GCE students interview a business owner to understand the economics and sustainability of agricultural supply chain.
November 20, 2019

Changing the Way School Works

A Visit to the Global Citizenship Experience Lab School.
by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Phillips Academy won’t be the first to try out an alternative school structure. A number of institutions have been doing it for years and doing it well. As we prepare to launch The Workshop in spring 2020, it’s important we take a look at these schools, see what has worked well and what hasn’t, and consider all possibilities.

In mid-October, Nick Zufelt (instructor in math, statistics, and computer science) and Andrea Bailey (instructor in biology) traveled to Chicago with Eric Roland (Precourt Director of Partnerships) to visit the Global Citizenship Experience Lab School, a high school that connects academics to real life. The Workshop team sat in on classes, talked with administrators, teachers, and students, and listened in on a Soapbox session (a gathering during which students and faculty members can talk about anything they’re thinking about).

Six things, in particular, inspired The Workshop community members:


  • Classes at GCE are organized around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. — “The starting point for the school is recognizing that there is an opportunity to connect students to learning in ways that are ultimately reflective of what they will need to be doing after school,” said Roland.
  • “There is a framework of big intractable challenges,” said Roland. “There’s also something about the evolving nature of work that, in really good ways, GCE is tapping into. Skills, habits, and mindsets that students are going to need for the future.”

Field Experiences

Industry Partnerships

  • Since opening its doors in 2010, GCE has built a strong network of industry partners, which include Steppenwolf, The Field Museum, REI, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Chicago Tribune, and many more.
  • Roland said that GCE is keenly aware of the importance of community and connection. He said that GCE’s head of school Cabell King talked about connection in terms of concentric circles that start among students, then link between students and teachers, then broaden to issues outside of the school, then connect to the city of Chicago, and finally around the world. “I would underline the deliberateness and intentionality of how GCE thinks about these relationships,” Roland said.

Student Agency

  • “I’m a big fan of student agency,” Roland says. “At GCE, students are at the center of the work the school is doing. Students have the opportunity to think about ‘What is the authentic version of myself? Where do I see myself contributing in the world?’ This is often overlooked in traditional schooling.”
  • Bailey explained that during field experiences, students are expected to do everything all by themselves (transportation, building access, greeting people, etc.). “Through this expectation,” she said, “they learn responsibility and gain skills.”


  • “GCE has an authentic audience piece that interests us,” Zufelt said. “At the end of every term or school year, GCE students put together a show or ‘gallery walk’ to showcase what they feel represents their best work.”


  • Bailey explained that the team has been working on how to share expectations with students if things like tests and traditional disciplines are removed.
  • “Action projects at GCE,” Zufelt said, “effectively replace any tests.” These projects are an opportunity for students to demonstrate understanding and mastery of the subject in which they are working.
  • This visit to GCE confirmed the commitment of The Workshop faculty to use mastery credits instead of Phillips Academy’s 0 to 6 grading system or the more traditional A to F system. Faculty are now honing the themes which the mastery credits will address.
    • In a mastery-based system, student work is emphasized over grades. Credits are assigned for demonstrated mastery and serve as building blocks for communicating how students are progressing toward graduation competencies. The transcript is a story that answers the question, “What does this student know and what can they do?” (Lots more information is available at the Mastery Transcript Consortium.)
    • Credits are specific to each school. Examples include leadership and teamwork, communication, global and cultural competency, analytical and creative thinking, digital and quantitative literacy, self-reflection, and craftspersonship.

Like the team’s visits to Hawken School and Academy for Global Citizenship, this visit to GCE was inspirational. Future visits will include Tulsa Term, Casco Bay High School, and Boston Day and Evening Academy.

Photos courtesy of GCE.

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