Building real world experiences at Latitude High

Oakland Charters
Jan 17, 2019 · 5 min read
A Latitude High student soldering.

Like the other 49 students at Latitude High 37.8, Jose is a freshman. When the other students are struggling and need some help with projects in their engineering class, they come to him.

“For me, yeah, I like that stuff: programming, electricity, creating,” says Jose, also an English Language Learner, as he takes a break from working on a laser cut and inscripted audio speaker the class is building in their design and engineering class.

Jose is proud of his work, enjoys showing it off, and is looking forward to presenting it to the Latitude community later this year. “What I want for people to see is what I built,” he says. He likes that other students ask for his assistance when they have an issue with an engineering project. “I pay attention and learn and help people,” he says, breaking into a smile. “I’m the smart one.”

Latitude High is an innovative locally grown Oakland public school that was recently selected as the 19th XQ Super School, receiving a 5-year, $10 million grant to “further its innovative work deepening students’ connections to their hometown, Oakland.”

At Latitude, classes aren’t structured so that students are sitting in rows staring at a teacher at the chalkboard lecturing for hours on end. The subjects in ninth grade (there are three — humanities, which integrates English and social studies; design and engineering; math) are also a bit different than the norm at most high schools. Rather than cycling through six periods a day, classes are structured in longer interdisciplinary studios to allow for deeper relationships with teachers and deeper exploration.

Students learn by doing and experiencing both in and out of the classroom: building real-world projects they design in the studio; exploring the history and culture of Oakland and then sharing what they learn through multimedia presentations; stepping out of the classroom and into the offices of engineering and technology companies, including Pandora, YouTube, Circuit Launch (a robotics startup in East Oakland) and Mozilla.

“It’s about creating an educational experience that is relevant, personalized, integrated and supports creativity,” Latitude principal Lillian Hsu says. “The model also draws from educator experience, integrating different models that have had transformative effects on students.”

Latitude High students are building speakers they designed and etched.

Hsu is a veteran Oakland educator who got her start as a founding teacher of Unity High, a locally grown Oakland public school, in 2003. There were four teachers and 100 students, she remembers. “Unity is where I had the opportunity to really dig deeply into project-based learning and how to make learning relevant for students,” she says.

The experience of being a part of a school opening and closely working with other educators in a collaborative environment was formative for Hsu.

“We had the freedom to develop exciting experiences for students,” she says. “That sense that even though I was a first-year teacher I had a voice was really important in me staying in education and being nimble and creative about how to best serve the students in front of us. That was the ethos of so many of the colleagues I had the opportunity to work with at Unity.”

After Hsu had been at Unity for a few years, her family relocated to San Diego. She landed at High Tech High, which had recently started a graduate school of education. She became its first school leadership resident and embedded with a principal for a year. “It was a great opportunity to see an organization that had been doing it for a while,” she says, “but also provided teachers with a lot of support and resources to do it at a high level.”

After her residency year, Hsu was asked to stay on as the principal for High Tech High Chula Vista, the largest and most diverse in the network and located just 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hsu appreciated that at High Tech High, there was a “thick symmetry” between the way educators work with students and adults. Hsu explains: “If you value students collaborating and communicating effectively, you create those structures that support teacher collaboration and communication.” Teachers met for an hour every day before school and helped each other improve practice. There was a culture where teachers were respected and supported intentionally.

“That’s the secret sauce behind High Tech High,” Hsu says. “How much the leadership really supports adults working effectively in service of students.”

Hsu and her family returned to Oakland, and in the spring of 2017 she joined the Latitude design team and worked on the school’s charter application, which was submitted to the OUSD board that fall. A trialing approval process followed that finally ended with approval by the state board of education only months before this school year began.

Hsu says that the support of the families interested in the school, and students who had been a part of the design team and had gotten a taste of what the school would be like, never wavered and encouraged the school leaders to keep going. Like Hsu, they bought into the vision of the school.

“Part of what compelled me about the Latitude vision was this idea of really connecting students with networks and expanding their sense of possibility,” she says. “Not just abstractly with the promise of college, but from the time they are in 9th grade connecting with professionals from all different fields, visiting those workplaces and building networks that can lead to opportunities in the future. Those are opportunities families want for their kids.”

Like Jose, Sierra is a freshman at Latitude. She was a part of the student design team, and spoke at some school board meetings even though it made her really nervous. Now she’s working on a podcast script on an Oakland changemaker. The final version of the students’ podcasts will appear on the web (along with a feature story on the changemaker students are writing in their humanities class) and will play on the student-built speakers during a community presentation.

John Bosselman, Latitude’s director of instruction, says he has been impressed with the progress students have made. “It’s really cool to see how they started with this basic understanding,” he says, “and then really dig into these quotes about what changemakers are and connect to that person. It’s really powerful.”

Sierra, though, is a little nervous about the podcast. She doesn’t like the sound of her voice, and is worried she’ll mess up after so much preparation. Still, she’s going for it.

“It’s very new to me. I’m not used to it,” she says. “But I’m excited.”

Oakland Charters