Defying the Odds

A Los Angeles high school achieves 100 percent graduation by focusing on personalized learning and giving students a voice in their education.

During Dr. David Vannasdall’s nearly decade-long tenure as principal of Arcadia High School, the school consistently ranked in the top one percent of high schools in the nation, with a graduation rate that hit 100 percent in 2018. In 2014 he was named superintendent of the Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD), which educates 10,000 students in 11 schools.

Dr. Vannasdall has been a frequent collaborator with LPA, working to develop campuses that emphasize personalized learning and preparing students for universities and the workforce. The relationship with the district began in 2006 with the passage of a bond that funded a string of projects that modernized and improved every classroom in the district.

In an interview with Catalyst, Dr. Vannasdall reflects on the challenges and rewards of creating an environment that supports personalized instruction, as well as the role campus and classroom design plays in developing an inclusive culture focused on the needs of students.

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Did you set a target to achieve 100 percent graduation?
Achieving a 100 percent graduation rate was not the primary goal. It’s connected to many of our big initiatives of creating a personalized learning environment, where every student has a voice and a choice in their learning, and they are valued for their unique gifts. It’s about ensuring that every student is getting their needs met where they are.

What I’m hearing from CEOs of global organizations is that as students enter the workforce, they’ll teach their employees some of the skillsets they need. Much of the technology today’s students will use in the workforce hasn’t even been invented yet. What they need are students who have the agency to access what they need to be successful in a global economy. They can learn the language, they can adapt to a new culture, they can adapt quickly and learn a new skill set.

For many years we were talking about soft skills as extra things. Now soft skills are becoming something students need. You can be a great engineer, but if you can’t communicate well, you’re not going to hit that great success. We’ve focused on developing soft skills for every student. That focus allowed us to establish initiatives to ensure that we are meeting those needs.

As such a large district, how do you create an environment where you reach every student?
It starts with ensuring that you’re speaking about individual students, not systems. We need to create systems to manage large numbers of people and staff. But if you’re ever talking about systems as a barrier, not about how to meet the needs of every child, then you create a bias that says “we can meet the needs for 90 percent of the kids, but we should never expect to reach 100 percent.”

We’ve created an environment that we will graduate every child. And I deliberately say “we” because it’s expected from the board and every employee of Arcadia. At a board meeting, we might talk about a new initiative or statistics, but it always ends with a story about how this made a significant impact on a student. That’s key.

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How does campus layout and design support, or hinder, student learning?
At Arcadia we have been building a foundation of culture and community for many years. We hit a point where our campuses and our building structures did not support or reflect our culture. It wasn’t something that the teachers and the students were proud of, and it wasn’t something they could use.

What resulted are amazing open campuses with expansive community space. They’re beautiful spaces, so they’re spaces that students want to come to every day. They support our values of collaboration—you don’t have to do this work alone. In fact, you can’t do this work alone, it’s too hard. These are spaces where students and teachers can come together.

How does the classroom environment play a role in creating that culture?

At Arcadia, we want the student to believe that the classroom is theirs. They own that room as much as the teacher. We’ve come so far from the days where a teacher’s desk took up one fourth of the room and was barricaded with file cabinets, when the student was given 40 minutes in the class and they’re like a guest.

We now have classrooms that reflect the students. They have agency in the development of the rooms. If you went into any one of classrooms at any level, you’d see a teacher starting the morning with a reflection exercise, sharing about what the task is going to be that day. Then the students find a place in the room where they can be successful. You’re going to see beanbags, egg chairs hanging from the ceiling, traditional desks—all different types of furniture that support different learning styles.

The classrooms have flexibility. True flexibility allows teachers and students to be able to adapt their classrooms daily, or on an hourly basis. Sometimes you visit a classroom at 8:00 a.m. and it looks one way, you come back a couple hours later and it’s a completely different design. Students are usually the ones at the helm of that, moving furniture to meet their needs.

It’s remarkable that when you give teachers and students the agency to make choices, they are more engaged. You’ll quickly notice that everyone is engaged at a very high level. The furniture contributes to that fact because students have a voice in their learning and that’s very powerful.

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What kinds of programs or practices help create a culture where students want to engage in school every day?
We’ve committed and invested heavily in restorative practices, in our classrooms and even in every meeting. For instance, at our staff meeting this morning with the Arcadia district office, we met in a circle. The use of circles goes way back in human history, with tribal practices where everyone has undivided attention and the only thing between you is knees. You don’t have technology, it’s very vulnerable and very powerful.

Most teachers start every morning in a circle with a few prompts and everyone speaks and shares. It’s getting to know each other, where everyone is today, having the pulse of the room. That has had an enormous impact on the academic performance of our students. When you have a group that feels psychologically safety, students will take risks, which equals learning.

Can you elaborate on how that sense of community is expressed outside the typical school day?

Our high school is used 24 hours a day. We have a strong working relationship and collaboration with our city in Arcadia. We share many of the mixed-use facilities on the high school campus. For instance, at different times and days of the week, the stadium is used by the city and the public. Little league sports are taking place. Community colleges are using our classrooms in the evening. Local Boy Scouts meet after school, as are so many different community groups.

For a city like Arcadia, it truly builds that sense of community because it’s the hub, it’s where everyone meets. It’s a place that is not only beautiful but useful. I always tell people I was looking for a job and found a home.

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 3 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.