District C's Innovative Educational Model Prepares Students for Lifelong Success Beyond the Classroom
Team-based, real-world work creates a unique learning environment for students
By Tom Garrett
The “Launch Day” of District C, a real-world, project-based educational program in the Triangle region of North Carolina, is an eight-hour experience featuring team-building exercises that place an emphasis on building “psychological safety.” Psychological safety is a concept rooted in encouraging all members of the team to present viewpoints and express opinions without fear of reprisal.
It’s a concept that senior Anthony Luzzi says not only led to better interactions with fellow students, but also opened his mind to alternative options, paths, and solutions.
“I was kind of a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ type of person before District C,” he explains. “District C showed me the value of persuading others to be comfortable to share their viewpoints. I also learned to apply this by ‘befriending’ my group so that their interests became important to me.”
And that ability to connect and work in teams successfully is one of several crucial skills taught by—and necessary for success in—the District C program.
That’s no accident. Skills like critical thinking, effective communication, and the ability to collaborate are in high demand in the modern job market. Employers need those “executive-functioning” or “soft” skills more than ever, yet they also consistently report having tremendous difficulty finding employees who possess these deeper learning abilities.
Thankfully for the students of District C, imparting executive-functioning skills is the stock-in-trade of the program.
District C showed me the value of persuading others to be comfortable to share their viewpoints.
Co-founded by former teachers and business professionals Dan Gonzalez and Anne Jones in 2017, District C uses team-centered, real-world, problem-solving experiences to teach students how to succeed in the workplace of today and tomorrow. That speaks to one of the founding principles of the program. Namely, the idea that many or most traditional jobs that rely on repetitive, cognitive or manual routines will soon disappear—if they haven’t already. In fact, Brookings reports that, by 2030, 61% of American jobs will experience high- or mid-level susceptibility to automation.
While automation and related technology will reduce or eliminate the need for the human element in some professions, jobs that require creativity, cooperation across diverse teams, and analyzing and solving dynamic problems will be the ones that survive and grow.
District C aims to prepare the next generation of talent for the work that computers can’t do. The program accomplishes this mission by connecting the teaching of those relevant skills to real-world scenarios. District C partners with local businesses to source real, urgent, and meaningful business problems that set the stage for the ones students would face as employees.
For example, a tech company that uses satellite and drone technology to help farmers might call upon District C students to help puzzle through how to improve its customer-service operation. Or a sports science business might ask students to figure the best way to drive better engagement with its injury-prevention app.
These student teams, or “C Squads,” first meet with the partnering businesses on Launch Day to understand the nature of the challenge they’ll be tackling. Then, with guidance from coaches, the students collaborate and work their way toward a solution. The experience concludes with a final pitch presentation back to the business partner—a presentation that’s even open to the community.
In all cases, students have the opportunity to collaborate and solve problems in a way that will build practical skills that will be relevant to their future workplace success.
Another remarkable aspect of the program is that it is open to students from any area school, whether public or private. That’s by design, as teams comprised of students from a cross-section of the entire region are incubators for new perspectives and home to the kind of diverse backgrounds and experiences that students are likely to encounter in their chosen workplace—but which might very well be lacking in, say, an AP class at their home high school.
Anthony Luzzi was one such student. On Launch Day, his team met with representatives from York Properties, a successful real estate company headquartered in Raleigh.
York’s challenge: getting more employees from across the organization to participate in company-sponsored, culture-building activities like a baseball outing or a company picnic.
At least, that’s what they thought their challenge was.
“We met with representatives from their HR team, and from management,” Anthony says. “After digging deeper over a number of weeks, and communicating daily with our team, we realized the problem was actually something else.”
Anthony’s team figured out that, in reality, the non-participation management noted was a symptom of a larger, more fundamental issue: lapses in internal communications.
Ultimately, the team created a pitch presentation that offered a two-pronged solution: improving communications infrastructure by providing phones to employees who lacked them, and, perhaps more importantly, designing a committee meeting structure and protocol that would include a cross-section of the organization and emphasize the exact psychological safety concept that Anthony and the other District C students had discovered on Launch Day.
Although the outcome of the program was a success, with the presentation and its solutions being well-received by York, the real success came in the form of what he’ll take with him as he continues his education and his path to a career.
District C, he notes, taught him valuable lessons that transcend the parameters of the specific problem on which he worked. Lessons like the value of persistence (following up) and focus (not falling off), as well as the value of constant communication with teammates, which helped forge a bond that transformed what Anthony describes as a fairly introverted collection of individuals into a confident, cohesive team that was able to excel at their public presentation.
Beyond that, Anthony describes how District C extracted him from his normal circle of contacts—and his comfort zone—and provided opportunities for him to meet, learn from, and network with people whose paths he never would have crossed.
“I would explain it like this. If you want to make it big in Hollywood, spend time around Leonardo DiCaprio,” Anthony says. “District C gave me the opportunity to meet and talk to people I wouldn’t have normally … people who taught me things I may not have learned otherwise, like the importance of including others and their perspectives, and why it’s important to ‘pay it forward.’”
“And we worked better together because we cared about each other.”
Read More About