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Steve Jobs' widow will spend $50 million on revamping US high school education

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Gus Ruelas

(Read caption) Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and chair of Emerson Collective and widow of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, along with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corporation, takes part in a panel discussion titled 'Immigration Strategy for the Borderless Economy' at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills.

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Steve Jobs may have been criticized for his apparent lack of public giving, but that certainly won’t be the case for his widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. The business executive is pouring $50 million into a project that aims to modernize high school.

Ms. Powell Jobs and her coalition of educators and designers are now accepting proposals from parents, teachers, business leaders, and even students themselves to come up with innovative ideas for XQ: The Super School Project. The goal of the project is to inspire fresh ways of approaching education and college preparation, and ultimately to inculcate these ideas into five to 10 real schools.

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“The Super School Project is an open call to reimagine and design the next American high school,” the organization’s website says. “In towns and cities far and wide, teams will unite and take on this important work of our time: rethinking and building schools that deeply prepare our students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life.”

Prospective applicants are challenged to think about the culture of their schools, the potential network of partnerships, methods of teaching, and ways to prepare students for not only life after high school but also for the dynamic 21st-century job market. And of course, college preparation is vital. According to the primers posted on its website, the Super School Project understands post-secondary education as absolutely necessary for success.  

“The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago,” Powell Jobs tells The New York Times. “Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We’ve seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we’re saying, ‘Start from scratch.’ ”

The project will be funded by the Emerson Collective, another organization founded by Jobs that finances her several philanthropic ventures, including College Track, a program for low-income students to enroll and succeed at college.

For the Super School team of advisers, Powell Jobs has recruited industry veteran Michelle Cahill, former Apple consultant Keith Yamashita, and Russlynn H. Ali, who was the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education under President Obama. Cellist Yo Yo Ma is also a collaborator. [Editor's note: Michelle Cahill's name has been corrected.]

Though Powell Jobs said she’s dedicated to make the new Super Schools public, it’s not a guarantee that the schools will be charter schools. Given her background in advocacy for equal education opportunities, though, the project is conscious of matters of accessibility.

“The education system is still disproportionately under-serving black and Latino students, as well as young people of all races who live in poverty,” the XQ website says. “This is why we need public schools to rise to the occasion.”

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According to Pew Research, the high school dropout rate among black and Hispanic students has been decreasing, reaching a record low in 2013. However, as more minority students are enrolling in college, there’s a lag when it comes to the numbers of those who actually attain bachelor’s degrees. In 2012, blacks and Hispanics made up 30 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled in college, but their slightly older peers comprise only 18 percent of degree-holders.

As it turns out, the Jobs have a history of generous but anonymous charity-giving. For instance, Emerson Collective is technically an LLC, like a small business, so it has the ability to give donations and grants without disclosing as a tax-exempt nonprofit would. When The New York Times published a column criticizing Jobs for his lack of public giving, U2’s lead singer Bono came forward and said Apple was the largest contributor in his campaign to fight AIDS in Africa.