A Look into the Future (School)

Preparing students for the real world? Trish Flanagan, the founder of a progressive new high school, knows how


MOST OF US PROBABLY HAD a similar high school experience in that we clocked about six hours of desk time each day while a textbook-wielding teacher lectured at the front of the room. But what if it had been different? What if we’d been given the chance to personalize our high school curricula based on our own interests and aspirations?

Picture this: a 16-year old entering 10th grade. (We’ll call her “Sophia.”) When she was a little girl, Sophia loved growing vegetables in a garden with her grandmother, an experience that had Sophia daydreaming of a career in landscape design. When she’s asked to help create her curriculum, she zeroes in on her dream.

Soon, a landscape company creating an outdoor space for the local museum takes Sophia on as an intern. In her biology class, she works on a project that details each species that will become a part of the museum space’s ecosystem. In her Advanced Spreadsheet applications class, she tackles a budget that will help her calculate the total cost of purchasing the plants and flowers needed for the museum landscape, while the bulk of her work in her geometry class is figuring out how to explain the landscape design according to the principles of plane geometry. Next semester, she’ll extend her internship, in part so that she can apply it to her upcoming Computer Applications class, where she’ll create a computer-based model of the landscaped area. If that experience doesn’t sound much like your own … Well, that’s because it’s not.

“We all grew up in an environment where the narrative was, If you play the game of school and you go to college, then there will be a great job waiting for you at the end of it,” says Trish Flanagan, the founder and superintendent of a soon-to-open charter school, the Future School of Fort Smith. “Well, that’s no longer true for kids today. They’ve got to figure out how to navigate a different kind of job market, how to create niches for themselves, how to be adaptable, how to network, how to market themselves and how to put together a portfolio that shows what they can do. And these are all the things they’ll learn at the Future School.”

Trish’s own professional trajectory is a study in building a bridge between education and entrepreneurship. As an educator, she’s journeyed far off the beaten path: to Limerick, Ireland, where she led vocational training for itinerant teens; to Honduras, where she led a K-12 school; to Brownsville, Texas, where she taught high school on the United States-Mexican border; and to Cambodia and Sri Lanka, where she conducted research as part of a six-month-long Clinton Fellowship. More recently, after graduating from the Clinton School of Public Service, she co-founded Noble Impact, a Little Rock-based program that engages students through public service and entrepreneurship.

And for the past two years, she’s dedicated herself to getting the Future School up and running.

“At the Future School, we’re basically taking all the things that we know make people successful,” Flanagan says, “all these real-world skills that you typically don’t learn in school and incorporating them into the student experience.” Intrigued, we sat down with Trish to find out more about the Future School’s future, and about its leader’s past.

How did you become interested in tinkering with the public education system?

I tie it back to being a really little kid with my parents who would take us with them while they volunteered in some rough areas in St. Louis. That allowed me to develop relationships, to make friends and see people that I wouldn’t have seen in my own neighborhood. And I wondered why they had a different life than mine. So that instilled that question in my mind. Then from all of my teaching experiences, I realized people are born into systems and find themselves in situations where a lot of things feel out of their control, which led me wondering how I could boil it down and find out what is in their control and what is in a school’s control. What can be tweaked?

So what is it about the Future School that’s being tweaked, or will be different than how a traditional public high school operates?

Our goal is to educate kids in a way that enables them to problem-solve in the real world. And there are a few ways we’re going to go about that. For one thing, each of our instructors will be advising 15 to 20 students from their first day at the Future School until they graduate. For another thing, each student will be required to complete real-world internships. So each student will graduate with an actual portfolio of real-world work skills and experiences. Also, students will work with their advisers, their parents and with mentors in the community to design their learning plan based on their own interests, learning style and goals.

If you had been a student at the Future School, how would you go about designing your personalized learning plan?

I love this question! I’d think about a series of internships where in one semester I might learn how automobiles operate so I could learn how to make cars more eco-friendly. The next semester I might want to work with a minister of a church to see how they start a congregation and lead a community of people in serving others. Then I’d want to find the most obscure and eccentric artist in town and create an encyclopedia of his or her daily life or a how-to guide on becoming an artist.

So far, what’s been the biggest hurdle to getting the Future School up and running?


Really? I imagined kids and their parents would be clamoring to apply.

Well, they don’t know what it is yet. We’re the first charter in the area, so people think you have to pay, or they think it’s a private school or that there are restrictions. That’s why our kids right now that have signed up—we tell them all the time they are pioneers.

Initially, we’ll launch with a 10th-grade class, adding an additional class each year up to 12th grade. And it’s an open-enrollment charter school, which basically means the available slots are first-come, first-served and that it doesn’t matter what a student’s grade-point average is or which school district he or she is coming from. Right now, about 70 kids have applied with about 35 now formally enrolled. In total, there are 150 slots for the inaugural 10th-grade class.

What all will your role as superintendent of the school involve?

I’ll be the external face of the school. So I’ll be working a lot with helping kids secure internships. I’ll be working to build community partnerships and working with the State Board of Education because one other thing that’s very unique that we’re doing is we’re doing what charters were meant to do from the beginning, which was to be a lab for the larger schools, and that’s why we’ve worked so hard to develop good relationships with all the educational institutions in the area.

What has been the most satisfying part of the process for you so far?

Seeing our vision happen with our kids. The group of students that we have now we’re seeing kids transform before our eyes. We have a good many activities this summer. For example, each week we hold a ‘create-a-thon’ event. Sometimes it’s a structured event; other times it’s just a fun get-together, like today we’ll be meeting at a public pool for a pool and pizza party. One student came to our first event, and she looked terrified, and she was holding onto her mom’s arm, just really clinging to her. But by the end of the event, she was the first one in line to talk to me and ask me if she could start an animation club, telling me she already knew exactly what software she wanted to use and that she wanted to pursue a career in animation.

Also, I love the diversity of our kids. They come from all different cultural backgrounds, different ethnicities, different family structures and different parts of town. And they’re just so genuinely kind and excited about this opportunity.

Why do you think the Future School is a good fit for Fort Smith, specifically?

Need is everywhere; money is everywhere; good intentions are everywhere, but cross-community collaboration is rare. Fort Smith is the right place because we are a community of people from different neighborhoods, cultures and income levels coming together for the common purpose of raising a village of 21st-century leaders emboldened to create more compassion and innovation in their world.