Circular business-like tables, surrounded by five “wheely” chairs, were evenly spaced throughout the portable classroom where Vice Principal Bell and I spoke. It was a far cry from from the typical high school classroom—rows of small wooden desks, littered with fossilized gum and the cave drawings of student ancestors, oriented toward an expansive chalkboard or whiteboard. The modernized setup was intentional, Bell pointed out. Swivel chairs and round tables allowed students to “roll around and collaborate” during class time. At Da Vinci Charter Academy Senior High School, these work stations represent an essential catalyst that drive and inspire every classroom activity—collaboration.
Jada Macias, a go-getting senior from Da Vinci Senior High, pointed out many differences between her small charter school of about 300 students, and a normal size high school like Davis High. In subjects like math and science, tests exist, but not at the dizzying frequency encountered by most high school students. This takes pressure off students to perform well on midterms, allowing them to steadily earn their class grade through small rotational projects focused on different subjects.
Many schools are moving towards a technology based education system by integrating laptops into the classroom setting. Schools like Da Vinci High, however, have taken education-based technology to the level of a small startup business.
This system of small technologically-minded schools are part of the New Technology Network (NTN). At the beginning of the year, each student is issued a laptop, or has the option of bringing their own to class. They log on to an “online learning management system” called ECHO, were teachers, students, and parents have access to grades and assignments. Homework is almost always turned in online, and grades are immediately updated with each new graded assignment.
Parents are able to see their child’s overall grade in each class, as well as a myriad of educational components that their child may be having trouble grasping. These additional categories are termed Expected School-Wide Learning Results, or ESLR’s. Instead of simply listing graded assignments, ESLR’s facilitate a collaborative education between parents, teachers, and students—a drastic change from mailed-in report cards and semi-annual parent-teacher conferences. For example, if parents see their child has a C in English, they can also look for which specific ESLR subjects—curricular literacy, written communication, oral communication, critical thinking, collaboration, or work ethic—may need improvement in relation to the class.
As a New Tech Network school, Da Vinci educates students through a string of intensive projects, appropriately termed Project-Based Learning, or PBL. Project-based learning is equal parts research, collaboration, and application, covering a wide range of subjects, from English literature to botany. Students work in groups of four or five to complete projects in each class, integrating important topics and lessons that address the subject at hand. In a traditional high school, students may occasionally receive one or two projects per class. Da Vinci curriculum is structured so that students start a new project in each class every four to six weeks.
Every homework assignment and classroom activity is tailored to the current project. Vice Principle Bell likened the education system to constructing a building,“We design it where there are structures and scaffolds to prevent one person from doing [the work] all at the last second.” As such, each student is held accountable for their part of the project, and if uncooperative, they are liable to be diplomatically ousted from the group. The metaphorical “scaffolds” represent the in-between assignments and lectures that build a strong foundation of knowledge, giving students the confidence to skillfully present their final project.
Sophomores recently completed their Wicker Asylum project, based on the book The Catcher in the Rye. The teacher created a project-based curriculum that integrated modern approaches to psychology—psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and family-centered—to hypothetically observe and diagnose the main character, Holden Caulfield. Instead of presenting their project in front of a business-style panel of parent and community volunteers as usual, the students utilized their well-researched diagnostic skills to explain Holden’s diagnosis in a mock therapy session. Other projects have included presenting research on native California drought-tolerant plants, and role-playing docents in a World War I museum.
It is fair to argue that an education approach like PLB may not suit all learning styles. Solitary thinkers—students who require a distraction-free zone—may find constant collaboration exhausting. The school website boasts “heterogenous grouping and differentiated curriculum” as a way to help all students reach their potential, illustrating the differing societal views of an effective approach to education. Though people are sure to have their own opinion as to “the right” teaching method, a group-style education may better prepare students for a job in the modern workplace, as collaboration in daily life has become nearly unavoidable. For NTN schools like Da Vinci High, the PBL system seems to be working.
In 2015, students enrolled in NTN high schools graduated at a rate nine percent higher than the national average, according to the 2015 NTN Student Outcomes Report. This statistic is the same for NTN student enrollment rates into a two or four-year college. It is also worth noting, that despite the drastic shift to high-stress tests and minimal collaborative assignments in college, NTN students challenge doubtful assumptions by persisting in four-year colleges at a rate of 92%.
Project-based learning is clearly more effective in preparing students for a higher education, so why are only 159 schools across the U.S. part of the NTN school system? One reason may be the “small-school” rule that administrations must follow if they wish to be a part of the NTN system.
To qualify as a NTN school, the student body population cannot exceed 420 people. For Da Vinci High, this would limit 10th through 12th grades to no more than 140 students—a relatively small amount of students compared to Davis Senior High, with close to 600 students in the 12th grade alone. This year, however, there are only around 80 students enrolled in each grade at Da Vinci High. To Vice Principal Bell, a small student body is extremely beneficial in facilitating strong student-teacher and student-parent relationships.
“Small schools, whether you do PBL or not, are an amazing thing. It’s harder to fall through the cracks,” said Bell.
A small student body, however, tends to limit the amount of extra curricular activities and sports teams. Da Vinci High students only represent one sports team—ultimate frisbee—but they have their pick of a variety of after-school activities at Davis High School, as the two schools are highly integrated. Students have the option of taking at least two classes, participating in clubs, and trying out for any sports team at Davis High School. Many students participate in the DHS orchestra, sing in the choir, or play for the high school football team.
Attending a small school also means you are likely to form personalized relationships with each of your teachers. “Basically every teacher is one of your closest friends,” said Jada, the Da Vinci High senior. Many students, in fact, have Bell’s personal cell phone number in case they have any problems or questions. In a high school of over 1,000 students, scheduling an appointment to talk to the principal or vice-principal may be a feat in itself. Da Vinci’s small school aspect also gives students the opportunity to participate in personalized internships with UC Davis departments and businesses in the Davis community.
For the majority of high school students, internships are rarely an integral part of the school curriculum. Proactive students are responsible for seeking out internship programs with outside agencies or businesses. At Da Vinci High, the majority of juniors and seniors work with a school counselor to find the community businesses or UC Davis department that best suits their future goals. Students interested in anthropology have interned under UC Davis professors, exploring exotic subjects like ethnographic basketry, and gaining hands-on experience taking care of actual artifacts. Others have interned at preschools, veterinary clinics, and even at the UC Davis MIND Institute.
Jada is interested in becoming a lawyer. She started learning about her desired field in the most practical way possible—spending nine hours a week interning at Crider Law in Davis. Though her daily tasks are relatively low on the totem pole, the experience of working for a practicing attorney is invaluable, as even prospective law students have difficulty gaining hands-on experience in a law firm. In pursuing her goal of becoming a lawyer, Jada must learn how to effectively convey her ideas to others—a skill that Da Vinci has helped her foster over the years.
As a member of Da Vinci Charter School community, students actively promote their school to prospective students in the surrounding area. Jada is part of Student Connect, a group of students that give middle schoolers tours of the Da Vinci Senior High campus. In light of her promotional savvy, she comfortably recited the ins-and-outs of Da Vinci’s innovative education system with as much enthusiasm as the Vice Principal.
Jada clearly has great pride in her school.