Laurene Powell Jobs has long focused her philanthropic work on education, founding a college-prep program for low-income students in 1997. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

How would you redesign high school, if you could start from scratch?

That’s the question that is driving a new project meant to ignite interest in reimagining how and what American teenagers learn in public school.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs, has focused much of her philanthropic work on education. She has committed $50 million to seed the effort, which is called XQ: The Super School Project.

Powell Jobs chairs the board of the organization running the project, and its chief executive is Russlynn H. Ali, who previously worked in the Obama administration as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights.

The decision to spotlight high school stemmed from concerns that U.S. high school students’ academic performance has stagnated over the past decade, Ali said.

“The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”

The project is a competition: Teams of people, including educators, inventors and people in other fields, are invited to map out how they envision overhauling high school to make it more relevant, more engaging and more successful at turning out young people who can compete in a fast-evolving economy.

The aim is to find ideas that will disrupt the traditional high school, where students get credit based on the amount of time they spend in a class and where achievement is often measured with tests that require good memorization skills but not much else.

Ali said that she hopes that the competition will help local people capi­tal­ize on their own ideas for change, rather than forcing reforms in a top-down fashion. “Communities have the answer,” she said.

Some education philanthropists known for funding efforts to improve the quality of individual teachers in classrooms have shown an increasing interest in funding broader efforts to rethink how schools work from the ground up, including technology, student schedules, staffing patterns and curriculum.

And competitions have been one way to find those new ideas. In 2010, for example, donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a competition to redesign schools focused on using online tools to personalize learning. That project has funded dozens of new schools around the country.

Officials with the XQ project said they expect their winners’ concepts will include a mix of charter and traditional public schools. Applicants will have to grapple with how to integrate their redesigned high schools into existing governance structures and legal requirements. How do you move beyond awarding high school credit based on the number of hours a student spends in class, for example, if such “seat time” is written into state law?

The deadline for submitting a concept for a new school is Nov. 15, and teams with promising ideas will then continue to refine their plans in additional submissions. The XQ project plans to announce five to 10 winners by August 2016, with an aim toward opening new schools beginning the following year.