Personalization + Projects = Deeper Learning at Da Vinci

By Emily Liebtag and Tom Vander Ark

Da Vinci Schools “exists to provide … students a real-world, project-based, college preparatory curriculum.” It’s working! The Da Vinci network was co-founded by Matt Wunder, Don Brann (former superintendent of Wiseburn Unified School District and current Da Vinci Schools Board Vice President), Chet Pipkin (CEO of Belkin and current Da Vinci Schools Board President) and Nicole Assisi (now at Thrive Public Schools, see feature and podcast).

Da Vinci is not short on accolades for their innovative ideas. They are a Next Generation Learning Challenge winner, an XQ Super School Grant recipient and are mentioned on our 75 Top School and Charter Networks.

We visited Da Vinci to learn more about their innovative ideas, but were also curious about the deeper learning outcomes, culture and community. Before sharing what we found, a bit of background about the network of schools …

There are currently five Da Vinci schools and a 13th-year college bridge program housed on two different campuses. Both are in Hawthorne, California, near the Los Angeles airport and serve students from 84 different zip codes in the Los Angeles area. Each school has a unique pathway for students, but also strive towards similar student outcomes and follow a set of common norms.

We visited Da Vinci Communications, Da Vinci Design and Da Vinci Science, which serve as high schools for Wiseburn Unified School District. The district authorized the independent charters in 2009. In 2013 referendum, the district adopted the high schools and became a unified (K-12) district.

The district and charter management organization share back office services and will be co-located in a spectacular school and office facility that will open in July just a few minutes south of LAX.

Project-Based Learning

When it comes to projects, Da Vinci does not disappoint. Projects abound all over the high schools, both inside classrooms as well as the evidence of past project work on the exterior of buildings. Our tour guides (pictured in the feature image above), knew the story behind most of the projects we walked by and what their peers were working on in classrooms.

One such project was aimed at having students get to know local communities in the Los Angeles area, create a corresponding presentation to reflect what they learned about that community and finally add an image or symbol of that place to a mural on a school wall that was dedicated to the project. It was readily apparent that there is deeper learning happening at Da Vinci Schools. Students not only master academic content, but are able to think critically and solve real-world problems.

Within a matter of 20 minutes, we witnessed students working collaboratively and communicating effectively with each other on the following:

  • Analyzing a financial decision a country in Europe had made and reporting pros/cons
  • Tending to student-created urban garden
  • Creating displays for a community performance
  • Designing ads for a local marketing company
  • Presentation on why human rights matter

Personalized Learning

Our tour guides each articulated what their goals were post-Da Vinci (several had already committed to four-year universities), but they also were not hyper-focused on college. It was clear students developed academic mindsets, but were also well-rounded, interesting, dynamic young individuals who had a lot of other experiences at Da Vinci – not just college prep. The students shared that this was due to individual attention and advisory they received while at Da Vinci.

Listen as one student shares how she felt this difference and personalized support almost immediately when she started attending Da Vinci.

High Need, High Support High School

Several of our guides also participate in College for America through Southern New Hampshire University (see our feature on SNHU) and are earning competencies towards college credits at their own pace (further adding students’ ability to personalize their own learning). Students can choose what path they want to pursue and focus on.

To support the growing number of high need transient students in Los Angeles, Wunder launched Da Vinci Flex in a modular building (below). The pilot program, which laid the foundation for the XQ winning RISE model, provides personalized and competency-based learning and wrap around services.

RISE High will launch in the fall with two campuses, one with the other Da Vinci schools at Wiseburn and one co-located with a nonprofit organization in downtown LA.

RISE High Pillars:

  • Flexible scheduling
  • Advisory communities
  • Individualized student learning plans
  • Hybrid-learning experience
  • Competency-based (no grade levels)
  • Real-world, project-based learning
  • Weekly extracurricular activities
  • Jobs, internships and career-readiness
  • Holistic wraparound services

Erin Whalen and Kari Croft (below) will lead, the XQ winning school. Listen to hear what the leaders had to say:

The school will become a distributed network co-located with youth and family service providers in LA. A RISE App will provide 24/7 access to academic support and to meals and shelter availability.

Serving about 500 students, RISE will also “provide a mobile resource center that supports students across the city and meets a variety of their academic and personal needs, transports them to and from classes, and serves as a recruitment and intake center for new students.”

The Da Vinci network is a great example of personalized project-based learning, of community partnerships and creative fundraising. Plan a fall trip to LA to see Da Vinci on the RISE.

For more, see:

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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