HQ Raleigh-based nonprofit “District C” is teaming up with another HQ community partner, Saint Mary’s School, to pioneer immersive education. HQ took an active role in connecting these two organizations so they could work towards their common mission. District C’s goal is to ensure that “every high school student in the Triangle region has a real-work learning experience by 2025.” By training teachers and partnering with schools, they match up students with area companies who can offer them problem-based learning experiences. Saint Mary’s is working towards many of the same goals and enthusiastically signed on.

District C co-founders Anne Jones and Dan Gonzalez have a rich history in education they’ve applied to this venture. Both attended Dartmouth College before becoming teachers — getting important classroom experience that still informs their work. Anne went on to get a doctorate in education policy from Harvard and then headed a large organization focused on STEM curriculum development. Dan also left the classroom to enter the corporate side of education, managing thousands of employees for a test-preparation company.

Seeing education from many angles, the university, the corporate world and on the ground as teachers, gave Anne and Dan a big-picture view of where the current paradigm may be lacking and an eye towards modern trends that could work towards filling those gaps.

“We formed the organization to address what we think is an urgent issue in education, which is that things we traditionally teach students to do and know are not things that employers need in the new, fast-paced dynamic economy,” Dan told HQ.

District C’s unique model

The program District C started takes nominations of area students from different schools to work in diverse teams of four that solve a real problem for a business. District C oversees the process to make sure they are equipped to solve the problem and that the business is receiving value as well. Providing this connection between the students and businesses allows them to learn skills that they might not in other school environments.

“Gallup did a survey and found that just 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that recent college graduates are prepared with the skills and competencies that they need to work in their companies,” Dan said. “So if you think about students as a whole, fewer than 50 percent of students actually graduate from a four-year institution. The ones that do, 16 years of education, all that time and investment, they’re coming out and employers are saying, ‘Yeah, you haven’t really learned the stuff that we need, so we need to figure out ways to teach you.’”

District C’s mission is to have a hand in increasing that dismal 11 percent figure. They’ve found a ready pool of companies and schools to partner with and both sides are motivated to reduce this mismatch. The nonprofit now has a dozen schools they are partnering with and even more companies. Dan said he was surprised at how eager companies were to participate.

“We actually thought when we were building this that that would be the hardest part of the model — getting companies to buy in and want to be part of the work by supplying problems — but businesses have expressed lots of interest in being a part of this work.”

Saint Mary’s School goes all-in on District C mission

Schools are enthusiastic as well, including HQ partner all-girls private high school Saint Mary’s School. In the last year, Saint Mary’s has nominated students to participate in the program and has had two of their teachers go through District C’s training program. They believe so strongly in District C and their mission that they are deepening the partnership and will feature District C in a required seminar class for all students starting this year. The seminar will focus entirely on individualized, experiential problem-solving to teach the students real-world skills in collaboration with real area businesses.

Saint Mary’s director of engagement, Katherine Jackson, says this kind of direction is necessary to truly prepare the students they are educating. “The next generation of students we’re preparing are going to have portfolio careers,” Jackson said. “They’re not just going to work for one company. It’s not just this idea of one idea at a time but many ideas converging for this whole person and what they can do for others.”

The school wants to encourage students to be the co-designers of their education by choosing projects and partner businesses that appeal to them, their passions and their talents. District C co-founder Dan Gonzalez is excited by the reaction of schools and businesses to the initiative. He says Saint Mary’s School is particularly unique in the degree to which they are integrating this model.

As a couple of HQ Raleigh’s community members, District C and Saint Mary’s work is another example of the amazing connections and collaborations we have been able to facilitate, and we’re excited about the future of their important mission in innovating education.

Written by David Larson: David runs First Page Creative, a writing service specializing in marketing and journalism that operates out of HQ Raleigh. Visit him at firstpagecreative.com or call 703-408-6763 to learn more.