Now Playing

How Designers Are Hacking the Public School Day

When a design firm teams up with the public school system, principals become pupils again.


Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories about the future of our metropolis, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the April 2017 Urban Design Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

While battles
are being ferociously waged over big-picture education policy (school vouchers, standardized testing, firearms or grizzly attacks), it’s easy for the small things to get overlooked. Small like those four-footers known as the students. So when the Palo Alto–based design powerhouse Ideo put its collective brainpower toward improving education, it very deliberately aimed for small and fast fixes.

School Retool is a joint program dreamed up by Ideo and its frequent collaborator, Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the Last year, they launched it inside schools nationwide with a fish-out-of-water experience called the Shadow a Student Challenge. For an entire day, administrators who typically spend their nine-to-fives in meeting rooms or dealing with a rotating cast of public school “stakeholders” spent every minute with a single child, from the bus stop in the morning to after-school football practice. They were advised to unplug (as in: leave the walkie-talkie and the smartphone behind) to be completely present for the experience, and afterward they completed a fairly simple Ideo-designed worksheet to help them identify a challenge they observed—and then hack a quick solution, to be implemented immediately. It was design thinking at its most elemental, and it offered a fresh approach for many policy-wonk administrators who are often forced to measure results in years, not days. 

Amie Lamontagne, principal at Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy (KDA) in Oakland, spent her day with a fifth grader, meeting him at 8:10 a.m. a block from school so she could walk with him, his mother, and his brother. “The first thing I noticed is that we walked all the way to our classroom without anyone greeting us,” Lamontagne says. “It made me feel sad. It’s not a great way to start the day.” This inspired her first hack: standing outside the front door a few days a week to greet families and students as they arrive. “I want them to know I’m glad they’re at school.”

The student Lamontagne spent the day with was an English-language learner, as are a majority of the students at KDA—there are currently 13 home languages spoken at the school, although English is the one heard most frequently throughout the day. “So I decided to hack the traditional advisory structure and create a language club for one of our newer home languages, Mandarin,” Lamontagne says. She and a Mandarin-speaking teacher started gathering a small group of students, some who spoke Mandarin and some who did not, for a 30-minute language club once a week. “The kids started out by sharing why they are interested in learning another language and asking questions of the students who speak Mandarin,” Lamontagne says. “A lot of curiosity around culture came up, as well as a desire to learn phrases and actually speak the language.” 

According to Susie Wise, the director of the K-12 lab at the, administrators often get bogged down in the rollout of the next big thing. But when they are encouraged to observe from a kid’s perspective, it puts them in learning mode. It’s during this leaders-as-learners moment that new ideas germinate. “The program has really shifted my thinking around what it means to be a school leader,” Lamontagne says. “To see myself and the other staff members as designers is an empowering perspective.”


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Erin Feher at
Follow us on Twitter
Follow Erin Feher on Twitter at