Design Thinking

As the school year draws to an end, the students and staff of the brand-new Design39Campus reflect on the school’s first year in operation. With the inspiring mission to change the way we do school Design39Campus has followed input from local educators, parents, and students to create a new set of guidelines to encourage academic exploration and achievement. After years of planning, the school opened in September to serve 840 students in preschool through sixth grade, with seventh grade to be added for the next school year. We chat with Principal Sonya Wrisley to discover how Design39Campus is transforming the way students learn in 92127.

design39_sonya_wQ&A with Principal Sonya Wrisley

What is your role at Design39Campus? How and when did you join the Design39Campus team?
I am the principal at Design39Campus (D39C). I was appointed by our superintendent in April 2012. I left my assignment as principal of Oak Valley Middle School in June 2012 and worked at the district office for the 2012-13 school year. I then moved over to an empty classroom at Del Norte High School with a team of five teachers and my administrative assistant for the 2013-14 school year.

What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?
I make sure our campus runs smoothly and that everyone is following our guiding principles. I also meet with parents on a regular basis. Particularly with The Collaborative, our parent group that is a blend of foundation and PTA. I also give tours to educator groups and our parents – we have had over 80 tours to date. Finally, I plan staff development for our staff to further our vision.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Is there anything that might surprise people to learn about you?
I have been a principal in the Poway Unified School District (PUSD) for 22 years. I started in 1993 as the principal of Canyon View Elementary, moved to Mesa Verde Middle School in 1998, opened up Oak Valley Middle School in 2005, and now I’m at D39C.

This may not be a surprise: I have wanted to be an educator since I was four years old and have never veered from that goal.

What is the mission of Design39Campus? What makes the school stand out?
Rather than a mission, we have eight guiding principles that drive our work: Design Thinking, Inquiry, Collaboration and Communication, Personalization, Growth Mindset, Technology, Creative Confidence, and Connect Globally. We make sure that all we do each day is filtered through these principles.

These guiding principles make our school stand out in that our students are in complete charge of their learning. Students are able to progress at their own rate – and they are learning much faster than we had anticipated. Students are always encouraged to show their learning in a wide variety of ways that make sense to them. Our students are fascinated with learning and are eager to come to campus each day to learn.


Can you tell me a little about the history of Design39Campus and the inspiration behind it?
Five years ago our superintendent, Dr. John Collins, put out the challenge to “change the way we do school.” He wanted us to really think about what school is and what it can be. When I was given the chance to open Design39Campus I was given the permission to really try things in a different way. By working with John and his cabinet I was able to reimagine what a school might be. Then, working with teachers and parents, we began using design thinking to develop what has since become Design39Campus.

Who were some of the key players in creating Design39Campus?
Dr. John Collins was, and continues to be, a key player in creating D39C. Additionally, my initial team of five teachers who were released from the classroom for the 2013-14 school year were Kyle Asmus, Tom Downs, Kelly Eveleth, Bret Fitzpatrick, and Megan Power. My administrative assistant Karen Laing was also part of this design team.

What ages does Design39Campus serve? Can you describe the grade level structure?
We have preschool for four-year-olds and we go up to the sixth grade this year. Next year we will be TK-7 and the following year will be TK-8.

Our grade level structures are:
TK/K/1: Ten classes divided into two buildings with five teachers and about 125 students in each building.
2/3: Nine classes, with five in one building and four in the other.
4/5/6: Twelve classes, six in each building.

We are structured in these grade spans to allow students the ability to progress at their own rate of learning and to access the appropriate level of learning.

Please tell us more about The Collaborative. Who is involved?
Our Collaborative was developed through a Design Thinking workshop attended by over 80 parents. The main theme that was expressed was the desire for one parent organization rather than two separate organizations. After many months of diligent planning we now have our Collaborative, which serves roles traditionally served by PTAs and Foundations.

What is Design Thinking? Design thinking is a creative, solution-oriented method of approaching problems and questions. The approach encourages brainstorming and the concept is gaining popularity in the field of education, where it’s used to redesign school programs and encourage students to become creative critical thinkers.

How does Design39Campus prepare students for their future academically?
First, we focus entirely on Common Core standards for math and English language arts and Next Generation Science standards. We report students’ progress based on these standards. By allowing our students to progress at their own rate we are finding students are far exceeding what we had expected. Our challenge is staying ahead of the students in our planning of learning experiences. As a public school in PUSD, we are held to the same standard as all of our schools in preparing our students academically.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role at Design39Campus? The most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect is to see our students so excited, engaged, and fascinated with learning every day! Each time I walk through classrooms on my own or with a tour, our students are so excited to share what they are doing and learning. I am thrilled that our students are so happy.

The most challenging aspect is helping people understand what Design39Campus is all about. Since we do things in such a different way we have opened up tours for our current parents so that they can understand what their students are describing to them when they come home. This is not a school like we all attended, so we need to help people understand what we are doing and why it is working so well for students.


How do students get along with the teachers at Design39Campus?
I think the great thing about PUSD is that all of our teachers have great relationships with students, no matter which school we are at. The biggest difference for D39C is that Learning Experience Designers (teachers) have learned to become more of facilitators for the students. Our LEDs know what standards need to be covered by the students, so they have the job of finding exciting ways for the students to learn those standards. Then they allow the students to have choices in how they learn.

What are some highlights of students’ time at this school?
We have many flexible learning spaces at D39C: traditional classrooms, double classrooms, makeries, and collaboratories. With these various spaces, students are able to move around to work where they need. For example they can work on their laptops or tablets in classrooms, work with groups of students in collaboratories, or work in makeries when they need to create or design something.

Are there any memorable moments you’d like to share?
Every day is memorable, walking through classrooms to see students so excited about what they are learning.

What are some unique classes and opportunities that students can enjoy?
All of our students have the opportunity to take Deep Dive and Explorations classes. These classes are based on our students’ passions and interests. They suggest ideas for things they would like to learn, and if enough other students also want to learn about the same thing, a class is born. Examples of these classes are marine biology, line art, ceramics, community garden, mixed media arts, 3D animation, fashion design, Project Lead the Way, technology and engineering, furniture design, coding and programming, design thinking challenges, videography, news shows, and more. These classes are provided for all students, kindergarten through sixth grade.

What opportunities are there for community members to volunteer or otherwise become involved with the school?
We have a multitude of opportunities for volunteering in our classrooms! We have community members who have gone through the PUSD volunteer clearance process co-teaching classes on “finding your genius,” fashion design, 3D animation, and world languages. Additionally, we have had 15 facilitators from Intuit leading our 4/5/6 students in a design thinking process. We also welcome guest speakers and presenters at D39C.

Are there any other exciting news or updates about Design39Campus that you’d like the community to know about?
Recently in Atlanta I was proud to represent Design39Campus as we received the National School Board Association’s “20 to Watch” award. Here is an excerpt from the press release:

This year’s ‘20 to Watch’ honorees highlight the kind of exciting innovations that exist throughout America’s public schools. These teachers and administrators, with support from their school boards, share a vision for learning that will prepare students for future success,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA’s Executive Director. “These inspirational pioneers are having a positive impact on the districts they serve.” A common goal among honorees is their desire to embrace tools that help them engage each student in the joy of learning; willingness to mentor colleagues; and an understanding that lasting change requires a degree of risk-taking, said Ann Flynn, NSBA’s Director of Education Technology. “Their accomplishments serve as examples that can inform local, district, and state approaches to education technology decisions in the future.

After Atlanta I flew to Washington, D.C. to join D39C LEDs Stacey Lamb and Patrick Dela Cruz. Together we were participants in the Convergence Pioneer Bootcamp, focused on re-imagining education. Design39Campus was invited to join this bootcamp of 150 educators and foundations from around the United States. We had two days to “build a national community of pioneers committed to integrating the vision of their ongoing work and to working together to transform education.” It was exhilarating to be in the midst of so many other pioneers who are taking on this challenge of changing education for our students. Design39Campus is proud to be part of this exciting national project as we continue to provide fascinating learning experiences for all children.




Name: Design39Campus
Principal: Sonya Wrisley
Vice Principal: Kyle Kupper
Year Founded: 2014
Mascot: Students decided we should not have a mascot since we
are different and we can be whatever we want to be!


Sonya Wrisley

Name: Sonya Wrisley
Education: BA – Liberal Studies, focus on Education from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; MA – Educational Administration, Cal State San Bernardino
Interests: Family, camping, gardening, hiking
Favorite Things About Design39Campus: The students, families, and staff!


First Annual Carnival39 on May 16

On Saturday, May 16 from 3 to 7 p.m. volunteers will transform Design39Campus into a family-friendly carnival offering an impressive line-up of interactive games, rides, silent auction items, and musical entertainment. Dubbed Carnival39 and hosted by The D39C Collaborative, the event is free and open to the entire community.

Carnival39 attendees can satisfy their cravings with some of San Diego’s favorite gourmet food trucks, which will be serving up everything from mouthwatering fish tacos to freshly made organic salads. Adventurous participants will have a chance to race across the field in a human hamster ball or take a ride 30 feet in the air on the largest mobile zip line in the country. Attendees will have plenty of options to keep them entertained, whether it’s taking a relaxing ride on the trackless train or scaling the Rugged Warrior Obstacle Course. Or they might find a tempting reason to bid in the silent auction on one of the many themed baskets donated by classrooms or other enticing auction items – all with the convenience of bidding from their mobile device.

Activity wristbands and tickets are available for purchase before

and during the event. For more information please contact