When Ricky Sierra graduated from Da Vinci Design High School in Wiseburn, California near Los Angeles, she was excited to be attending Sonoma State University. She had considered completing her general education requirements at a community college closer to home, but was eager to get settled at a four-year university. Just one semester later she found herself unhappy and wanting to leave school.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable there and I didn’t really feel like I fit in with the rest of the students,” Sierra said. “It was just a really big adjustment for me.” She didn’t like her large lecture classes where the professor didn’t know who she was, and she found learning out of a textbook difficult since her high school had focused on hands-on learning. Sierra identifies as Mexican-American and she felt out of place among the student body, half of whom are white. That feeling was exacerbated by the presidential election. Sierra said people were rude to her. “I could feel the tension,” she said.
Sierra thought at least she’d be able to make friends with her suitemates, but even there she had bad luck. Her two roommates were best friends from childhood and already had a big group of friends they’d known in high school. Pretty much everything about school felt alienating and intimidating to her.
“I didn’t even know what to expect,” Sierra said. “It was just a big transition that I think I wasn’t ready for it at the time.” She took a leave of absence at the end of the semester and returned home not sure what she would do next. That’s when she heard about the Da Vinci Extension (DVX) program run by the same charter network as her high school. They offer a thirteenth year to students who aren’t ready for college for a variety of reasons, supporting them through college level work with some extra supports.
DA VINCI EXTENSION
Da Vinci Schools run a K-8 and four high schools in the Wiseburn Unified School District. Their mission focuses on personalized learning, but not necessarily through technology, although that’s part of their approach. “Students are treated as individuals and we create plans specifically for each student that matches their goals and needs,” said Kim Merritt, the director of Da Vinci Extension. The K-12 schools use project-based learning, community partners and internships to help offer students from varied backgrounds a well-rounded education.
Despite some success with this model, Da Vinci leaders were concerned that some students still weren’t persisting through college. “We found that even though our kids were doing much better than the national average, there were still a substantial number of students who weren’t making it through college,” Merritt said.
When asked why they dropped out, students gave a range of answers. They often felt disconnected from the schools they went to, had trouble getting the classes they needed, and didn’t feel prepared socially or emotionally to find their own way in strange settings.
“Sometimes even something like breaking up with a boyfriend also meant dropping out of college,” Merritt said. “They didn’t have the tools to handle something big all at the same time.”
Da Vinci launched the Extension program with the intention of addressing the big barriers students reported: access to classes, coaching, and the need to work. The program partners with UCLA Extension, Southern New Hampshire University, and El Camino Community College to offer general education requirements with a mixture of online and in-person classes. Students are responsible for the coursework, but they can get extra coaching and support from Da Vinci staff.
Sierra said she goes into the Da Vinci building twice a week to do her online courses so she can get help from friends and coaches. These mentors also help students navigate the transfer process to other universities and help them learn skills that will be helpful when they’re on their own in college. For example, mentors show students how to break down a college syllabus. Together they write down important deadlines and dates in their calendars so they know exactly how much work is expected of them and when.
“Kids go from a world where every moment is scaffolded with bells, and then they go to a place with zero scaffolds,” Merritt said, describing the transition from high school to college. DVX tries to ease that transition with specific skills and by offering students the emotional support they need to take on new challenges. When something goes wrong in a class or some other unexpected bump in the road trips them up, they can talk to someone they trust.
“Often times all it takes is a conversation,” Merritt said. Students’ parents want their kids to succeed, but they may not know how to help them navigate bureaucracies or have the perspective to help them reframe problems. Merritt said it’s common for students to feel like the work is too hard, but when she talks through the issue with them it turns out the real problem is time management. Often with a little support overwhelmed students begin to see solutions to challenges that felt insurmountable.
Academic support is also a big part of the program. “The majority of our students would have had to take remedial classes,” Merritt said. “But UCLA and Southern New Hampshire let us do just-in-time supports.” Many students go off to college only to learn that they can’t take any credit-bearing classes until they pass a set of remedial math and English classes meant to get them up to college level. And too often they end up dropping out, frustrated that they couldn’t ever take classes in their intended majors. In the DVX program, students take the college level math and English courses, but get extra support to remediate skills they lack.
Work is another big barrier for many students trying to pay their way through college. DVX has partnered with nonprofits and companies in the area to offer paid internships to students in areas that interest them. This serves two purposes: students make money, but they also get to explore jobs in an area of interest.
“We actually believe that sometimes the best thing you can learn in your freshman year of college is what you don’t want to do,” Merritt said. The internships allow students to do real work that matters to the company, while exploring various aspects of what that company does.
Anthony Quinonez thought he wanted to study architecture when he graduated from high school. He applied to Pomona and Woodbury for architecture school and was very close to accepting a spot at Woodbury when he went on a tour of the school. His guide recommended he live on campus because architecture students are known for working long into the night on the elaborate projects they’re assigned. On-campus housing was a cost Quinonez hadn’t factored into his calculations and he ultimately decided he couldn’t afford the school after all. He decided to start getting his credits with DVX while he planned his next move.
Quinonez got an internship with Gensler Architects, a global firm that gave him an inside look at what it would be like to pursue architecture. While working there three days a week, Quinonez did stints in various departments and discovered that he likes accounting much better than architecture.
“I can’t imagine going to Woodbury and changing my mind on architecture,” he said. “It would have already been too late because I’d have some debt.” His Gensler job also motivated him to keep up with the political science and communications classes he was taking with UCLA. Quinonez says he used to be one of those students who didn’t see the real-world value in things he did at school, but when his communication class required public speaking, he saw how that would help him present his ideas better at Gensler. He liked the trust his mentor put in him and took pride in doing his work well. “I was actually surprised that they emailed my school about the jobs I was doing there and they were impressed with what I was doing. That was also really cool.” Quinonez is headed to Cal State Northridge in the fall.
WHO ATTENDS DVX?
When Da Vinci launched DVX Merritt said they targeted students planning to attend community college who had barely finished high school. They figured this group would need the most support. But the number and variety of students that wanted to join the program surprised her. A straight-A student chose to participate because a parent was in the hospital, while others were drawn to free college credits or the internship opportunity. The program started with 35 kids the first year and increased to 70 in the second. Some students have already transferred to Cal State or UC schools and are doing well.
“The majority of the students are kind of the middle of the road students,” Merritt said. They have a lot of potential, but were never grabbed by school and didn’t do their homework so they barely got by. In addition to the academic and emotional support from DVX coaches, students also take adulting classes. They learn things like how to reach out to potential mentors, the art of the thank you letter, and the difference between connections and friends.
Da Vinci is not the only charter network or high school to recognize that even when students are prepared academically for college they don’t always complete their degrees. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is perhaps most well-known for publishing a report showing that their graduates have much lower college persistence rates than they want. KIPP is trying to address that gap with the KIPP Through College Program, which provides Kippsters in college with a mentor. But that model takes more resources than a small network like Da Vinci can afford.
The DVX program will be self-sustaining when it reaches 100 students. Kids in the program have technically opted for a fifth year of high school study, so Da Vinci receives state money based on average daily attendance. Additionally, partners like Gensler, Belkin and 72andSunny pay for student labor (DVX receives two dollars per hour worked in addition to the salary the student makes). The money partners contributes to DVX helps pay for mentoring and other services. The program is free to students.