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Case Study: Using the power of WordPress to help redesign the American high school

Matt Owens, a partner at creative studio Athletics, takes us inside education, innovation, and community with XQ Institute.

XQ Institute is the nation’s leading organization dedicated to rethinking the high school experience so that every student graduates ready to succeed in life. Established in 2015, XQ: The Super School Project started as a national initiative to inspire teams of educators, students, and community leaders to create and implement new plans for high schools.

Over the last six years, XQ has developed a versatile School Redesign Tool as well as many events, bus tours, and television broadcasts designed to bring students, educators, civic leaders, and families together. The one-hour primetime special Graduate Together 2020 aired in May of 2020 to honor the graduating class of 2020 who were unable to have in-person graduations due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In the fall of 2020, XQ launched Rethink Together, a content and community platform dedicated to helping high school students, educators, and families share ideas and find resources.

Supporting high school transformation through digital transformation

The Coronavirus pandemic has required most American schools to move to remote learning and has introduced a variety of unanticipated challenges. For XQ, their work with high schools, students, and administrators has historically been in-person and hands-on. Over the last year and a half, XQ has worked with Athletics to develop a holistic digital transformation of their mission and brand in an effort to support and expand their mission to rethink high school. For XQ, digital transformation has been about developing tools, processes, and experiences that bring together the best solutions, both physical and digital, to solve real problems and to foster meaningful change at the local and national levels.

Remote work and hybrid learning are now the new normal. Students, educators, administrators, and civic leaders continue to iterate and improve their processes and digital toolsets while also planning for a return to in-person classes some time in the future. What the last year has taught all of us is that remote education is not going away and that the ability to establish and sustain hybrid curriculum models will be central to high school education for years to come. Defining the future of high school education while we are all remote requires new ways of thinking and engaging, and XQ understands that these challenges require dialogue and collaboration. Hence the creation of Rethink Together. We are all in this together.

XQ’s multisite ecosystem is designed to support its strategy and mission

As XQ and Athletics worked together to develop a cohesive digital transformation strategy, we had to look at XQ’s larger mission and goals to ensure that what we were building supported their larger objectives and day-to-day realities. At the heart of what XQ does are content, amplification, and resources. XQ’s content includes data, school stories, articles, and multimedia that help schools find answers, gain insights, and build knowledge. XQ’s amplification work includes activations and events, both virtual and live, along with online discussions, groups, competitions, and profiles that build community and foster ongoing dialogue and engagement. XQ’s resources include XQ In A Box and other design and school improvement materials that help communities create their own transformative high school designs.

Using the best of contemporary web design to speak to diverse audiences

The brand, design and user experience of XQ’s site ecosystems have been created to celebrate the youthfulness and immediacy of the American high school experience while also reinforcing the rigor, data, and processes that high school transformation demands. XQ operates at the intersection of many audiences: students, parents, educators, policy makers, and civic leaders. As a result, XQ’s broad and diverse users require an overall design approach that has the flexibility and modularity to communicate in many ways and at the right time in a user’s journey.

The core principles that drive XQ’s visual design are clarity, urgency, and optimism. Clarity is expressed through a larger system that provides consistent ways of treating a wide variety of content. Urgency takes the form of bold uses of messaging, typography, and video that are designed to create impact and to draw audiences in. Optimism is reflected through the use of vibrant color and animated photo-illustration, combined with moments that are large and visual, working alongside more functional modules to keep visitors engaged.

For XQ, all of its sites leverage the best and most contemporary approaches to design for the modern responsive web in service of its mission, message, and audiences. Students have the same level of engagement with XQ sites on their smartphones as a policy maker or educator has on their desktop computer or iPad. XQ’s site experiences combine a lifestyle brand feeling that students intuitively understand with a sophistication and depth that educational information requires. It is this ability to strike the right balance through design that allows XQ to speak an inclusive and bold language. XQ is about real life, real people, and real change, and the goal of its flexible and bold design system is to include everyone as part of the larger XQ journey to transform American high schools.

It is this unique ability to strike the right balance through design that allows XQ to speak an inclusive and bold language.

Why WordPress?

XQ has many initiatives, data-driven products, discussions, and resources that all need to be supported by small teams focused on developing the most useful solutions possible. To this end, XQ required a technology platform that allowed for the flexibility to launch future products and services while also giving internal non-technical teams the ability to publish content and maintain their high school redesign curriculum. Athletics developed a WordPress Multisite infrastructure enabling XQ to manage a variety of content and products within a single ecosystem. Over the last 17 years, WordPress has evolved from a blogging platform to an enterprise technology that supports 60 million websites, including 39% of the top 10 million websites as of January 2021. For XQ, WordPress provides the largest and most flexible feature set, plugins, and integrations of any content management system on the market, while also providing content management tools using Gutenberg and modular content blocks that permit internal staff to build and maintain rich multimedia content on their own.

UsingWordPress Multisite allows XQ to separate and maintain different platforms and products easily while also providing one content management dashboard to move seamlessly between them. The multisite approach also facilitates more experimentation with new features and plugins. The new architecture allows for one platform or product to utilize a plugin or feature without bumping into something else. This makes for a cleaner architecture and allows for more flexibility as new content and engagement priorities are established. With this architecture, some of XQ’s products utilize a static React frontend, while others are built using the traditional WordPress PHP templating.

WordPress is very human-centered, making it easy for editorial staff to maintain content. The ability for XQ’s team to manage the content on several products and platforms without the need of a technologist is not only liberating but is a necessity as XQ learns more about what students, educators, and leaders find useful.

The ease with which content can be published for non-technical staff is due to a powerful backend infrastructure that Athletics developed, combining many WordPress-optimized technologies. To support the WordPress multisite solution at the scale of XQ’s platforms, Athletics worked with WP Engine to establish an enterprise hosting solution that delivers the best possible performance, scalability, and security. Content performance review, assessment, and iteration are at the core of what XQ does, and it demands refinement on a daily basis. XQ’s WordPress Multisite ecosystem is a living project that gives XQ’s team full control as the site grows and evolves with the aspirations, challenges, and ideas that make American high school redesign so vital.

Using WordPress and React technologies: ease, performance, versatility

XQ’s corporate site, xqsuperschool.org serves as the primary destination to learn about what XQ does and is a jumping off point to access its many initiatives and platforms. Combining WordPress with React to create a headless CMS is the unique solution Athletics developed. 

WordPress is open source and allows XQ personnel to work in a CMS that feels familiar, easy, and flexible. Athletics was able to customize the WordPress CMS experience to the needs of the XQ editorial team, providing a combination of custom fields, modular content areas, and Gutenburg blocks. As XQ evolves and expands the features and functionality of xqsuperschool.org, XQ has the best of both worlds: the ease of use of WordPress as a CMS, and the front end performance of React.

Furthermore, the modular content blocks in WordPress allow each XQ school to highlight the distinctive background, design features, people, student demographics, stories, and news on the XQ Schools platform in the form of a singular responsive page. A combination of rich content and user experience are designed to bring information to life so that the energy and emotion of each school shines through. Check out Crosstown High in Memphis, Da Vinci RISE High in Los Angeles, and Latitude High School in Oakland to see this versatility in action.

Using BuddyBoss to build a social network dedicated to high school transformation

In tandem with XQ’s launch of the Graduate Together 2020 live broadcast last year, XQ wanted to provide their audiences with their own platform to connect with others on a national level and to provide an easy way to foster discussions and dialogue across a wide range of topics relevant to the challenges high schools are facing. This platform is Rethink Together.

After a great deal of research and evaluation, XQ and Athletics decided on the BuddyBoss platform and theme as the foundation for Rethink Together. BuddyBoss is built on BuddyPress and provides a complete solution that includes a plugin and a fully optimized theme. The reason BuddyBoss makes the most sense for XQ is because of its powerful feature set, including social groups, forums, Zoom integration, private and group messaging, and much more.

Using LearnDash and BadgeOS to create courses and competitions

LearnDash is one of WordPress’ leading learning management systems (LMS) used by companies, universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating online courses. XQ selected LearnDash because it is the only LMS that provided a seamless integration with BuddyBoss and BadgeOS. These combined features allow XQ to create courses (called Learning Experiences) that let users of Rethink Together participate in Experiences to earn badges. To add another layer of functionality, LearnDash’s integration with the Elementor plugin gives XQ’s editorial staff the ability to build out custom learnings, add video, and create additional questionnaires within each course — without the need for any custom development. Currently XQ have developed learnings to help students manage Teen Stress, and an Experience on Becoming a More Equitable Educator in Mindsets and Practices

For XQ, Rethink Together’s Learning Experiences will evolve as they begin to evaluate feedback and performance using LearnDash ProPanel along with WP Fusion integrated with Salesforce. For XQ and Athletics, creating Rethink Together’s Learning Experiences has been a true collaboration between content, technology, and audience feedback to learn what students and educators find valuable and helpful while optimizing internal processes to make Learning Experiences better. 

Using the Gutenberg block editor to go “beyond the blog”

As High School educators, administrators, and students continue to navigate our new normal, they continually seek out the most up to date information that can help them make more informed decisions. Between local, state, and national data and information, it can be difficult to easily find educational resources online — and it’s especially hard to find information that is easy to understand, current, shareable, and engaging for students, educators, and civic leaders.

To solve some of these content challenges, XQ developed the Read and Watch channels for Rethink Together. Inspired by XQ CCO & Board Member Marc Ecko’s work developing Complex, XQ wanted to create an editorial platform that went beyond the blog format to be more of a lifestyle magazine for students and educators.

Gutenberg is a game changer for online publishing.

To provide a richer editorial experience, Athletics, along with development collaborator XWP, built out Rethink Together’s editorial platform using WordPress’ new Gutenburg block editor. Gutenberg was designed specifically for multimedia-heavy layouts. The wide range of default blocks included with Gutenberg can accommodate almost any kind of content. Gutenberg was developed on GitHub employing the WordPress REST API, JavaScript, and React so it uses the latest technologies available to make publishing easy. An added benefit is that there is more parity between what the CMS looks like and the final site experience. From features about Student Wellness to video content on Educational Equity, XQ has used their new editorial platform to define new ways of writing content while also accommodating legacy article types. For XQ, Athletics, and XWP, we feel that Gutenberg is a game changer for online publishing and are excited to continue to refine Rethink Together’s Read and Watch sections to be rich, useful, and engaging.

Digital Transformation is a perpetual work in progress and it takes vision, in-depth partnership and ongoing iteration to get to the right answers

2020 was a year like no other and the ramifications of the COVID 19 pandemic have forever changed the way we think about work, family, education, community, and our world at large. As our current “new normal” continues to evolve, and as our political and cultural climate continues to shift, our collective educational, intellectual, and social aspirations remain unwavering — our commitment to education and community is the foundation of our future.

Of all of the things our team learned through XQ’s digital transformation, the most important is that you must have trust. Rethinking the High School experience so that every student graduates ready to succeed in life requires a trust in big ideas and small gestures. A trust in people and purpose. A trust that complex challenges can have simpler solutions, and a trust that every student will receive the physical and emotional support and encouragement to be their best.

The XQ Team and Athletics, along with XWP and others, put a huge amount of trust in each other to build a digital platform focusing on content, curriculum, and community to help everyone committed to American High School transformation to move forward together. There is still much to do and many more challenges to solve as XQ continues to support and facilitate Rethinking High School in new and exciting ways. Let’s Rethink High School Together. This is just the beginning.

“Matt and his team at Athletics are truly best in class when it comes to designing for a digital-first approach. The art is deeper than what appears in the bits and bytes. They approach our work as real thought partners, with deep listening, empathy, and a love of the challenge. This fosters a shorthand and trust that is so rare in the market. That is the Athletics way—every insight is valued. They are seamless partners who stretch to help XQ realize our ever increasing ambitions of reaching larger audiences to create entry points for all people to be able get into the work of rethinking high school throughout America. ”
Marc Eckō, Managing Director/Chief Strategy & Creative Officer, XQ


Matt Owens is a guest contributor to automattic.design. He’s a founding partner and creative project lead at Athletics.


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By Matt Owens