At USC East College Prep, Personalized Learning is Serious Business

Oct 11, 2016

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Drew Goltermann

Class of 2014 Ryan Fellow / Founding Principal, USC East College Prep High School

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“Once we sell 20 packs of wax we can get the stickers to increase our brand- “ “Yea, and we’ve already sold like 5 at the skatepark this week- “ “Which will then help us get into skate stores and in more places besides our neighborhood-” “And the kids love the color and smell”...

“When I heard about this project I knew that I wanted to learn how to build a robot - something I’ve always wanted to do but never had a chance. My uncle and I love robots!”...

“Honestly I didn’t think that I’d ever see a point in school. But when I knew I got to work on this documentary about my community and music, I didn’t miss a day”...

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Walking around our first annual Performance Task Showcase, the energy and excitement was palpable.

Walking around our first annual Performance Task Showcase, the energy and excitement was palpable. You would have seen students showing off their projects with intense excitement; you would have heard the deep critical thinking that students engaged in during the last quarter; you would have learned about students self-reflection throughout a rigorous process. What you may not have guessed is that these same students grew 50% faster than the national average on the ACT, nor that 95% of these students qualify for free- and reduced- price lunch.

This spring, 9th grade students at USC East College Prep, a new charter high school from Ednovate and USC that recently opened in Los Angeles’ Lincoln Heights neighborhood, were asked what they would do in school if they could do anything they wanted. The results forever changed our school culture and student learning outcomes.

At our school, measurable outcomes matter. After a semester’s worth of learning, in 3 of 4 core subject areas, our students were scoring at or below the average of a network of top-performing charter schools across the nation. 20% of our students were earning detention on a weekly basis at the end of the first semester. Things were not looking great.

After preparing during the third quarter - building out a new bell schedule, taking a visit to Google’s Mountain View campus and Summit Public Schools - we were determined that something needed to change.

After preparing during the third quarter - building out a new bell schedule, taking a visit to Google’s Mountain View campus and Summit Public Schools - we were determined that something needed to change.

Enter our “Performance Tasks”. Students were tasked with designing a project that they were passionate about, that may or may not have been directly related to the content they were learning in class. Some students would learn to code a video game, others write an autobiography; all students would take the next ten weeks to build and eventually present a project that aligned with their passions and helped them understand their connection to self, community and their future even more clearly. Through this, they would constantly apply critical thinking skills such as significance, evidence and connection (which come from the Coalition for Essential Schools), as well as complete oral and written reflections. All of our staff would coach students through the process, guiding them to the next steps of their project, pushing their critical thinking and supporting the learning.

Each Friday, instead of going to “normal class”, students were given time (5 hours), a prompt (your project must help you “Know Yourself”), and autonomy to spend their time as they needed (bear in mind that we’d spent all year building a strong school culture). Finally, students would present at our Performance Task Showcase, where visitors could go around and learn about the businesses, robots, documentaries and other amazing projects students had created.

At the end of the year, in all 4 core subjects, our students were at or above the average of our comparison schools, with English and reading in the top quarter. Detentions were reduced from 20% to 15% on a weekly basis. Our students achieved an average of over 3 points growth on the ACT from August. We had a successful first year. Of course, much of that has to be attributed to our teachers refining their practices; in the same breath, though, we point directly to the increased student autonomy and deep learning as a huge factor in those successes. Our coaching and rubrics were directly aligned to building critical thinking skills, uncovering a deep sense of purpose, and learning content relevant to the student project.

This isn’t just a feel good story or a fun pet project; it is serious business.

This isn’t just a feel good story or a fun pet project; it is serious business. The stakes for our students are too high for nice stories. Across the country in urban school districts - and similarly here in Los Angeles - roughly 10% of low income, first generation students who begin high school successfully graduate from a 4-year university within six years of high school graduation. We must make this part of our proof - that not only will our students have the college entrance exam scores to get into college, but that they’ll have the passion and drive and skills to graduate from college. And that every student deserves the chance to learn in this way - not because it is a luxury for wealthy schools with good test scores, but because this type of learning has the impact our schools need.



Drew currently leads USC East College Prep, an Ednovate school in Los Angeles, California. Prior to The Ryan Fellowship, Drew was a Grade Level Chair at The Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago; he began his teaching career as a Teach For America corps member in Chicago.


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