools learned Wednesday that they fell short of winning a $10 million grant from XQ: The Super School Project. But school officials said entering the nationwide competition to redesign high school education generated ideas that will shape the division’s schools in the years ahead.

Chad Ratliff, Director of Instructional Programs, said the XQ application process allowed district administrators to “dive really deeply into what students were interested in, and learn what opportunities they would like to have more of.”

XQ was initiated in September 2015 with a $50 million donation from Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. More than 700 teams from across the U.S. submitted ideas for radically redesigned high schools.

Albemarle’s proposed “Super School,” called CONNEXT, would enable students to design their own experiential learning plan, guided by a personal committee of teachers, mentors and advisers. Students would split their time between a central school-based location and libraries, businesses, and other organizations.

ACPS was named one of 50 XQ finalists in July, but was not among the ten winning schools revealed Wednesday. However, Ratliff said multiple communications from XQ have hinted at “some sort of consolation prize” for finalists in the future.

XQ’s contest guidelines emphasized the inclusion of students in the design process. ACPS partnered with ReinventED Lab, a student-run nonprofit at the University of Virginia, to get input from more than 150 Albemarle County students of all ages through design workshops and interviews.

Keaton Wadzinski, a UVA fourth-year student and executive director of ReinventED Lab, said that a review of student responses identified two major themes: a desire for greater agency and ownership of learning, and more authentic learning experiences in the “real world.”

“A lot of times that authenticity is constrained by how credits are currently awarded, and how schedules are structured,” Wadzinski said. “We were able to open up a wide range of possibilities.”

The chance to win $10 million to create CONNEXT was not the only reason why the school division and ReinventED Lab entered the XQ contest, Ratliff said.

“It was a process we embarked upon because it allowed us to weave together multiple initiatives that we already have underway across the school district… and educational values we have been leaning towards for almost a decade,” he said.

This month, the Virginia Department of Education will release a draft of its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” a report on what students will need to be successful in the 21st century economy. The report will recommend new graduation requirements for the commonwealth’s public high schools.

Ratliff said that the XQ contest helped Albemarle County to prepare to change its educational programming when the new requirements take effect for incoming freshmen in fall 2018.

“We are very well situated and poised to start that path internally because of the XQ process,” Ratliff said. “We were able to spend nearly a year pulling together research, and doing things that allowed us to get a solid plan going forward.”

“We articulated and defined what the future of high school looks like,” said Wadzinski. “We will use this model as a rallying point.”


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.