Milwaukee Film Festival 2024 Selection “The First Class” Documents the Success of a Project-Based Learning High School in Memphis

Crosstown High School Class of 2022

Nine years ago, Memphis parent Ginger Spickler invited teachers, parents, students, and other community members to design a new high school collectively. Spickler saw an advertisement for the XQ Super School Challenge, a competition to design the high school of the future. Spickler’s group had 69 people and together they spoke with over 200 students about what a better school could be like. It was discovered that the students preferred project-based learning. After three years of designing the school, the public charter school Crosstown High School doors officially opened in 2018.

The documentary “The First Class” directed by Lee Hirsch follows the first class of Crosstown High School from their Freshman year to graduation to show the power of what can happen when a community comes together to do better for its children. The First Class screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival 2024.

The first class of Crosstown High School.
The first class of Crosstown High School. (Picture by The First Class documentary)

150 students were selected through a lottery system to be a part of the first class of Crosstown High School. According to the documentary’s site, Crosstown High School serves around 480 students in grades 9-12.

The high school sits inside the Crosstown Concourse which is a ten-story, one-million-square-foot landmark redeveloped with more than 40 businesses, nonprofits, health facilities, and more.

A New Way of Learning

In a traditional school setting, a student is required to sit at a desk, not talk, and be taught by a teacher through lecturing. Crosstown High School wanted to break the norms of school with its four pillars: project-based, competency-based, relationship-driven, and diverse by design.

The First Class walks us through both sides of this way of learning; the good and the bad. It was not only the students first time experiencing project-based learning but it was the staff’s first time teaching it. At one point in the documentary, the students expressed their frustrations with their teachers not teaching them. Instead, the teachers encouraged their students to do self-research and use critical thinking. Eventually, the students and the teachers found their rhythm.

In the spring semester of 2020, 10th graders conducted a semester-long exploration of dystopian societies, with the final project being to design their own dystopias. The students covered waste management, artificial intelligence, extra-terrestrial impact, and viral outbreaks. This project is just one of many the students work on throughout their years at Crosstown High School.

The documentary also shows the switch the school had to make during the pandemic, which meant virtual learning. Eventually, by year three, the students were back in the classrooms producing projects and learning about the world in a variety of ways.

Success Rates

Crosstown High School class of 2022 had the highest attendance rate in Memphis during their Freshman year. By graduation, 95% of the class graduated on time and 84% of the class planned to attend college.

In total, the class of 2022 had more than $10 million in scholarships.

To watch Carvd N Stone’s 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival interviews click here.

Nyesha Stone founded Carvd N Stone in 2017 to cover positive news while attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Stone has a B.A. in Journalism. She has raised over $30,000 to award grants and scholarships. She has also been featured in ESSENCE and worked with the American Black Film Festival.

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