November 27, 2017

Building an innovative school from scratch

The founder of Growth Public Schools shares his playbook for a successful school that reflects the diversity of his California community

Growth Public Schools opened its doors in Sacramento, California, this year. Photo courtesy of Growth Public Schools


This is part of an ongoing series highlighting innovative new schools recognized by the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, which supports educators and social entrepreneurs who are transforming public education. See the full list of schools that are receiving investments from the nonprofit totaling nearly $4 million.

Growth Public Schools started with a conversation with a group of families and educators. They sat down and started with some big questions: How do we create a school that is focused on a learner-centered paradigm for the 21st Century and beyond? What skills do our children need to be successful in the future? What is the purpose of education, and why do we have school? How do we push for equity of access for all children to receive a quality education in our public schools?

Through exploring these questions as a community, a transformational vision for education was born. As we talked to grandparents, community leaders, parents, and most importantly, the kids, a very clear trend emerged: schools need to change as we need to prepare our young people for a rapidly changing world.

As a parent of a 4 and 7 year old, my life’s work is personal. I am a first-generation college student, who had to overcome my experience in schools, instead of benefit from it. While designing the school, I witnessed the inequities and focus on compliance in an outdated model with my own children and the low-income children in my neighborhood in traditional schools.

I spent almost a decade as a teacher and leader reimagining high school while working at Summit Public Schools, which inspired the vision of an elementary school that would prepare a diverse group of students to be problem solvers, innovators, and changemakers–where learners would truly be at the center as they are the caring and creative change makers of tomorrow.

Our school focuses relentlessly on the learners. We deeply believe that each child is unique with super hero powers, an innate creativity, and curiosity that is waiting to be ignited. We built the school model with this belief in mind. We dream that our learners will leave our K-8 school poised to solve the intractable problems facing our community and world. We believe that all kids deserve this education, not just ones in affluent communities. What if we created a school where everyone believed that children would exceed our limiting expectations of them constantly? That is what we did.

The design focused on some key principles:

  • Innovation and creativity are the ethos of the school
  • Learner experiences need to be authentic, creative, open-minded, and rigorous
  • There is a focus on collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical analysis
  • Expression through the arts is critical
  • Learning emotional intelligence and important non-academic skills are critical
  • Adults act as mentors, advocates, and coaches

We have now been open for over three months. We have about 100 Kindergarten and first grade students who do amazing things each day in a learner-centered environment. We have 5, 6, and 7-year-old learners working in a mixed-age group setting. They track their own goals, work collaboratively through rigorous and authentic projects where they pitch their ideas for a project, and ultimately share their creation with the community.

We explicitly teach how to manage emotions, growth mindset, and students receive just right instruction, and work at their own pace in math and reading. We have caring teachers and families–including grandparents, aunts, and uncles pulling together for the kids to attend this school. Our community is diverse, representing the demographics of the city of Sacramento, which has been named as one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. We have big dreams for our kids and we know that our community members have tremendous assets that will continue to bring our vision and dream to life, but they are just as special as people in any normal community across the country. We believe that this can be done anywhere.

Our dream is that we show other communities that this type of school is not only possible, but necessary as we face the challenges of the future. We know that a public school that represents the demographics of the future can do extraordinary things, especially when you truly believe that children have unique super hero powers, hold them to high standards, love them and give them the support they need to be their best. We hope that the students of Growth Public Schools will show the world what they are capable of, and that transforming schools is not only about pushing on reimagining the traditional structure, but truly believing in the learners, as they are the ones that will be the changemakers of tomorrow.

David Richards

Founder and CEO of Growth Public Schools

David Richards is the Founder and CEO of Growth Public Schools, a K-8 school in Sacramento, California. For the last 20 years, he has been focused on reimagining education, especially for those who are most underserved.

His journey started in community college and continued while he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and a graduate student at Stanford University. His quest has been how to see the world through the eyes of those that are affected by systemic inequities, as that was his experience growing up, but he found a way to change his trajectory through education and grit. He has a unique ability to dream up creative ways to forge a path for change.

David spent most of his twenties exploring life in Latin America; London; Washington, D.C; and the Bay Area. His time as a basketball coach got him hooked, and then he worked as a tutor, teacher, special education consultant, curriculum writer, principal, and chief of schools. He had a short stint in banking and public relations before finding his true calling as an educator. Prior to founding Growth Public Schools, he worked as a teacher and school leader with Summit Public Schools. His time there was focused on reimagining the American public high school. Summit schools now serve as a national model for 21st century education.

When David is not thinking of creative ways to reform public education, you can find him hanging out with his wife and kids.