Project Based Learning Brings Community Into the Classroom

Project Based Learning Brings Community Into the Classroom

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Above: Priscilla Cervantes, 18, just graduated from the L.A. School of Global Studies and will be the first in her family to attend college.

Editor's Note: With graduation season here, New America Media is profiling students who have benefited from the Deeper Learning education model. Supported by a national network of foundations and organizations, the Deeper Learning Network aims to revamp the way students are taught in U.S. classrooms, focusing on mastery of core content while also fostering skills critical to competency in both college and career. This is the second in a series of NAM stories looking at how Deeper Learning has impacted students from traditionally underserved communities. (Read Pt. 1 here.)

At 18, Priscilla Cervantes has a few ideas of where she’d like to be in 10 years. She wants to be managing a political campaign, or working in education policy, or possibly making films. She knows she’d like to do any of these things because she’s been able to try her hand at all of them already.

In May Cervantes graduated from the Los Angeles School of Global Studies, part of a national network of schools promoting what’s known as Project Based Learning (PBL), which allows students to apply their education in a real-world setting.

Cervantes grew up in the predominantly Latino Westlake district of downtown Los Angeles, and was raised by her grandmother, who is from Guadalajara.

“She always told me, ‘You have to go to college,’” says Cervantes. And Cervantes will be the first person in her family to do so, when she starts school at the University of California, San Diego in the fall.

A ‘unique way of teaching’

Cervantes, who served as the associate student body president at L.A. School of Global Studies, describes the educational approach there as “a unique way of teaching.”

As an example, she points to one recent project where small groups of students each chose an issue around which they’d like to effect change. Cervantes’ group wanted a policy requiring every school to have a college counselor, a decision based on the experience of some students at the school who had filled out applications without help and had made mistakes that affected their admissions.

In their English class, they each wrote a research paper on the issue, and in their government class they learned about the process of creating statewide policies – according to Cervantes, “taking smaller steps to getting where we want.” The group started by surveying other students about the need for a college counselor. They also created a website related to the project.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, I just didn’t know anything about applying,” Cervantes says. “I didn’t know the process would be so hard.”

Her experience is part of the PBL approach, in which students work together on projects related to issues in the real world that require critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Part of the idea is to make learning relevant and allow students to see the purpose of their work.

For another project, Cervantes worked with the East L..A Community Corporation, a community development organization that works in Latino communities in Los Angeles, on a campaign to legalize street vendors. Cervantes explains that there are large numbers of people in Los Angeles who rely on street vending as their source of income, but there are laws prohibiting street vending, and vendors face criminalization.

She and other students went out and talked with street vendors in order to write narratives of their stories and their struggles doing business. They also wrote research papers outlining the pros and cons of the issue, learning how to “make [their] arguments stronger,” and created websites.

“We get to go out into the community, and that’s something I really like about our school,” she says. “We get to do something that helps the community, or at least lets us learn about the community.”

Impressive numbers

The L.A. School of Global Studies is part of the New Tech Network, which is made up of 135 schools nationwide. NTN in turn is one of a number organizations that form the Deeper Learning Network, which promotes the adoption of educational principles focusing on mastery of core content as well as a specified skill set that includes critical thinking, collaborative work and the development of what proponents call an “academic mindset.”

About 21 percent of students enrolled in NTN schools are Hispanic, with another 21 percent African American and 47 percent white. Over half of all students qualify for free or reduced meals, a broadly used measure of poverty in schools.

The network boats some impressive graduation numbers; 95 percent of high school seniors nationwide graduated in four years in 2014, with 73 percent of them enrolling in either a two or four-year college.

At L.A. School of Global Studies, over 90 percent of students are Latino; over 20 percent are English learners, and over 60 percent have been reclassified as fluent in English. Last school year, some 76 percent of students graduated, compared to an average of 67 percent overall for Los Angeles Unified.

‘A lot of support’

Cervantes says the school’s smaller size, with just over 350 students, “creates a family” like atmosphere. For her part, she created family around herself, even calling her school counselor “auntie.”

But it wasn’t always easy on her grandmother.

“High school was hard. I would say, ‘I need to volunteer for this, I need to stay after school and do this,” she says. She and her grandmother also don’t have a laptop or Internet access at home, so she would have to stay at school to use a computer for her work. NTN schools offer a one-to-one computer-to-student ratio.

Some of her favorite assignments have involved visual arts and creative writing. In a design class, she and her group created advertisements soliciting donations for people affected by Hurricane Sandy, and then used the ads to collect money, which they sent to relief efforts. In a filmmaking class, she wrote a script with a partner, and with her group created "webisodes" of a story about a boy having trouble making friends.

“Working in groups is complicated,” she says, “But it teaches you to work with other people.”

She says she’s had “a lot of support” at school. Her freshman year advisor, Mr. Terry, “was a father figure,” she says. “When I told him what I wanted to do, he would say, ‘You can do it.’”

He passed away last year, but as with other experiences she’s had while in school, his influence stays with her. “He pushed me to do my best and follow what I wanted to do,” she says. “It has been a little hard without him. He told me to not let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something.”