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Linked Learning has helped these LAUSD students thrive

Mike Szymanski | February 2, 2016

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DSCN6311Bryan Cantero discovered in school that he liked to write. Then he found out he could turn it into a career and even spent last summer writing in a paid internship.

Leon Popa always had a passion for medicine. Now every class he takes in high school is geared to something involving a medical career. He interns at Kaiser Permanente Hospital and is being mentored by a doctor. He is also the new student member of the LAUSD school board.

These two students said they thrived in school because of the Linked Learning program. LA Unified has 33 schools that have adopted the program; 11 more are conditionally approved for next year.

Linked Learning started at LAUSD in the 2009-2010 school year as one of nine districts in the state to try the integrated learning program through a grant by the Irvine Foundation. The program mixes rigorous academics, career and technical education, work-based learning and student support in a variety of special interests. It incorporates all the Common Core requirements and directs them toward the area of special interest.

Paul Hirsch, principal of the Hollywood STEM Academy at Bernstein High where Popa attends, said, “We had a tough start. Our graduation rate was in the 50 percent (range) and there were fights every day and the attendance was bad. We had to look for money to hire extra security guards.”


Principal Paul Hirsch of the Hollywood Academy of STEM at Bernstein High

After implementing the program, Hirsch said, “Our graduation rate is in the 80s, the attendance is at 97 percent and there hasn’t been a fight in three years. We are now using the money we raised for security guards for lab equipment.” All their grades are up, and the fail rate of 60 percent is now at 30 percent, he added.

Already enrolled in the program are the School of History & Dramatic Arts at the Sotomayor Learning Academies, the Business & Tourism Academy at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex and the Law Academy at Roosevelt High School, among others. Next year, the list will include the Design Tech, Manufacturing and Development school at Chatsworth Charter High School, Engineering and Design at Boyle Heights STEM High School and the Academy of Interdisciplinary Media Studies at Grover Cleveland High School.

“Linked Learning helps students get on the right path, and we are working with many community groups throughout the city to connect with the students,” said Esther Soliman, the Linked Learning administrator for LAUSD. “We are asking for more schools to get involved, but they have to volunteer to be a part of the program.”

“This is very different from a traditional classroom,” said Soliman, who taught three years in middle school and helped start the first program at LAUSD. She said Linked Learning started in California six years ago and is also being used in Texas and Michigan. “Boston is coming out to look at how we are doing it too,” she said.

Soliman and the students shared their thoughts in a report Tuesday to the Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee of the LAUSD school board. Some of the committee members were clearly impacted.

“I get choked up seeing this (picture of graduates on the Sixth Street Bridge) on your folder,” said board president Steve Zimmer. “I’m very confident about our Linked Learning pathways and high school programs.”

Scott Folsom, president of the 10th district of the Parent Teacher Students Association, said, “What I saw today made my heart sing, the work is coming together, the linkages are coming together. I am extremely impressed by these bright young people telling us what they learned and seeing this coming to fruition.”

Folsom, who often is a critic of the district, added, “We’ve been doing school reform (for a long time) and we will never be done with the challenges. I can’t tell you how warm and fuzzy I feel.”

Cantero, who is a senior at the Critical Design and Gaming School at Hawkins High School, said, “I found out in school that I loved writing, but I didn’t know writing is an actual career.”

He talked about how proud his mother was when he got a paid internship. He said, “To wake up every day was fulfilling knowing that I was part of something bigger than me and my school. I love Linked Learning, and it created the thinking environment for me and taught me how to work with other people.”

During his internship he created public service announcements for a health center in their community in South Central. He said some of his undocumented family members found out they could go there and hadn’t realized it was in the neighborhood.

To get involved in Linked Learning, district schools have to submit a letter of intent and have enough professional development time set aside for the teachers, Soliman said. Teachers have to be trained for the program, which is free to the school.

The schools enrolled in the district’s program report that students are less likely to drop out of school, grade-point averages have increased slightly and students are graduating with more credits.

Popa pointed to how Bernstein High allowed him to take medical-related classes throughout high school.

“My core subjects are also linked to a medical pathway so I can see relevance of all my classes to becoming a health care professional,” Popa explained. “Elementary and middle school did not teach me what was important in my life.”

He and about 30 other students are in a Kaiser mentorship program where “we literally hang out with the interns and doctors and perform lab procedures.”

Popa said, “This changed my life for the better, and I can’t imagine how my pathway would have evolved had I not gone to STEM and met those incredible people.”

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