Diplomas for (Would-Be) Dropouts: Project Learning Serves the Most At-Risk Students

Urban students on the verge of quitting scale new heights -- and remain in school -- through an ambitious program.

Urban students on the verge of quitting scale new heights -- and remain in school -- through an ambitious program.
Link to Sky Rocket Slide Show

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Celestial Lessons Turn a Truant into a Graduate

Produced by Lisa Morehouse, photography by Katherine Emery

Returning from a 6-mile hike through Pinnacles National Monument, in central California, students from San Francisco's Downtown High School want only to crawl into their tents and take a nap. Not so fast. First, they have to form groups and formulate written answers to an assigned question: If you were aliens landing on Planet Pinnacles, would you recommend inhabiting this land?

Louie Bustos, a high school senior with his San Francisco Giants baseball cap tilted precisely to one side, shares his group's decision against colonizing. "It lacks our basic necessity for living," he says. There's very little water, Bustos elaborates, so "bringing people to this dry, desolate planet would be futile." Daniel Carter's group disagrees, identifying resources such as vegetation, insects, birds, and animals. "The sweet aroma of maple blows through the valley below," Carter reads. "Everything looks promising for further research on Planet Pinnacles."

These students are clearly engaged in learning. Not long ago, they were ready to drop out of school. Firmly on the path leading away from graduation, Bustos, Carter, and their hiking companions made a sharp U-turn, by way of Downtown High School, toward success.

Downtown is a continuation high school in southeast San Francisco that educates students whose truancy, lack of credits, early parenthood, poor behavior, or prior incarceration have put them at risk for dropping out. The student population is predominantly African American and Latino, two ethnic groups that have tended to fall below their peers in achievement rankings, both nationally and locally.

"The school is designed to serve the most at-risk, most disenfranchised students in the district, those who haven't been successful in other schools," says Catherine Salvin, a longtime Downtown teacher and a member of the school's leadership team.

The school's approach to reengaging students in learning has an important twist: Downtown's curriculum is entirely project based. Its alternative format allows students to choose a thematic, integrated pathway of subjects each semester, find connections among these subjects in real-world settings, and, hopefully, discover their passions along the way.

Roots in Revolution

California introduced continuation schools in 1919 to give young people in rural areas the flexibility to work in agriculture while attending high school. "It was a compassionate and revolutionary idea," says Dennis Fisher, a consultant in the state Department of Education's Educational Options office.

Today, California's at-risk youth fit into many categories; the latest figures show that some 71,000 students attend 519 continuation schools around the state. Continuation school graduates, who receive a regular diploma, are held to the same core academic requirements as other high school students and must also pass the California High School Exit Exam. The schools vary in structure, size (from 30 to 650 students), and, says Fisher, quality. Some districts are known to use continuation schools as dumping grounds, but the schools also can be places to implement reform, and those that do so often deliver more than a diploma. They can have a lasting impact on students' lives.

Downtown's history features both extremes. In the mid-1990s, Salvin says, "it was like a bad Hollywood movie about high school," with weekly fights, chaotic passing periods, and rampant absenteeism. In 1998, the staff formed research committees, visited schools around the state, and developed pilot programs in the search for an alternative model for their school. Teachers created schoolwide projects, gave students a choice in scheduling classes, and used minimum days to teach high-interest thematic courses, such as African arts, poetry, even fishing.

"We were experimenting," explains Salvin, "and seeing if kids would come." The school's faculty and leadership team settled on a new school design and reopened in fall 1999 with a project-based structure.

Ten years in, that structure still holds, built around six core tenets of project-learning curriculum: integration, challenging academics, real-world focus, experiential study, applied learning, and authentic assessment. Students choose one of seven semester-long pathways, or projects -- such as Get Out & Learn (GO&L) and Starstruck -- with one or two instructors teaching all the subjects and partnering with outside agencies.

"We're engaging kids who are marginal," says Edward Cavanaugh, an instructor in the GO&L pathway. "They failed the system, or the system failed them. To make them repeat it seems counterproductive."

Stars in Their Eyes

Downtown's structure works well for student Zach Jefferson. "You're almost like a robot at a traditional high school," he says. "Here, you actually have a choice about what you want to learn."

There's power in curriculum integration, adds Starstruck student Daniel Carter. "They might mix astronomy up with math. I'm getting my math credits while doing astronomy, which is the thing that I like, right?" That power is amplified when it provides an entree into rigorous academics. Carter points to other work -- binary math, novel reading (Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower), and essay writing -- that relates to the class theme. He adds that teacher Anne Marie Grace also conducts daily warm-ups with articles about new planets, the International Space Station, and citizen astronauts.

Ed Cavanaugh grounds the GO&L project in experiential learning. "The classroom is wherever we meet," he says. "There are no field trips; we're just learning somewhere else." This group meets regularly at San Francisco's Aquatic Park, where the students build and sail boats they've created using historic local designs. "Lots of lightbulbs go on when you hand them a tape measure," says Cavanaugh. "It's real -- because if they do it wrong, they waste material."

GO&L students read books like Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild and go on eleven-day backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada and the Ventana Wilderness, after studying wilderness first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, nutrition, mapping and compassing, and plant identification.

Such opportunities let kids apply classroom learning. After oohing and ahhing over a night sky undisturbed by city lights on the Pinnacles camping trip, the students spontaneously lie on the ground and start asking questions about stars, satellites, and constellations. Bustos tells his peers, "A lot of these stars are so far away, a lot of them don't exist anymore; it's just the light still traveling to us. It's like looking into the past."

That strikes a chord with Zach Jefferson. "Just think, we're here, and all that is there, and some stars don't even exist, and we're still looking at them. I just think, daaaaammnn," he says. "You feel left out."

Jefferson had never been to a state or national park, gone camping, or studied the environment before he joined Downtown, but now he speaks at length about Redwood National Park and logging issues in northern California. He addresses the human causes of local wildlife endangerment, too -- information he gained while doing local habitat-restoration work. This city kid plans to continue camping after he graduates, and last summer he got a job working with a San Francisco environmental-justice organization, one of the outside groups that partner with his program at Downtown. He says, "I'm much more aware of my city now."

Seriously behind in credits, Daniel Carter came to Downtown in his junior year. (Full disclosure: We never crossed paths, but Carter attended a school where this writer once taught). In Starstruck, something clicked. "I came in thinking, 'I'm going to learn some stuff about stars,' and it turns out I really got into it," he says. "Just think about the galaxies and planets out there we don't know about; there could be other life out there that we don't know about." Four months ago, Carter set up a telescope in his backyard to look for the North Star, Orion's Belt, and meteor showers. When he showed his mom all the craters on the Moon, she had to look twice to believe what she was seeing.

Bumps in the Road

Though new to Downtown, Principal Mark Alvarado advocates for the project-based structure and sees the results. As an assistant principal at a comprehensive school in the same district, Alvarado spent two years disciplining one student, he recalls, who was "among the top ten most challenging students I've ever worked with." This past June, he saw her graduate from Downtown. "She's an entirely different human being," he says. "I think there's a psychological effect. Downtown's the end of the road, and students are doing work successfully that's outside their comfort zones. Some of the achievements, you just can't quantify."

Data about continuation schools is hard to gather because of the small and fluctuating student populations. (Downtown, for example, has a capacity for 275 students and sees up to 400 students annually.) Downtown, which keeps its own records, creates internal assessments using the same rubrics across all projects. (See "How To: Design Assessments for Project Learning.") Staff members celebrate the students who graduate each year -- consistently double and triple the number that graduated before project learning was adopted -- especially when other district schools have been unsuccessful with the same students.

"This school is the achievement gap personified," says Catherine Salvin. "Each student who earns a diploma from this school is a student who wouldn't otherwise earn one. Graduating 60 to 95 kids a year is no small thing."

Not to suggest that everything is rosy at Downtown. Salvin frets about the kids who never get hooked, and Alvarado wants better data to find out where students are academically. He wonders, "Within that group, are the kids problem solvers? Can they work in groups? Do they have twenty-first-century skills?" Ed Cavanaugh wants to see better content integration and echoes the comments of many teachers and students when he emphasizes the need for high, schoolwide standards: "As a school, we need to have the same expectations -- academic and behavioral -- in all projects."

Alvarado believes that professional development will narrow many of these gaps, and Salvin says that Downtown's committees (focused on literacy, math, curriculum, and school culture) push the staff to adjust the school's structure and standardize the academic expectations for each project. Alvarado hopes to build on Downtown's successes by developing the school's public-private partnerships and taking some of the organizing and fundraising load off teachers. (Projects like GO&L are nonprofit organizations that must raise tens of thousands of dollars.) But graduate Louie Bustos knows that Downtown, just as it is, changed the direction of his life. "I got totally lucky," he says.

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and education consultant.

Go to "How to Design Assessments for Project Learning."

outdoor classroom

Wide-Open Classroom:

Students gather after a hike to discuss what they saw.

Credit: Katherine Emery
teaching outside

Teacher Catherine Salvin describes the physiology of bats.

Credit: Katherine Emery
students and rock staircase

A rock staircase leads students to a lake.

Credit: Katherine Emery
camp setup

Outside the Box:

Home base for one field trip is this campground at central California's Pinnacles National Monument.

Credit: Katherine Emery
baskets and ceramics

Students in the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative created these baskets and ceramics.

Credit: Katherine Emery

This article originally published on 10/8/2008

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Comments (7)

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Sarah (not verified)

Student Based Learning

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When will they day come that this model for teaching becomes the norm for ALL of our students?? This is a very encouraging model of teaching to ALL of our kids.

Lea (not verified)

Project Based Learning

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I love these types of schools. I had never heard of them until last year when our social worker tried to get one of my students into a similar program. This is an amazing way to get at-risk students involved in education and give them back the power to choose their path through education. I think this would help every one of my students get interested in academics and I would love the opportunity to work at a school like this.

Lawauna Darden (not verified)

Project Bases Schools

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I think that project based learning schools are a great idea and there should be one in every city. I have had the opportunity to see students that "hated" the traditional classroom, excel in a project based environment. Not only are these students able to have more time to investigate and explore a preferred subject matter, but it is a memory that stays within them for a long time. Their minds are better able to file this information because not only are they processing while in the journey of fact gathering, but they are also responsible for teaching this new found subject to their peers. It's a powerful form of education which has besome a fond memory in their school experience. I wish more students had this opportunity to live what they learn!

D- (not verified)

Innovative/Alternative "Classrooms" and Learning

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Can you please tell me if there are ANY such initiatives in AZ and/or even Southern CA??
I have a very bright, vivacious 10-year-old son who is constantly having to "squeeze" himself to try to fit into schools that just do not accommodate his learning needs or style. He LOVES nature, has special interests and aptitudes in science (especially biology), environmental sciences and robotics/engineering concepts, but is frustrated and "burned out" by the daily "drills" of traditional writing, reading and arithmetic (on paper!). Worst of all, he is discouraged....he is so eager to learn, often has his strengths and talents overlooked and yearns for more hands-on and "real life" environments that afford learning experiences.

PLEASE let me know if you are aware of any such programs or "schools" in my area....
I would be delighted to hear from you -


Tony Lederer (not verified)

PBL/Service Learning

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At Calvine High School in Elk Grove we have adopted numerous service learning projects for our students to participate in while working towards their high school diplomas. Since chainging our focus away from traditional classroom instruction (the same ones our students failed at in their previous schools) our student participation, attendance and graduation rates have improved dramitically.

Someday I'd like to work collaboratively with the stff and students at Downtown High School.

Gary Kaloostian (not verified)

Project Based Learning

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Always exciting to see at-risk youth, and who is not at-risk today-considering our schools and our job/career world are not aligned, learning in a model which reflects the world. The student that talks about doing astronomy and receiving math credit fully understands the need for change in our schools. The student articulates what politicians, and even educators cannot; the world has changed our educational policies and systems need to also.

PBL is the way to make the most complex and diverse concepts "real," and useful.
Thanks for the refreshing look again at how education CAN improve the lives of students, teachers and remember they are our future.

Lori Lamb (not verified)

Alternative Education Director

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This is an exciting alternative to learning for the nontraditional classroom and student. We have many initiatives nationally that reflect the success of this type of connection with learning for at risk students. Keep on publishing the positive outcomes of intervention techniques like this; our students, educators, families, and communities need the options!

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