Empowering Students Through co.lab-oration

(Image credit: Leyden High School District 212)

In a time when educators are struggling to reconnect students to their studies and reignite the joy of learning, the Leyden High School District 212 outside Chicago has discovered the perfect blend of personalized learning and interdisciplinary teaching through their innovative freshmen co.lab. 

The Leyden co.lab Identify Unit allows all freshmen to participate in an interdisciplinary curriculum that connects English, biology, global studies, health, and digital literacy. 

Using a design thinking process helped propel the Leyden co.lab, says Superintendent Nick Polyak and Brian Mahoney, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, who also believe this project-based learning concept can inspire students and serve as a model for other districts.

co.lab — A Paragon of Connection 


(Image credit: Leyden High School District 212)

The Leyden co.lab helps students make their education dynamic while also connecting their studies to themes such as identity, community, and wellness.

“This process took several years of planning and investment,” says Polyak.”We allowed this amazing team of teachers to dream big, visit other programs around the country, and build something unique to our students and our community. When the hard work is being done at the grassroots level, it's easy to provide the funding and the support necessary to help them be successful.” 

Drawing from personal experiences and community involvement are key, but tech also helps facilitate the program. 

“When you walk into the co.lab classrooms, you will see wall-mounted video monitors with group seating. Any student can plug their chromebook in and share the screen with the group,” says Polyak, whose district has enjoyed 1:1 Chromebook use since 2012. “The technology and the furniture are intended to drive collaboration, public speaking, creativity, etc. During Covid, like every other school district in the country, we saw higher rates of failure. However, even during remote learning, the failure rates in co.lab were incredibly small. That community feeling and deliberate empowerment shone through in student success rates during that difficult time.”

Sharing their success created a lasting impact on students and their families. An exhibition is the culmination of the work learners have participated in throughout the year. Attendees can hear poetry, watch animated videos, and learn how a student’s family recipe can provide nutritional value for the human body. Sharing these student “artifacts” is a core tenet of the co.lab interdisciplinary education. 

“Our teachers and administrators spent countless hours brainstorming, researching, and conducting site visits to develop a program that brings several disciplines together in a unique way to build community, give students a purpose, and also provide significant academic outcomes for our students,” says Mahoney. “Providing the best project-based learning opportunities to our students in line with the curriculum is both an exercise in creativity and research.”


(Image credit: Leyden High School District 212)

Support Starts at the Top 

“At Leyden, we have a district commitment to develop confident problem-solvers by providing students relevant and authentic experiences,” says Mahoney. “We let this commitment drive the vision of co.lab. The interdisciplinary nature of this program, along with the field trips and project-based learning, allows our co.lab teachers the ability to ‘check the boxes’ of the required content and standards while also extending that learning with real-world examples and experiences.”  

A supportive administration is key to pulling off such an impressive endeavor. At Leyden, co.lab teachers are provided substitutes to free up their schedule for full-day team meetings and common planning time.

“Leyden has a Board of Education and a school community that embraces and celebrates innovation and experimentation,” says Polyak. “We have clearly seen higher levels of personal confidence, community connection, public speaking and more. At the same time, our co.lab students have continually performed as well or better than their peers on state and national assessments. That program analysis has helped sustain and support this program.”

Results as Impressive as the Students 

Not only are students making their mark in the classroom, but Leyden is often contacted by community agencies—park district, township office, etc.—with reports of students taking positive action in the community. When asked about their motivation, they cite their time at the co.lab. 

“co.lab allows our students to interact with their community and tie their education to the towns they live in,” says Polyak. “They are not only learning their core academic competencies, but they are also understanding how they fit in their world and how to help give back.”

The end goal for an educator is to send students on to the next level as best prepared as possible for what life might bring.

“Our co.lab teachers are often approached by their colleagues who have former co.lab students,” says Mahoney. “A common refrain is ‘I knew they were a co.lab student because they were so prepared for… (fill in the blank).’ That is the dream for every teacher.”

How to Create a co.lab at Your School 

  1. Assemble the Team. Find a well-rounded group of teachers and a supportive administrator not afraid of hard work. 
  2. Write your Mission, Vision, and Standards. Use design thinking and resources such as NGSS, Common Core, and NHES. 
  3. Gain Support from Administration and Community. Create a presentation and pitch to your Board of Education. 
  4. Develop the Curriculum. Brainstorm, use outside resources such as Buck Institute for PD and ABCD framework, and team review instructional outcomes. 
  5. Develop a Schedule and Committees. Divide time blocks aligning with class sessions, consider committees for roles such as resource, scheduling, secretary, agenda master, liaison, eagle time, and recruitment. 
  6. Recruit Students. Connect with prospective participants and their parents. 
  7. Launch the Program. Reflect, revise, and be flexible and ready to make tweaks along the way. 

Sascha Zuger

Sascha has nearly two decades of experience as a freelance journalist writing for national magazines, including The Washington Post, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and others. She writes about education, travel and culinary topics.