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Frequently Asked Questions

If you don’t see your question here, ask us, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

  1. Is this different than the Somerville STEAM Academy?
  2. Who’s it for?
  3. What grade levels do you work with?
  4. Who isn’t it for?
  5. How does enrollment work?
  6. Why Somerville?
  7. Who’s behind it?
  8. When and how can I enroll?
  9. What do you mean by ‘projects’?
  10. Why is it year round?
  11. How will vacations work?
  12. Why 10AM–5PM?
  13. What do you mean by 'computation'?
  14. What do you mean by 'storytelling'?
  15. What do you mean by 'interdisciplinary'?
  16. What about special education?
  17. So, is this a charter school?
  18. Will this affect other schools in Somerville financially?
  19. What does a transcript look like?
  20. Can I still go to college?
  21. What if I don’t want to go to college?
  22. What’s a typical day look like?
  23. What is an Innovation School?
  24. Where will it be?
  25. If there aren’t traditional classes, how do you make sure people learn everything they need to go on to college or career?
  26. How will sports and other extracurriculars work?
  27. Will you offer AP or dual enrollment classes?
  28. Is this an enrichment program?
  29. Is this a remedial program?
  30. Is this a magnet school?
  31. How will people be graded?
  32. What does the teaching team look like?
  33. Why aren’t there grade levels?
  34. Has anyone done this before?
  35. Are your teachers part of the union?
  36. How big will it be?
  37. What about the MCAS?
  38. What is this 'program of study' you keep talking about staff developing?
  39. How will this scale?
  40. How can I get involved?
Is this different than the Somerville STEAM Academy?
Nope! Same proposal, different name. We decided that we didn’t like the “STEAM” buzzword and that we thought it’d be stale in a few years. We also don’t really like the kitchen-sink approach to curriculum design, and we were having trouble communicating to people that we weren’t a tech-focused school which paid lip service to art. We hope Powderhouse Studios keeps the focus on Somerville while also doing a better job of communicating that people come to PHS to do creative work.
Who’s it for?
People who don’t feel school quite works for them. People who see things differently. People who would like school to be more about doing projects around their own interests with just a few dozen, other young people. People who are bored in school. People who might like to build things or program computers or make art. People who aren’t sure if college is for them. People who want to go to college. People who want to go straight into work. If you’re not sure, text us or email us and we would love to sit down to talk about it!
What grade levels do you work with?
We don't have grade levels, per se. People are organized into mixed-age cohorts. We're starting by enrolling people who will be between 13–15 years old in September 2018. Each year, we'll enroll a new group, growing to have the same age ranges as a traditional high school.
Who isn’t it for?
People who are having a great time in a traditional classroom. People who don’t think they’d enjoy spending a lot of time making things. People who would like being in a big school. People who want to take a lot of AP classes. If you’re not sure, text us or email us and we would love to sit down to talk about it!
How does enrollment work?
Anyone who’s interested can sign up here to get notified when our enrollment opens and be placed in our lottery when the time comes. Because we aren't yet approved, we can't officially open enrollment yet. Later in the year, we’re hoping to run a lottery that’s been designed to ensure the academic, socioeconomic, and demographic profile of PHS matches Somerville’s. Those who are selected by that lottery will be notified, and others will have the option of joining a waitlist.
Why Somerville?
Because we’ve been working and living here for nearly the past decade. Because Somerville is full of interesting people. Because we have a Superintendent who’s started a small, technology focused high school in Boston and is excited to see PHS succeed. Because we have an entrepreneurial Mayor who’s supported us from day one. Because Somerville’s awash in incredible opportunities for partnership with institutions like MIT and Tufts and Harvard—not to mention the countless businesses, artists, and professionals in the area. Because we think that Somerville’s one of just a handful of places in the country you could go to really think differently about what the future of urban education could look like.
Who’s behind it?
The Mayor of Somerville approached sprout & co in 2012 about the idea of opening a school under Massachusetts’s Innovation School legislation. Since then, we’ve worked with all sorts of people to put together a solid plan. The Innovation Plan Committee which drafted and approved the design featured union representatives, principals, department chairs, school committee members, and families. We’ve met with hundreds of school designers, education experts, and school leaders from across the country as we’ve fleshed out our design. Mary Skipper (Somerville's Superintendent) and many others in the district have helped us to flesh out all the operational details of our plan. We owe a lot to the dozens of people who have lent their time, expertise, and support over the past four years.
When and how can I enroll?
You can't, quite yet (we are't done with our School Committee approval process yet. But, you can sign up here to be notified and placed in our lottery, when it opens.
What do you mean by ‘projects’?
Basically what you mean when you say “project” in the real world. Most of the projects people will do at PHS will be of their own design. Even if they happen in interdisciplinary seminars we design, our goal is for young people to get to the point that they are designing and executing their own projects on long timescales. Our job is to help them get there.
Why is it year round?
So that we have the time and flexibility to work with people comfortably and support them in doing long-term projects. A lot of times, school can feel like a marathon. Everyone is looking to the next vacation, and everyone is trying to cram as much material in as possible. We want there to be more breathing room. So, PHS is open year-round. But, that doesn’t mean there’s no vacation. It just means that school looks and feels a bit more like a job.
How will vacations work?
Families will work with the school to schedule their vacations. PHS will be closed for the same federal and state holidays as the real world (in Massachusetts, at least). For those families who would like their kids to participate in extended summer or winter vacation programs, we’ll work to accommodate those families (perhaps developing curricula and projects to prepare for or reflect upon those camp experiences, as well).
Why 10AM–5PM?
Because we know it’s bad for young people—especially adolescents—to get up too early. Study after study tells us normal school schedules are not only unhealthy, but lead to less and worse learning (not to mention growing resentment of school and very stressful morning routines for families).
What do you mean by 'computation'?
Building things with computer- and data-driven tools (often by programming).
What do you mean by 'storytelling'?
Creating and communicating narratives— sometimes visually, sometimes with words, sometimes as a marketing campaign, sometimes in a speech or song.
What do you mean by 'interdisciplinary'?
Work which combines many subjects at once. e.g. Instead of 'just' doing math or 'just' doing art, you’re working on a computational art project.
What about special education?
We’ll have the same commitments, obligations, and supports as the rest of Somerville Public Schools. We expect PHS will be especially effective for those who have been diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, language based learning disability, or issues with executive function and self management. A small, intimate setting with a lot of individualized support, few transitions, and the opportunity to work on projects of your own can be a blessing for many who struggle in traditional settings. Beyond this, not only will all of our staff will be going through training to become special education advocates, but we are also re-designing our IEP process to integrate it with our own, individualized learning plan process (which everyone at PHS goes through). If you know anything about special education, you know there’s a lot of moving parts. Please get in touch if you’d like to talk more and find out if PHS might be a good fit for you!
So, is this a charter school?
Nope! It’s just like any other school in Somerville from the point of view of its legal status. We’ve used the Innovation School legislation to put together a design that’s different from traditional schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education granted us relief from some state laws and regulations, and if the school committee approves our plan, we’ll also get relief from some local, district policies too.
Will this affect other schools in Somerville financially?
Nope! We’ve worked very hard to make sure that financially, PHS doesn’t pull unfairly from other schools in Somerville. First, we went through Somerville’s end-of-year audit to figure out how much money is spent on what. Then, we took out the money that is spent across the district, regardless of enrollment (e.g. the money required for central administration). What remained was a lower per capita (roughly $14,000) which we designed our budget around. Between that and the fact that we expect some who might otherwise leave Somerville Public Schools—for special education outplacement, for charter schools, for private schools, for homeschooling—will stay, we’re confident that overall, PHS will be a net positive financially for Somerville.
What does a transcript look like?
It will depend on the young person! When someone decides to transfer or apply to college, the staff who have worked with them over the past five years will go through a very time-intensive process of using their portfolio to create a custom transcript specifically for their use.
Can I still go to college?
Yes! We’ll work with you to make sure that you’re prepared for the college(s) which interest you. We’re on your team, and we don’t want to just push you out into the world if you’re not stoked for the next step.
What if I don’t want to go to college?
Then we’ll work with you to make sure not only that you’re trained for a job you’re excited about, but that you find one. We’re on your team, and we don’t want to just push you out into the world if you’re not stoked for the next step.
What’s a typical day look like?
For most everyone, there will be a morning session, then lunch, and then an afternoon session. What people will do in those sessions will change over time. We believe that a seventeen year old’s day should look different than an thirteen year old’s. Broadly, people will start out spending most of their time in interdisciplinary seminars we design and run. Over the years, they’ll spend more and more time working on projects of their own design. Some people will eventually transition to working in internships and co-ops before graduating and moving on to college or career.
What is an Innovation School?
An in-district school that’s used the Innovation School legislation to secure some flexibility in its design (like the Winter Hill Community School).
Where will it be?
We aren’t approved yet, but we’re hoping to be a tenant in the Powder House Community School re-development just outside Davis Square. You can read more about that development here.
If there aren’t traditional classes, how do you make sure people learn everything they need to go on to college or career?
PHS graduates will take (and pass) the same MCAS as everyone else. .And everyone will cover the Common Core Math and English / Language Arts standards. The way that we accomplish that while also working on individualized projects is through a unique, retrospective mapping process. Young people work on projects. As they work on those projects, staff work with them to document which standards those projects touch on after the fact. Over time, the standards someone hasn’t yet covered inform conversations staff have with young people about their projects. Instead of a single teacher thinking about how to teach twenty kids the same standard on the same day, one young person is working with three staff to develop projects that touch on those standards on a much longer timescale.
How will sports and other extracurriculars work?
Young people will be able to cross-register into sports or extracurricular activities offered elsewhere throughout Somerville. We’ll also be providing students with a stipend which they’ll be able to use to sign up for individualized, activities (ranging from boxing lessons to a gym membership). PHS is too small to host many extracurricular activities. And beyond that, we’re interested in bringing extracurricular activities—which are often organized around young people’s interests—into young people’s work. This means that in addition to supporting young people in connecting to opportunities for activity in the rest of the world, we will be working to develop projects which build on their extracurricular pursuits.
Will you offer AP or dual enrollment classes?
Nope. But, we will offer ample opportunity and support to those interested in cross-registering into other options (either locally at places like Somerville High School or Bunker Hill Community College or online).
Is this an enrichment program?
No! Not only is it a full-fledged school, we’re especially interested in working with people who aren’t having that much fun in school now. We believe a small team working with young people to develop and execute their own projects can be a great shift for people who don’t feel engaged by traditional classrooms.
Is this a remedial program?
No! Not only is it a full-fledged school, much of it has been designed to let people who feel that school normally doesn’t offer them enough (or interesting enough) work to do to really fly. We believe a small team working with young people to develop and execute their own projects can be a great shift for people who don’t feel challenged by traditional classrooms.
Is this a magnet school?
Nope! Not only do magnet schools draw from more than one district, they’re organized around a particular theme (like music or sports or science). While computation and storytelling play unusually prominent roles in our school, we believe these are tools more like writing than subjects. And just like you write in all of your classes normally, at PHS, you’ll be building things and creating stories around all sorts of subjects.
How will people be graded?
Through their projects. At the beginning of taking on bigger projects, young people will be asked to articulate what they’re looking to get out of the project and what success looks like. Those standards will be used throughout and at the end of the project to evaluate it. Collectively, these critiques—like an architecture studio or a performance review in a job—will form a portfolio used to evaluate their progress.
What does the teaching team look like?
Every cohort of three dozen people or so has three, core staff working with them. Those three staff—in addition to whatever academic background they may bring—individually act as a project manager, curriculum developer, and social worker for their cohort. Every two cohorts are supported by an additional four, targeted academic support staff. These staff are supported by the same range of special education and english language learner support you see throughout the rest of Somerville Public Schools.
Why aren’t there grade levels?
For the same reason your workplace isn’t segregated by age. We think people learn best when they aren’t surrounded by people doing and learning the exact same thing as them. In some ways, we think the one-room schoolhouse had it right. Our programs are designed so that advanced and beginner student can work alongside one another. We’re more interested in making a cohesive, social experience—where older students work and teach with younger students and vice versa.
Has anyone done this before?
Pieces of it! Project-based work has been pioneered at places like High Tech High. Staggered, flexible schedules at places like Generation Schools. Wraparound and team support at places like the Harlem Children’s Zone. Internships and community integration at Big Picture schools. Our focus on computation and storytelling is unique (as far as we know). But between the past four years of design work (which have involved visiting and working with many school designers and leaders) and the fact that we’re focused on keeping things small, we’re confident we can make this work.
Are your teachers part of the union?
Yes! We’re still working out the details of our carve-out with the Somerville Teachers Association, but administratively, PHS is just like any other school.
How big will it be?
We’re aiming to enroll about three dozen people a year for at least the next five years, meaning we'd be about 180 students at our largest.
What about the MCAS?
People at PHS will take the same MCAS as everyone else (and just like everyone else, will have to pass it to graduate). We’ll also put in place ongoing diagnostic tests which will help us identify areas where individual young people would benefit from receiving additional, targeted tutoring support from academic support staff.
What is this 'program of study' you keep talking about staff developing?

In the absence of traditional classes and subjects, the center of gravity for work and ideas at Powderhouse Studios come from our staff…especially as we're getting started.

For us, that means staff develop their own line of inquiry— a practice or question or problem which they'll be pursuing over years at PHS. This program of study is what will generate the projects and programs to which they invite young people.

It's not enough for it to be a subject (like 'computer programming'). It needs to be a perspective which they are authentically exploring…it's more like an artist statement or research agenda than a subject.

How will this scale?

We believe many of the characteristics of great learning environments which matter most to us—human relationships, respect, creativity, culture—aren't scalable in the way that, say, fast-food is. Besides that, no one has ever figured out how to create large-scale change in work as messy and human as education.

We see things differently. We believe there are other theories of change besides 'scale'.

Rachel Carson didn't start the EPA, she wrote Silent Spring.

Biggie Smalls mentored Lil' Kim and formed Junior M.A.F.I.A, he didn't try to make a Juilliard of East Coast hip hop.

Xerox PARC didn't make the iPhone; they prototyped visions for personal computing.

Our approach rhymes with these. You can think of Powderhouse Studios as a creative monastery or research institute or sandbox. Except unlike all of those analogies, we're embedded in the world, in a real community in Somerville. And most of the people enrolling in Powderhouse Studios will do so because something wasn't working for them about school.

How can I get involved?
By getting in touch! We’re always hiring; registration of enrollment interest is open; and we’re always on the lookout for great partners and volunteers. In the meantime, please be sure to sign up for our mailing list and follow us on twitter and facebook.