February 15 was a heavy day for students at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies. The previous day, 17 people were killed at a Florida high school, and the tragedy left them with just one thing on their minds: What can they do to enact change?
It’s a familiar, if new, refrain for many teenagers across the country as they look to make their schools safer. And as demonstrated at the recent March for Our Lives, which occurred simultaneously in 800-plus cities around the globe, these students are seeing firsthand how voicing their concerns can lead to a powerful movement.
But for the kids at the Lab School, having a voice isn’t something new. In fact, treating students as customers — where they, not the faculty, are always right — has become something of a mantra at the school, thanks to an ongoing program housed there called The Future Project.
The initiative, which focuses on giving students a say in how they want their schools run, is a response to their complaints that schools don’t give them enough agency. At a time when student engagement is problematic across the nation, The Future Project reignites interest in school by allowing students an undeniable voice in shaping their community.
“Schools were designed for one purpose — teaching the basics of math or English — and they’re not catching up with the needs and wants of young people,” says GLG Social Impact Fellow Kanya Balakrishna, co-founder of The Future Project. “You often imagine that students are dropping out of school because of performance, but what we’re seeing is those students just aren’t making the connection between the life they’re living now and what they’re seeing in school.”
Inspired by her mother, a former educator, Balakrishna worked with high school students while studying anthropology at Yale. She found that despite teachers’ best efforts, students often reported feeling bored at school and disconnected from the issues they really cared about.
“It makes such a powerful difference when someone believes in students unconditionally,” she says.
So Balakrishna took an anthropological approach to solving student disengagement: observe, analyze, then take action. She also received executive guidance through her participation in the GLG Social Impact Fellowship. Through GLG, Balakrishna and her team have explored a range of topics, from how to be better managers and build a sales team to engaging with students’ parents and driving cultural change within schools.
Unlike afterschool programs that enlist adults as mentors, The Future Project embeds a full-time employee, known as a dream director, in a school to conduct interviews and perform annual assessments to uncover the issues and obstacles facing students — all from the perspective of the kids themselves. From there, dream directors utilize a strategy called “practice of possibilities” in which students develop projects that motivate their fellow teens to get involved and become more active at school.
The program is purposefully vague on appropriate actions to take because each student population requires a unique approach.
“There are 30,000 high schools in the country, and we can’t design different services for each one. So we created a model that was focused around listening and learning and could be customized to each school,” Balakrishna explains.
The Future Project operates in 50 schools nationwide and has helped approximately 30,000 students. Of those schools, four out of five report better relationships between students and teachers.
“There is rigorous science that backs up everything we’ve been doing, even the little details like the random icebreakers that dream directors do with a student,” Balakrishna says.
At the Lab School in New York, students told resident dream director Scotty Crowe that despite a student population of just 500 there was a looming sense of detachment.
“Students were saying they didn’t know what sports teams won; they didn’t know any accomplishments of other students. We want to make people feel connected because they have common interests,” says Crowe, adding that all of the initiatives The Future Project helped create — including a school newspaper and assembly days focused around diversity — were targeted toward building a stronger community.
“Our modern school system was created over 100 years ago, and yet we’re still using it despite cultures, technologies and courses changing since then,” says Eleanor Jewel, chief dream director for New York City and New Jersey schools. “We’re still asking, ‘Why are students checked out of school at 15 or 16 years old?’ That’s what we’re trying to solve here.”
Faculty members attest to The Future Project’s effectiveness. Kay Rothman, a college advisor and psychology teacher at the Lab School, says that the program “gives real credence to what students are saying when they talk about what they need in school.”
One alumna of the program, Justice Hatterson, has leveraged the skills she learned from a photography project six years ago and turned them into a career as a model manager for her own company, Daring Imagery Model Management.
“I took what I learned in that project and started a photography business. I became an event photographer doing baby showers and weddings, and then started taking photos of people. I’ve used what I learned about marketing, leadership, supervision and coaching, and pushed those things in my business,” Hatterson, now 23, says. “I get to coach people every day and build them up. It’s kinda like I’m their dream director, and they’re my dreamers.”
Hattersonis far from alone in being inspired by her experience with The Future Project, Balakrishna says. Ninety percent of participants told the organization that they feel more connected after working with a dream director.
“As a society, we often look at school as the problem,” Balakrishna says. “But we believe school can be the solution for young people to get an experience and learn or discover their strengths, passions and purpose.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Justice Hatterson’s last name and mischaracterized Balakrishna’s work with students while at Yale University.
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GLG Social Impact is an initiative of GLG to advance learning and decision-making among distinguished nonprofit and social enterprise leaders. The GLG Social Impact Fellowship provides learning resources to a select group of nonprofits and social enterprises, at no cost.