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On the RISE: First graduating class of award-winning high school for foster and homeless youth get their diplomas

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 9, 2017

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Kia Reid, center, holding her high school diploma at RISE graduation ceremony on Wednesday night. (Courtesy: RISE)


Ten students who helped design their own educational program made up the first graduating class of Hawthorne’s Da Vinci RISE High, a pilot created to help foster and homeless youth conclude their high school education.

The students had the responsibility and opportunity to help design the pilot program during the 2016-17 school year. The program focuses on building closer teacher-student relationships and support among peers and incorporates a restorative justice culture. All of them will be attending a college program.

“When my granny first introduced me to RISE, I was skeptical that it would be like other schools I’d attended,”  said Kia Reid in her commencement speech on graduation night in Playa Vista.

“I had endured negative school experiences in the past where incidents such as fights, suspensions, and neglect were the norm. I didn’t want to relive that. I judged RISE thinking it would be a school just like the others, with no one to support me or help me understand my courses. Yes, I judged, and I judged wrong.”

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Reid was the first student to be part of the RISE program, which stands for Revolutionary Individualized Student Experience. She was in the foster system for many years and had to transfer from different schools many times, so she was not receiving all credits for her classes.

In the fall she will be attending Da Vinci Extension (DVX), a college pathway program in partnership with UCLA Extension and pursuing her AA and bachelor’s degree while also working at Da Vinci RISE as a peer navigator.

The 10 graduates are part of the 30 founding students of the educational pilot program that was launched by Da Vinci Schools, which operates four small college-preparatory public charter schools in Los Angeles. The school won a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute, which encourages its winners to rethink and reimagine high school. The RISE model was created so that disconnected youth citywide have the opportunity to master a college- and career-ready curriculum in the ways, and at the places, that work best for them. The grant will be used over the next five years.

“We do not define an innovative school only in terms of technology, but that it is a school that reflects the needs of today’s students. RISE is creating a school that is flexible and has multiple ways to finish school,” said Monica Martinez, senior strategist for the XQ Super School Project.

Two other programs in California were selected last year for the grant, plus seven others nationwide, making up the first batch of winners since the launching of the Super School Project in September 2015.

“We’re inspired by their vision, their design, and their intention to serve students who are vulnerable and disconnected from the traditional school system that we have in place,” Martinez said in a phone interview this week.

RISE graduating students earned the credits needed to obtain their high school diploma by taking courses not fixed to grade levels, but instead meeting their particular pathway through graduation. Da Vinci RISE offers all the A-G approved courses so students can complete those requirements, said school co-founder Kari Croft.

“Some of these students were really far behind with their credits, because they haven’t had the individualized one-on-one support they needed in the past,” she said. “The reason why we don’t have students in ninth or 12th grades is because most of these students are 18 years old and older, and it would be very unmotivating to tell a 19-year-old that he’s in ninth grade and they need to be four more years with us, so we’re trying to change the way we talk about it.”

Instead, Croft said, RISE is committed to doing whatever is necessary to help students figure out the classes they need, in a timeframe that works for them, toward high school graduation.

The RISE program will expand to South-Central in the fall when it opens spaces for 80 additional students at A Place Called Home, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting underserved youth, mostly black and Latino, offering health, nutrition, counseling, and education services to students ages 8 to 22. Some of them face homelessness and are undocumented, said Jonathan Zeichner, executive director of the center.

“You have more kids on the street now than ever in the history of the city. We hope to help break some of these poverty cycles by opening this new educational component,” he said, adding that South LA’s dropout rate has been at 50 percent for many years.

“This very unique program can help young people facing all kinds of challenges to get through high schools and take advantage of all our wrap-around services including vocational development and placement, getting them ready for college and for a job. Also, we offer them nutrition, athletics, counseling, case management, so these make this program very unique and robust in this neighborhood where so much is needed,” he said. “There’s really nothing else like it.”

Students meeting the criteria can apply to the program by contacting directly A Place Called Home or Da Vinci RISE as they are accepting applications to start in the fall. A welcome event will take place July 20 at A Place Called Home in Los Angeles.

* Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Kia Reid had a baby. It was another student who had a baby while in the program. 

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