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Commentary: How our LA charter high school is reimagining education for homeless and foster care youth

Erin Whalen | June 20, 2018

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As graduation season comes to a close, school leaders across the country have the opportunity to reflect on the way our schools are helping students from all walks of life prepare for their future, including students who are homeless, living in foster care, or experiencing challenges that prevent them from thriving in traditional school settings. The harsh reality is that more than 63,000 homeless students live in Los Angeles County and another 28,000 are in foster care. In the face of such sobering statistics, a bright spot: education can be the tool that empowers our youth to rise above the circumstances they’ve been dealt, and charter schools are uniquely positioned to meet these students where they are and ultimately help them achieve stable and successful lives.

At Da Vinci RISE High School, we believe this is one of the biggest social justice issues of our time and aim to create intentional spaces for “disconnected” students to reach their full potential. Our students don’t have the option of focusing on just being students and consequently, school isn’t and can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Yet, instead of providing additional support for these communities, bureaucratic school systems continue to disenfranchise and exclude them–pushing them out of the educational narrative altogether. Many of our students’ educational experiences have required them to check their experiences and identity at the door. This simply doesn’t work.

At RISE, we lead with the idea that our students already have the answers–and we need to listen. When we leverage their voices, instead of pushing them out, success inevitably follows. That’s why we created RISE hand in hand with the communities we seek to serve. Every component of our school, from curriculum to teaching staff, was built to meet our youth exactly where they are.

By continually engaging RISE scholars in conversations around what hasn’t worked for them in prior schools, what challenges get in the way of their education, and what kind of support they wished they had, we began to hear the same themes surface time and time again: accessibility issues, inflexible scheduling, and inadequate understanding and support from instructors.

Getting to school consistently can be one of the biggest hurdles students face. To remedy this, it was important for us to find a location for our school that would be easy for students to access. RISE is located in A Place Called Home, a safe and inclusive space for underserved youth in South Central LA, and we also have a facility in nearby Hawthorne. Co-locating with youth and social service organizations allows our students to not only attend school in a convenient location, but also easily access vital wraparound services that support their overall wellbeing. We also provide transit services to safely get students to and from school and school-related events. This ensures that our most transient students can find consistency through reliable and dependable access to transportation.

We also heard that inflexible school scheduling can be a major barrier to consistent attendance. Many RISE students are juggling competing priorities like caregiving or medical appointments and traditional school hours don’t account for these complexities. RISE operates year-round and replaces traditional school structures like grade levels with competency-based curriculum that empowers students to learn at their own pace and values course mastery over seat time and standardized test scores.

Another way we’re listening is by making sure our staff is prepared to meet the needs of all students through rigorous staff training. Because our school population has a high proportion of students experiencing trauma and anxiety, we find it incredibly important to ensure all staff, from office managers to instructors, have an extra layer of training. We scheduled 3 weeks of deep training and professional development in our first year of operations: talking to youth who’ve experienced trauma, developing community partnerships, and engaging with service providers to both better understand best practices as well as be better equipped to help our students navigate the complex realities of legal and foster care systems. Additionally, every Monday, we carve out two hours to discuss the development and needs of our current students and process any secondary trauma that may be affecting our staff.

We know there is still a lot of work to be done. But amidst the litany of disheartening statistics, education has the power to transform the lives of our young learners. My hope in sharing our story at Da Vinci RISE is to show the public that the stakes have never been higher for our communities’ homeless and foster youth—and that they hold the key to unlocking their own potential. When we trust and empower our students to lead the way, we can build better, more responsive education options so that all students, no matter their circumstances, have the opportunity to succeed in college, career, and life.

Erin Whalen is the founding assistant vice principal at Da Vinci RISE High School.

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