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USC Charter School Sets Students’ Sights on College

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The waiting list to get into USC Hybrid High College Prep in downtown Los Angeles is long – about two students for every one admitted – and so is the commute for many of the students who go there. An hour-and-a-half each way by bus or car isn’t uncommon.

The daily maze of L.A. traffic is a sacrifice families and students willingly make toward a larger destination. The mission of the University of Southern California’s flagship charter high school is that every graduating senior receive admission to a four-year-university. Last year, all 84 students in the first graduating class achieved that goal, collectively receiving $4.8 million in scholarships and grants. More than 80 percent of the graduates are the first in their family to attend college.

“We provide public school choice for parents who can’t afford to move,” said Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the USC Rossier School of Education and the chairwoman of Ednovate, Inc., the parent nonprofit organization that oversees Hybrid High College Prep.

In addition, Ednovate operates two other newly opened charter high schools also serving primarily low-income, Hispanic students (USC College Prep in the city of Santa Ana and USC East College Prep in East Los Angeles). Two more schools are expected to open next fall. USC Hybrid High, now in former retail space at the World Trade Center building in downtown, hopes to move closer to USC – if it can raise money for a new building.

‘Math Is Everywhere’

One area of Gallagher’s expertise is online education, and technology infuses Ednovate’s approach to learning. Along with other innovative charter networks in California such as High Tech High in San Diego and Summit Public Schools, based in the San Francisco Bay area, Ednovate schools have created their own variation of a student-centric classroom. (Though still in the name, the term “hybrid” for its pilot school is now passé; Ednovate refers to “personalized” learning instead).

USC Hybrid High students work on Chromebooks at their own pace on individual assignments or through varying levels of difficulty on curriculum units that the teachers have developed. They are guided by Canvas, a learning management system that enables teachers to track students’ progress. Students with skill deficits may be doing catch-up work, while others in the same class are doing honors projects. The system is designed for flexibility.

On a recent winter morning in Allyson Wright‘s 9th-grade social studies class, students studying the 1950s and ‘60s answered questions about passages from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and then fluidly reassembled in small groups to work on and discuss individual projects. For Jocelyn Hidalgo, it was a paper on sexism; for Jayleen Gutierrez, the topic was child trafficking.

Down the hall in Ariana Wall’s 11th grade math class, college pennants remind students of their goal and a whiteboard of drawings and musings reinforces the value of their work:

  • “Math is the world, because math is everywhere.”
  • “Math is breathing. You need to know how to do it.”

Wall speaks quickly and buoyantly to sustain students’ concentration. The day’s challenge is to answer 11 ACT problems in 10 minutes.

No Slackers

As an exercise in teamwork as well as math proficiency, students work in small groups. At some tables, students work individually and silently; others help one another, because any student could be called on. There are no slackers.

Under California law, charter schools must accept all students who apply and conduct a lottery if the number of applicants exceeds openings. But there’s a self-selection at USC Hybrid High. For starters, the USC affiliation is a lure for college-striving families. In fact, a half-dozen students in the first graduating class now attend USC. Also, the commute time weeds out all but determined families that don’t live nearby.

The work is rigorous, and so is the pace. Self-directed work is a skill acquired gradually at the school, and it may not come naturally for students accustomed to large classes and scripted lessons in middle school. Discipline, enforced by a biweekly demerit system, is strict. In 2014-15, the 377-student school reported 28 suspensions but no expulsions.

As a small school, teachers can offer individualized attention, providing the reins to direct students’ freedom. Teachers hold office hours each week, and they lead daily advisory periods.

Students take a college readiness course, and parents can too. Every graduating class will have its own alumni counselor to stay in touch with students during what can be a difficult transition. Hybrid High also intends to conduct surveys of graduates to gauge how well the school prepared them for college.

John Juarez, a senior aiming to attend UCLA, acknowledges the work has been difficult. His mother, a nurse, researched schools in the city and picked USC Hybrid High. He transferred in 10th grade from a Los Angeles Unified school, and though he had done well enough there, knew he had to catch up.

“I knew 10th grade would be hard. I couldn’t fall behind,” he said.

John is one of 20 students in his class who has chosen to write a yearlong senior thesis, guided by a critical thinking rubric.

“The grading system can be nerve-wracking,” he said. His thesis is on the family structures and beliefs of Hispanic males and females.

Balancing Rigor and Stress

The autonomy at Hybrid High can present challenges for new teachers too, said Rod Lopez, a third-year 9th-grade English teacher. Lopez previously taught at a low-performing middle school in Florida, where the standard was teaching to the test, he explained. At Hybrid High, teachers aren’t handed textbooks and have flexibility over what is taught. “That was a big learning curve,” he said.

It took a semester to figure out how to keep students on track and to understand “what pacing means for a student,” Lopez said.

The school now provides a base curriculum for teachers to fall back on, something it didn’t have at first, and a focus on preparing students for the ACT. Teachers at each grade level meet on Friday afternoons, and two weeks of staff training precede the start of school.

“There’s a lot of team building,” Lopez said.

As for students, “they are working constantly and really have to produce,” he said.

This poses an additional challenge for teachers: “How do we keep rigor and help them reduce stress?”