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Three classmates in the Harvard Doctorate of Education Leadership Program started Building 21. Originally the product of their collaboration on a class design assignment, the concept for Building 21 evolved through a series of meetings, discussions, site visits and learning tours across the country.

Our goal has remained constant since that first day: to design a school model that adapts to meet learners where they are, and helps them to pursue their interests and passions on a pathway to college and career success. We firmly believe that our design efforts will always be a work in progress—a process of continual building.

Our Name

We derived our name from the famous Building 20 at M.I.T. that was a cradle of innovation and divergent thinking for over 50 years. A recent New Yorker article described Building 20 this way:

“Building 20 was home to the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Linguistics Department, and the machine shop. There was a particle accelerator, the R.O.T.C., a piano repair facility, and a cell-culture lab.

Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance…by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world.”

Our name speaks to the unlimited capacity for creativity, innovation and self-realization when individuals are free to pursue their passions and interests. The change from “20” to “21” indicates our intention to build on the inspirational example of Building 20 while also acknowledging the challenges and opportunities facing our educational system in the 21st century.

Lab Schools

We opened our first school in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia in the Fall of 2014. Our second school, launched in partnership with the Allentown School District, followed 12 months later. Both schools have no admissions criteria and are open to any rising 9th grader in their respective districts.

Our administrators, teachers, staff and District partners have led the way in building our vision into a reality at our two schools. We are extremely proud of our association with both schools.

Building a Network

After our Lab Schools opened, we started receiving requests from schools and districts from across the country and, in some cases, from around the world. They wanted to transition to a more personalized competency-based approach. In spring of 2017, we partnered with three alternative education high schools in Meridian, ID. This was the beginning of our Affiliate Program. The following year, we began a partnership with Kankakee School District in Kankakee, IL to begin their full district transition.

With our two Lab Schools, four Affiliates, and several other schools we help along the way, we knew we were beginning to create a network of schools that believed that school can and should be fundamentally different. At the beginning of 2021, we created the Learning Innovation Network to find and connect schools that want to learn from each other to change outcomes for students.


Over the last four years, we have witnessed firsthand the myriad of challenges that many of our high school graduates faced as they headed off to college or entered the workforce. Too many of our alumni were failing to successfully connect to the next phase of their lives. In response to this need, we have developed Launchpad, a program that spans the last two years of high school and the two years that follow, to better support young people as they transition into adulthood.

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