New York City’s First Hybrid School Gives Students Flexible, Real-World Learning

A School Without Walls took some lessons from COVID to reimagine hybrid learning for a student-centered program where teens discover their passions.

Tenth grader Lena Gestel’s flexible schedule at A School Without Walls in New York City accommodates her need for hybrid learning while providing in-person classes and support as she works on a research project. (Beth Fertig)

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Lena Gestel has a packed schedule for anyone, let alone a 15-year-old. In addition to her academic studies, the 10th grader studies singing and piano and attends the Dance Theatre of Harlem four days a week, a 30-minute drive from her home in Queens.

That kind of itinerary would be nearly impossible for Gestel at any traditional high school, which is why she chose to attend A School Without Walls, a first-of-its-kind hybrid program in New York City that blends in-person and remote learning.

“I do a lot of other stuff, so I thought it was easier than going to another school and being extremely exhausted and late with work,” Gestel said.

While hybrid learning might still hold negative connotations for many students and families after years of COVID-19-disrupted schooling, leaders at SWoW say their model reimagines the hybrid structure for a truly student-centered program — allowing students like Gestel to follow their passions while still mastering rigorous academics. It’s the first public school to win approval from New York State for a hybrid learning model.

“The hybrid schedule is really not meant for students who just don’t want to be in a building every day,” SWoW principal Veronica Coleman said. “The goal of the hybrid schedule is for students to have flexibility so that they do real-world learning.”

Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom

SWoW launched in 2022 in partnership with NYC Outward Bound Schools, a nonprofit that supports a network of public schools that incorporate an expeditionary learning model through project-based curricula. It’s also part of Imagine NYC Schools, a dynamic partnership between New York City Public Schools and the XQ Institute to design innovative, high-quality schools with equity and excellence at their core.

Through support and funding from New York City Public Schools, XQ and the NewSchools Venture Fund, SWoW designed its program to emphasize youth voice and choice — one of six research-based XQ Design Principles.

Students were deeply involved in shaping the school from the start. SWoW recruited 50 students from other schools across the city during its pilot year to serve as interns and test program ideas, provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t and help think through the school’s competency-based grading policy (an approach that’s been gaining momentum nationally, and which is also championed by XQ).

In place of traditional letter grades, teachers use narrative reports to guide students in developing seven competencies: collaboration, investigation, interdisciplinary connection, analysis, design, communication and reflection. Students receive quarterly progress reports and reflect on their learning through student-led conferences that occur twice yearly.

“We’ve really tried to amplify student voice and choice,” Coleman said. “That’s the piece for us that feels like the focus and all of the other pieces fit into that being the center of what we’re really trying to do.”

Students learn in person at the Lower Manhattan campus two to three days a week. The rest of the time is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous online learning and real-world learning, including internships, fieldwork and early college coursework through the City University of New York.

Every Friday, students and staff also meet in an auditorium to discuss what’s going well and share their wants and needs, from designing new clubs to giving input on school-wide policies and procedures.

“What I like about this school is that you can really communicate with them,” Gestel said. “If I’m feeling really stressed or overworked, they help me balance it out and help me organize.”

SWoW borrowed many of its principles from NYC Outward Bound Schools and expanded them within its model. These include “Crew,” an advisory and community-building time with teams made up of a dozen or so students and an adult. At SWoW, however, Crew is more than an advisory period. It’s also where students earn their humanities credits by working on their passion projects — student-led and student-designed research projects that are the core of the SWoW curriculum.

Passion-Driven Projects

Students select a passion project based on a topic that is meaningful to them and their communities. Meaningful, engaged learning is another XQ design principle. Working with their advisor, each pupil creates an individualized learning plan, setting project goals that align with New York State curriculum standards.

In 9th grade, students research a service learning project that can address a broad range of issues, from youth homelessness to the environmental impact of illegal fireworks in New York City. In 10th grade, each student starts a passion project in earnest, formulating a research question through reading materials and interviews with experts in the field, culminating with an internship in the spring to put their learning to the test in the real world. All students will take on full-fledged independent projects by 12th grade and find an internship.

“The goal is to build that agency and independence while the students are exploring something they are passionate about,” Coleman explained.

For her passion project, 10th grader Gestel is exploring the lack of representation of different body types and skin tones in ballet and how to create a more inclusive dance community. Another 10th grader, Lily Paraponiaris, is researching film restoration and preservation.

SWoW uses a case study framework to model for students what good research looks like. For example, in January they explored a unit on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the country’s history of cobalt mining. In addition to earning their humanities credits, students also figure out the ingredients of high-quality research to apply to their own passion projects.

Students at A School Without Walls give presentations on learning, which are critiqued by fellow students and visitors. Joseph Luna Pisch (right) focused on rising transit fares. (Beth Fertig)

Some students will devote much of their time at SWoW to their passion projects, diving deeply into a topic while exploring it from different angles and applying that knowledge through real-world learning in an internship. But some teens may take longer to land on a subject that is truly meaningful for them, and Coleman said SWoW makes sure that flexibility is built into the curriculum.

“The idea is that you go through that cycle of making and doing and reflecting, and that reflection can lead you to say, ‘I’m done with this topic,’ which is totally normal for a teenager,” she explained. “Or you can continue, but you continue in a way that requires a new avenue of research.”

Throughout their projects, students get regular opportunities to present their work to an audience, including an end-of-year presentation of learning, a resource fair where students have the chance to network with potential internship mentors and summer employers, and a mid-year presentation called roundtables where students share their passion projects with outside guests, sharpening not only their research questions but also their public speaking skills. At a roundtable in early 2024, one student gave a presentation exploring the rising cost of public transit fares while another investigated the fashion industry's environmental impact.

Want to learn more about how to inspire high school students with the latest best practices for teaching and learning? Subscribe to the XQ Xtra, a newsletter that comes out twice a month for high school teachers.

Hybrid Learning Post-Pandemic

SWoW’s launch hasn’t been without bumps along the way — in part because another completely virtual program opened at the same time, causing confusion for students and parents. That program has since been renamed, but figuring out whether hybrid or fully virtual is best for individual students is still a question for families.

Ava Smith, who is in her first year at SWoW, said she likes learning online, but ultimately, the school is not for her.

“I just think I like traditional school more,” she said. “I like the schedule. I feel like here it’s very mishmashed, and here every day is different.”

The school has its own saying: SWoW is for anyone but not for everyone.

“I think it’s been a struggle for us to find the right matches,” Coleman said. “And I think it’s going to take a few more years for that to really settle, for people to really know what they are getting when they come to A School Without Walls and a sense that this is right for me and for my child.”

While some students like Smith might end up missing the traditional school environment, overall, SW0W students seem happy with the experience. Out of the 60 original 9th graders who started in 2022, 50 returned for year two, with 35 new students joining in 10th grade.

Coleman said those numbers, and what she hears from the students, prove this new kind of high school is needed — not only because of its small community, flexibility and the safe space it offers.

“Their families are saying their student was at a big high school and experiencing anxiety,” she noted. “And they like this model because of the individualization.”

Disclosure: The XQ Institute is a financial supporter of Maybach Media.

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