Sitting Down with Our Newest City Partner, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD)

The Aspen Challenge is thrilled to welcome San Diego as our newest partner city for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year. Known as a leader in sustainability and progress, San Diego is the ideal partner to align with to explore innovative solutions to key issues. We’re excited to watch as tomorrow’s leaders from San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) take this opportunity to think beyond boundaries and push the limits of their creativity not only to address these critical issues, but to make meaningful change and create a better future for their community. 

Each year the Aspen Challenge partners with two cities for a two-year, two-season time period. This will be San Diego’s first year, and for the second year we’ll return to the amazing city of Brooklyn. It goes without saying, these are two very special places, and we can’t wait to watch as youth leaders emerge and ignite change from coast to coast.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with SDUSD’s Project-Based Learning Resource Teacher, Christopher Millow, for a Q&A session focusing on real-world out-of-the-classroom learning, and how project-based programming like the Aspen Challenge aligns with the district’s values and goals.

Q: What inspired SDUSD to become a host city for the Aspen Challenge? 

A: We are the second largest school district in California, and the idea of taking intentional work to the main stage, and involving all our school sites, is exciting. Over the years we’ve encouraged student voice and supported civic engagement related to gun violence, the environment, and more. We have a Student Advisory Board and even a student board member on SDUSD’s  board of education (with a second seat created in 2022). Both keep student voice actively a part of decision-making for the district. The Aspen Challenge is a national program with other cities coming before us. It’s a well-oiled machine, and we look forward to taking the work to the main stage to amplify our students’ voices.

Q: Why does SDUSD value programs like the Aspen Challenge that inspire beyond the classroom? 

A: The Aspen Challenge focuses on student agency and what the community needs–in essence from the bottom up rather than top down. It gives opportunities for students to use their voice, think critically, and solve problems in their communities. Students are not only capable, but the best human beings to be identifying and solving our communities’ most pressing challenges. We want to clear the way so they can step into these spaces and share observations, ideas, and action plans that make the world a better place.

Q: In what ways does San Diego believe the Aspen Challenge aligns with its current values and goals?

A: Its learner-centered approach. Aspen Challenge programming improves classroom equity, and provides opportunity for civic engagement. The program falls within the Learner Profile for SDUSD of fostering Collaborative Communicators – solution-oriented collaborators who express their ideas freely.

Q: What critical issues does the city of San Diego face? 

A: We have had three focus groups with students to identify critical issues. Housing, gentrification, rent, home prices, homelessness, mental health, climate and environment, post secondary options, transportation infrastructure and immigration were topics discussed.

Q: What ideas or perspectives does SDUSD hope the Aspen Challenge will bring to its community? 

A: I think it will bring a certain energy that will excite students. Everyone is capable of being a leader, and youth have always had a voice. And, it will help to empower educators and adults to help facilitate student voices being heard in the classroom and in their communities. Solving our communities’ problems is the responsibility of all of us, but it is young people who bring innovation and creative thinking to their solutions.

Q: How does SDUSD envision the Aspen Challenge benefitting its young people and the community at large? 

A: It will connect students to local leaders in the community who are making a difference, which “ups the ante” in excitement. The Aspen Challenge will offer a new experience for youth centered on leadership, ideas, solutions, and problems they see and care about. The work inspired by the Aspen Challenge has potential impact beyond the San Diego community. It is a part of a legacy, and to be a part of this work is special. Our students seeing that someone chose them to do this work  is special.