"If people aren’t laughing at your dreams, you’re not dreaming big enough."
Those words are uttered by a young student at the outset of a promotional video for The Future Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to radically change the way we think about public schools. It may seem absurdly idealistic to try fixing our public schools by asking students to dream bigger, but The Future Project (and a recent Gallop Poll) sees hope and engagement as far more useful tools than "blaming teachers, imposing more rules, and injecting more money" into dysfunctional systems.
Founded in 2011 by Andrew Mangino and Kanya Balakrishna, the Future Project deploys what they call a "Dream Director" at a given school; the director then assembles students, teachers, and community members into a team with the goal of organizing a passion project. The idea is that by enabling students to devise and collaborate on an event or project that’s important to them—say, having D.C. high schoolers teach a creative writing class to first-through-third graders at a nearby elementary school, or enabling students to organize an assembly that celebrates weirdness to address the problems of bullying at a Manhattan high school—you teach them that they are capable of great things.
"When young people are not deeply deeply passionate about their education, nothing else is going to really work," says Mangino, who previously worked as a speechwriter for Joe Biden. "And so why don’t we all come together around finding ways to make students passionate and give them skills to fulfill their dreams? What’s education for if not that?"
The idea for the program grew in part out of Mangino’s experience mentoring a student in a D.C. public high school.
"I was walking around the hallway with him helping him write his college essay, and I asked him the question: What’s your passion? What gets you excited? I was just trying to come up with a question for his essay. And he said he had never been asked that question before. That was the big moment for me, where I sort of realized that if we had created policies to help people find their passions, he would have already found his passion and be unleashed."
It was a eye-opening moment for Mangino, in part because he enjoyed such a high level of engagement attending public high school in Northern New Jersey. As a senior member of his high school newspaper staff—which had a robust 120 members in a school with a student body of only 800—he saw what could happen when students unite in service of something they believe in:
"Near the end of our senior year, I got news one day that our principal had censored our newspaper, specifically an article about the sexual mores of suburban high school students. We ended up suing the school, and our school district. I was kind of a ridiculous experience (the ACLU got involved), but it was one of the most educational experiences of our life, it was igniting and exciting and it showed us that we could do anything."
That’s the lesson he and The Future Project aim to teach their students. Operating in New York, New Haven, and Washington, D.C., they now have more than 25 team-members and 1,000 student "fellows," organizing projects and reaching some 4,000 students overall. As they grow, they face a dual challenge: proving that a student’s sense of hope or engagement is the most critical factor in his or her success and asking what success means for 21st-century students.
"Is is success to be performing well academically? Is it successful to simply graduate from high school? Or is success the capacity of a young person in this day and age to define an audacious dream for themselves, however risky, however sort of personal to them, and then go out and be able to make it happen. Is success passing a standardized test, or the capacity to push yourself and your community forward? And so even though we’re measuring around the standard definition of success, we’re also looking at new ways of thinking about what really matters."