When students at Cabrillo High School found that local grocery stores lacked sufficient fruits and vegetables, they not only developed a business plan to sell produce from community gardens on campus to a nearby farmers market but also incorporated the school project into a campaign to advocate for public health.
The project is just one example of how the high school uses Linked Learning, a developing approach to public education that combines core academics with career pathways and curriculum that focuses on real-life situations, designed to prepare 9th- to 12th-grade students for college and future careers.
Nearly half of the 40-member California State Senate took a rare “field trip” to Cabrillo High School and Long Beach City College this week as part of the Senate’s Policy Conference on Education. The senators were able to visit students and teachers in classrooms to get a glimpse of such innovative education programs that are now seen as a model for school districts across the state and the country.
“I’m excited, more than anything, to just showcase the students and the great work they’re doing,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) during opening remarks. “They have a clear direction in terms of what they want to do with their life. They’re excited about learning. And a lot of the students actually hang out after school because they want to continue working on projects… that was very encouraging to me.”
The two-day policy conference, held from March 5-6, focused on the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), one of the first school districts in the country to start using the Linked Learning model by incorporating Small Learning Communities (SLCs), also known as a “school-within-a-school,” at some of its high schools.
At Cabrillo High School, which has an enrollment of about 3,000 students in west Long Beach, students as early as freshmen must choose one of seven academies, which include: the Cabrillo Engineering & Design Academy; the Cabrillo Academy of Business; the Specialized Academy of Computer Media, Arts and Animation; the Academy for College and Career Exploration for Student Success (for 9th grade transition); the Cabrillo Academy of Law and Justice; Cabrillo Health Occupations and Careers; and the Female Academy and the Male Academy.
Cabrillo High School Co-Principal Alejandro Vega equated the school’s academies, which are signified by logos and flags, to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter children’s book series.
“We’re not a perfect school, but we’re a school that’s made a lot of changes,” he said Vega and other school officials said, since implementing the education reform, graduation rates have increased, truancy rates have dropped, school perceptions have improved and more students have expressed an interest in school. “We’ve really shifted the culture of Cabrillo High School,” he said.
Jenny Brown, SLCs coordinator for Cabrillo High School, said each September, freshmen have a chance to choose a “career pathway” that includes “every single student” from AP students to special-needs students. She said students take core subjects, such as English, math, science, history and art, however learn to solve problems through “common solutions,” using career-specific examples and projects, which gives students something to attach to and identify with, while keeping them engaged.
“Our main role, at the end of the day, is to create opportunities for all kids,” Brown said. “Not only is it a safe school, but they find a home, they find an affiliation and they feel like they belong to a program.”
One senator, however, questioned whether the educational model still implements “critical learning” skills that are used in more traditional public-education models and whether the academies allows students to explore multiple fields.
“What if they don’t know what they want to be and don’t have a clue?” the senator said. “I hope you don’t expect them all to know that they want to be X, Y or Z at this age. How do you give them the opportunity to really find out?”
Brown pointed out, however, that the goal of the academies isn’t to make students beholden to a particular career, but to build confidence and prepare them for “any profession.” For instance, she said one student joined the school’s film academy because it was exciting even though the student really wants to eventually go to college to become a registered nurse.
“It’s not that we expect that every student in our law and justice [academy] will become a lawyer or a judge or a paralegal or any of those things,” she said. “Really, this is about excitement and bringing some meaning to what they’re learning.”
Brown said integrating the program into the school also involved professional development of the various “teacher teams” by working closely with local business partners. She said teachers, many of which have no industry background, took “externships” and job shadowed in different fields, which enabled educators to bring back to the classroom the entry-level skills that employers are looking for in today’s workforce. High schools students also get an edge up by using industry-level software that most students don’t see until college, Brown added.
“My experience with medical school was ER, Grays Anatomy and whatever I saw on television,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of career experience outside of the classroom. I went to school to become a teacher. And so, with that, it really took a combination of our business advisory partners as well as our teachers to sit back and go, ‘what do we expect our students to be able to do?’”
Another senator, however, questioned whether such an educational system would be financially feasible on a larger scale without foundation support since the program was funded through a $3.5-million SLC grant and about $2 million in grants through the Irvine Foundation.
LBUSD Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser replied by saying that many school districts, such as in Garden Grove, San Diego and San Bernardino, are already taking note and catching on to the new model, especially as school districts are looking to reallocate school resources in new and innovative ways as the state recovers from its budget crisis. He added, however, that every community is different, and encouraged state lawmakers not to “come up with the prescription,” but to leave specific instruction to local school districts.
Steinhauser said LBUSD, which has had to cut $320 million from its budget in the last five years and has had to lay off about 1,000 teachers and numerous support staff, the school district has used the painfully tough financial times as a way to redirect resources toward a new educational model.
“The one positive that’s come out of the budget crisis is that it has forced us to look at things differently,” he said. “Now that we’re getting out of that dark tunnel and going to a better place, we are not going to just bring back everything that we had to give up. We’re going to be very strategic … to make sure that it meets our mission of what we’re about.”
Senators heard presentations and perspectives on the State’s transition to “common core standards,” and discussed the Governor’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula and the implementation of SB 1458, which aims to change the criteria for California’s Academic Performance Index (API) to better measure a school’s ability to prepare students for college and careers.
LBUSD, the state’s third largest school district, has earned the national Broad Prize for Urban Education and has been named among the world’s 20 leading schools systems in sustained and significant improvements. More than 1,200 businesses, agencies and organizations have also formed education partnerships with LBUSD schools.
The senators also visited LBCC, which is recognized throughout California and the nation as a leader in efforts to improve college preparation, access and success. The community college has partnered with LBUSD and California State University, Long
Beach (CSULB) to form the “Long Beach College Promise,” which emphasizes student readiness for both college and careers. Under this agreement, all graduates of Long Beach high schools are provided a tuition-free first semester at LBCC. All students who complete minimum college preparatory or minimum community college transfer requirements are also guaranteed admission at CSULB.
Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who organized the $27,000 trip with Senator Lara, said his goal for hosting the conference was to “inspire a new bipartisan, education reform agenda” in the state legislature.
“Agree to disagree or fight on a whole set of issues and that’s fine, but come together and actually insist that we have a debate about what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it, especially in high school,” he said. “Linked Learning may not be the single answer, but I can tell you, if there is an answer, it is this. We have too many kids dropping out of school in large part, the studies show, because they’re not engaged [and] they don’t understand the relevance of … what they might do in their lives.”