Documentary filmmaker Jon Long settled into his airplane seat in the spring of 2018 with some “light” reading: a 30-plus page report by America Succeeds, an organization of business leaders that advocates for improvement in education. Long had been researching the topic for months.
But even though the report closely aligned with the mission of One Stone, a unique, Boise-based high school he planned to focus his latest project upon, page 25 came as a surprise.
“I’m reading this report on the plane on the way to Boise to the shoot at the last day of school and they single out One Stone as one of the best examples of learning in the 21st century,” Long recalls.
Feeling a jolt of excitement at this serendipitous discovery, he scanned the following paragraphs about One Stone’s unique structure and mission, to find that the report’s authors echoed what he’d discovered for himself during his many visits to the school: One Stone is the rare exception in a national public education landscape that in many instances remains deeply mired in outdated practices. It’s hard to imagine a school quite this student centered and unconventional thriving inside a traditional public school system. That needs to change, and soon.
Long knew he was on the right track.
Seeking the “secret sauce”
Months earlier, Long set out to make a film about exponential change for a multi-platform media company called The Earth Network. He’d done a wide range of projects over his 20-year career producing and directing films and television programs, but he was looking to tell a story that would have some social impact. Soon, his idea morphed from exploring exponential change to showcasing innovation in education.
“I’m not an expert in education,” said Long. “This is just my point of view, but systems where the kids are more involved in driving their own education, the design of the education, is what I wanted to focus on in the beginning. So I was going around the world asking kids this question: ‘Why do you believe you should have a seat at the table?’”
About a year and a half into his project, he heard about One Stone while shooting at ReSchool, a nonprofit organization working to launch an inspirational education system in Colorado. Long then planned a three-day film shoot in Boise, which turned into six days.
“After seeing what was happening at One Stone, we decided we wanted to try to make (the project) bigger, because it seemed like it was the only school we could find or had heard of where there was really a true structure in place where kids actually had decision-making power,” said Long. “Not just voice, but power.”
So he retooled his shooting schedule yet again, splitting his project into two parts: a documentary that takes a wider look at innovation in education, called "Skool: A Youth-Led Revolution," and another that would highlight One Stone and its mission to make students better leaders and the world a better place. That documentary, "Rise: Voice of a New Generation," will premiere for the first time Tuesday, April 2 at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise.
One Stone is also featured in "Skool," which is set to release in the next few weeks. Long intended them both to come out around the same time, hoping the films will be catalysts for discussion in communities around the country. But he felt that One Stone’s unique blend of student empowerment, supported by a scaffolding of supportive adult coaches and mentors, was worthy of a stand-alone documentary. The organization’s current board of directors, for example, is made up of more than a dozen students and just three adults. A student, never an adult, is elected to chair the board.
“From what I’ve seen, the ‘secret sauce’ is that their board truly gives kids voice,” said Long.
Two board members, Elise Malterre and Chloe French, have seen first hand how student voice has helped shape the direction of One Stone. Both will be part of One Stone’s first graduating class this spring.
“One Stone is not just student centered, it’s student driven,” said French, who admits she can sometimes feel frustrated when she just wants adults around her to offer specific instructions or solutions. “But it’s always, whenever you ask a question (you’re asked in return), ‘What do you think?’ So I’m definitely pushed to think more critically than I ever was before.”
Malterre has used her voice in a myriad of ways during her time at One Stone. In addition to serving on the board of directors, she is the managing director of Two Birds, a student-powered creative studio that leads design thinking workshops for organizations and produces professional branding for local, regional and international clientele. The role has given her experience in retaining student staff, writing proposals, creating invoices and learning how to prompt clients when they don’t pay their bills on time — a skill she jokingly refers to as the art of “awkward emails.” She also had a say in the editing process for "Rise," watching rough cuts of the film and providing Long with feedback and student perspective.
“So even in creating this documentary about student voice and student leadership, we had student voice and student leadership in creating it,” she said. “It’s like, it’s staying true to the message.”
As viewers of "Rise" will see, One Stone doesn’t look anything like a traditional high school.
The building is located just outside the heart of downtown Boise and inside is a collaborator’s paradise: open shared spaces, walls covered in whiteboard paint, and configurable tables, chairs and sofas. There is an industrial-grade kitchen, a workshop full of tools and machinery dubbed “The Foundry,” a fully-equipped music studio, and a floor-to-ceiling wall of bins teeming with craft supplies, essential for prototyping ideas. The space is intended to enhance and support design thinking — a creative problem-solving and innovation-discovery process developed at Stanford University’s d.school that grounds everything One Stone does.
A large, wall-mounted graphic on a nearby wall clearly illustrates the process: understand and empathize, define the problem, ideate, prototype and test (this is where the craft supplies and Foundry come in), implement, then evaluate and reflect. If the result doesn’t solve the initial problem, students begin the process again. Using design thinking, students have created and implemented more than 400 projects.
Overseeing it all is a team of coaches. Like the students, they are a diverse group of people who advise and mentor, but coaches also seek ideas and information alongside their students. They are well versed in each step of the design-thinking process and if students come to them looking for easy answers, coaches ask probing questions to help them come to their own conclusions, often steering them back to the principles of design thinking.
“These students, the reason they’re able to function so well, is because of the group that they have around them," said Long. "The coaches, the staff, the founders. That support system is something that’s not happening enough. At One Stone they’re really doing it. You’ll see that in the movie, how masterful these coaches are. Everybody is on the same playing field. That’s key at One Stone, the freedom they have to explore, take risks, try again.”
Sequoia Solmorales, a year three student, joined One Stone’s school the year Long began filming "Rise." Having spent a year at Timberline High School, he can see the difference between his current experience and a traditional high school, especially the many ways students are pushed to seek their own individual interests and incorporate them into learning on a daily basis.
“We can push ourselves as hard as we want,” said Solmorales, who will be part of One Stone’s first graduating class this spring. “We can also fall behind really easily if we’re not pushing ourselves.”
One Stone is designed to consistently support and encourage students so anyone who lags behind doesn’t stay there for long. Relationships between students, their peers and their coaches are built on a foundation of empathy and compassion for one another, and are constantly reinforced and strengthened. Peers check in with each other and hold themselves accountable. Coaches and students meet one-on-one and in small groups every week to discuss social and emotional well being as well as academic goals, college and career planning, and summer internship opportunities. Then they help connect students with resources in One Stone or the community at large, based on each student’s goals and aspirations.
“One Stone is rigorous, relevant and students leave here equipped with a toolkit for life,” said founder Teresa Poppen. “Our safe, supportive culture encourages us to experiment, test and learn from our mistakes. That's how we fail forward and grow as lifelong learners. We ask a lot of our students because we believe young people are capable of amazing things.”
Preparing for impact
While the One Stone model may not be ideal for every child or school district, students like French, Malterre and Solmorales believe many One Stone ideas and practices can be implemented elsewhere. Malterre, in particular, hopes that adults who watch the film will realize that students deserve to be heard, both in their schools and communities.
“A lot of the projects I’m doing are outside of One Stone, and I’m running into those roadblocks of people not valuing me or my opinions or my voice because I am so young,” she said. “So these sort of messages being put out into the world, and even to our legislators and our leaders out in the community, is a valuable message for anyone to hear.”
Sharing the school’s mission is one thing — showing how to replicate it is another. So One Stone is preparing for the impact the documentary could have locally and nationwide as the movie is shared with audiences across the country. Plans are underway for a student-led education summit in Boise this fall, according to Caitlyn Scales, head of strategy and development.
“One Stone is launching a movement called ‘Hands down, voices up!’ to take into the world with this movie, and the education summit will be part of that. We want people to see that this is possible and that the power of students should be seen in communities everywhere,” Scales said.
Megan Kittridge, design thinking coach and "Game Maker," said One Stone is "planning for increased engagement and sharing what works for our students, and we are excited about that opportunity. We are always building an army of good, for good, and this film is just one more way to help in that mission.”
For those students who are in the film, being a part of a documentary is somewhat surreal. But since much of One Stone’s mission entails exploring and pushing boundaries, they are accustomed to being in situations they never predicted or expected. Many of them are more surprised by how much change they see in themselves and their school.
‘It puts into perspective how amazing of a program it is,” Solmorales said. “Seeing that, and seeing yourself in it, is pretty humbling. Especially being a part of the first graduating class.”
Malterre agrees. “We’re here every day," he said. "It’s our norm. But when people from the community or the outside come in and think what we’re doing here is worth putting out to the world, then it’s like, whoa. I’m a part of something really special.”
Having found the “secret sauce” at One Stone, Long is optimistic that its uniqueness is not exclusive. Like the students he interviewed for his film, he believes there is a lot that can be replicated elsewhere. Establishing a culture of empathy, for example, is a simple but powerful concept he believes could be implemented in almost any school culture. He cites One Stone’s
Friday tradition called ‘You Rock,’ where students and coaches choose two people to celebrate
each week through positive affirmations.
“They trace their name on a huge whiteboard, and every person writes something. That can be
a life changing thing for a kid, having that love all around you,” Long says. He found out just how
impactful that simple exercise could be after showing Rise to a focus group that included a high
school dropout. She explained that she left school due to anxiety, and said an experience like
‘You Rock’ would have changed the trajectory of her life during her high school years.
“She said that one thing alone, that could have kept her in school,” says Long. “She was so
moved. It’s such an impactful thing they do.”
Those conversations – about what motivates kids, how to keep them engaged and enthusiastic
about learning, how adults can get out of the way and let students lead – are the results Long
hopes for as a result of his films. Communities that screen Rise or Skool will be provided with a
toolkit to help them organize an event that brings students, parents, teachers, community
partners and business leaders together to explore what a similar school could look like in their
“What I hope audiences take away is that they see for themselves how important it is to have
the voice of the younger generation to shape not only their own education, but culture in
general,” says Long. “In order for that to happen, they need to be taken seriously. And that’s
what One Stone does.”