When high school student Kia Reid’s brother was arrested, she withdrew emotionally, missing more than a week of school. But in her absence, Reid didn’t fall through the cracks.
Her teachers texted and called to check on her.
“They told me [they were] not here to pressure me, but they wanted me to keep on track with my schoolwork.,” Reid said. “They were really patient, and even came over to my house and brought me my work and went over all [of it] with me.”
Reid graduated in the spring with nine others in the first culminating class from Da Vinci RISE High, a new model of education for disconnected youth in foster care, those experiencing homelessness or students with other needs that schools have traditionally been ill-equipped to meet.
The Los Angeles-area school expanded this fall to a second site at A Place Called Home, a South L.A. community center and social service agency. The expansion was aided by a $10 million grant from the XQ Super School Project, a competition started by Laureen Powell Jobs (the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs) that is designed to re-imagine the design of American high schools.
The growth enabled the school, which currently serves 40 students at its original site, to take on up to 80 additional students this year, as well as expand its service offerings. The new site deliberately holds open slots for mid-year transfers, ensuring access for transient students who are at greater risk of high school dropout.
In California, only 58 percent of foster children graduate from high school by age 18, according to a 2013 report from WestEd. A recent survey of formerly homeless youth reported that two-thirds said homelessness had a significant impact on their education, making it hard to remain and do well in school.
The goal of RISE High is to design a school from the ground up based on a deep understanding of the needs of disconnected youth. Driving this effort is a focus on creating a school accommodating to student needs, where students form deep relationships with staff and each other and are surrounded by support.
For example, to help students whose schedules or living situations make daily attendance impractical, students take classes on a flexible schedule, with work completed in on-site classes as well as in one-on-one tutorials with teachers and even away from school. Projects are designed to be completed out in the community, and students have access to an online learning platform. Tutors come to students wherever they are living, through a partnership with the non-profit School on Wheels.
Opening a second site within A Place Called Home adds a layer of wraparound support, enabling access to counseling, health services, and support with college applications along with art, athletics and career exploration to be interwoven into the school day.
“Dream, See, Do,” a mobile app in the final stages of development, will provide students not only access to academic support, but also tools to locate community resources like housing and food pantries. And the school has hired extra staff such as counselors, psychologists and two peer advocates, including Reid.
Reid is currently enrolled at Da Vinci Extension, a free associate’s degree program open to RISE alums in partnership with UCLA Extension, but she’ll also be helping to build the culture at the new school site, drawing on her personal experience to mentor students.
“I really want this school to look like one big family,” said Reid. “I really want this school to be somewhere where the students find it safe, and the students look at it as home.”
RISE founding assistant principal Erin Whalen previously taught homeless students in Miami.
“I worked in schools for a long time and quickly saw the same patterns coming about with students – who really weren’t invested or really just needed support and love – being pulled out of the system because of forces that they can’t control,” Whalen said.
That’s why student investment is a big part of the plan. Students regularly share their needs with teachers and staff and provide valuable input in many decisions.
During staff hiring and onboarding for RISE High, students gave feedback on teacher applicants. Later, they shared their stories with new hires, and co-led training sessions.
Whalen said that he’s seen growth from students who are asked to take a leading role in the school decision-making processes. He recalls the progress of one student who once struggled with anger management but who is now leading a training on student support plans.
“[He] took ownership which made him feel like an expert and … expedited his growth,” said Whalen.
Current students also tested and gave feedback on prototypes of “Dream, See, Do,” which will allow students to directly add resources they think could help other youth, and proposed new clubs aimed at personal growth. As a result, starting this fall, students at RISE High will get to participate in clubs for boxing, life skills, and college tours.
In an effort to keep students engaged, the school has also focused on creating curriculum relevant to the needs of disconnected youth and an environment where students feel comfortable being themselves.
Recognizing that foster youth need to be financially independent much earlier than most other youth, the school is developing a financial wellness course.
Beyond traditional tools like budgeting and saving, the course will include topics like understanding predatory loans. To empower youth in transforming systems, a community organizing class will expose youth to current and historical leaders in social movements and tools to engage in action.
Miranda Sheffield, a community organizer and former peer coordinator at the Children’s Law Center of California, serves as a project consultant, leading the development of these courses and conducting cultural competency training for staff.
“I think one of the challenges,” Sheffield said, “is constantly having to find ways in how we’re doing this work [so] we’re not re-creating the same oppressive things that led a lot of youth to be pushed out of schools.”
Her trainings have focused on infusing affirmation of students’ identities into the curriculum and creating space for traditionally marginalized students “to show up fully as who they are,” including a presentation challenging harmful narratives around black girls in foster care.
Considered in tandem with restorative justice practices, this has also influenced how students and staff self-regulate and relate to each other.
Community circles enable students to talk through and address challenges together, and when emotions flare up or students look like they need to talk through something, they are encouraged to step out and go for a walk with a staff member they trust.
“We’re looking at how do we create a self-sustaining and self-sufficient network of resources for our youth,” Whalen said, “and not always assuming that we are masters at all of these systems, but allowing those that are to take the charge, which are the youth who are navigating them.”
Reid credits RISE, and the relationships she made there, for playing a role in her personal transformation. She started school behind in credits and felt socially isolated from her peers. But her teachers pushed her academically, and she learned to feel comfortable opening up and taking charge.
She’ll bring this growth to support a fresh cohort of students now that the new school year is underway.
“I’ve definitely seen a change in myself,” said Reid, “and I’m ready to help kids, at least help them to live better … to help them look at the world differently.”
Carl Finer is a freelance writer and middle school teacher in Los Angeles. He regularly contributes to The Chronicle of Social Change.