Featuring Locally Grown Public Schools: What ARISE students think about Linked Learning

Linked Learning helps prepare students for college and career. But how does it really work at an Oakland public high school, and what do the students think?

ARISE students and staff.

ARISE High seniors crowded around a large table in an upstairs classroom in the school’s Fruitvale Village campus on a Monday morning. They were here to meet a visitor to talk about Linked Learning and the big change happening at the school over the past year as it launches a Public and Community Health for the People pathway.

Jesus Rodriguez, one of the seniors, said it was important to note the “huge shift” that has happened at the school, moving from a social justice focus to the new pathway. While the school stays true to its social justice mission, elements of health and medicine are now important parts of the students’ classes. “We still have classes like ethnic studies, but our science classes are more health focused,” he said. “I think that helps a lot of people in this school because that’s what they’re interested in. For example, a lot of people sign up for medical terminology, which shows that a lot of (ARISE students) want to pursue a career in the medical field.”

ARISE, a locally grown Oakland public charter school, is one of the many Oakland high schools that has shifted instruction to Linked Learning in recent years. In 2014, Oakland voters overwhelmingly passed Measure N, a parcel tax that delivers $10 million each year for 10 years to Oakland public schools — district and charter, the first citywide measure that supports all Oakland public schools. The funding goes to support college and career pathways, also known as Linked Learning, which is proven to increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and better prepare students for post-secondary success.

Linked Learning has four pillars: rigorous academic core, integrated or contextualized instruction, work based learning and personalized learning, said Dr. Gary Yee. Yee is a former OUSD parent, teacher, principal, school board director and interim superintendent who is currently running for the District 4 Oakland Unified school board seat this year. Yee serves on the Measure N commission, which monitors the progress of Linked Learning implementation across the district, reviews proposals from schools, makes recommendations and reports back to the public. He was also instrumental in bringing Linked Learning to OUSD, getting Measure N on the ballot, and led the campaign to get it passed.

“They are totally excited about it,” Yee said about ARISE’s transition to a pathway school, and though the pathway is a work in progress he called the school “a model on how you think about transforming a school.”

“When you think about ARISE and its target population, this is really ideal,” Yee said. “They are interested in a non-traditional instructional model and I think Linked Learning fits them really well.”

For ARISE, the shift to the pathway happened at the beginning of the 2017–18 school year. This group of seniors, the school’s student ambassadors, have participated in and witnessed the big change. There was some trial and error in the beginning, said Soo Jin Kim, ARISE’s Head of School, who joined last year. Staff and the administration had to figure out how to keep doing what they did well while incorporating more work-based learning, rigorous academics, more internship opportunities. “Our theme of Community and Public Health came about organically,” Kim said. “We met as a staff and had several conversations about, ‘What is our identity and how are we going to best prepare our students for college and career?’”

The career component, Kim said, is as important as the college focus. “If a student just has a high school diploma, the job market is pretty limited,” Kim said. “(We talked about) what can we do to make sure they’re getting the certification and training they need, so if they decide not to go to college right away they have some viable solutions and are set up for success.”

The buy-in from staff, Kim said, happened in part because the school is grounded in what students need above all else. “It’s less about the adults and what they feel like they’re capable of doing,” she said. “The focus is back on the students, and why it is that we do the work that we do. I think that changes attitudes and beliefs. It moves culture faster.”

The pathway has brought a focus to the school that previously wasn’t there, said Josette Neal-De-Stanton, ARISE’s pathway developer for health science, and a former teacher and department chair at the school. “Our overarching theme has always been social justice and a lot of our learning has been grounded in that,” she said, “but just in the humanities department. Figuring out how to get that in the STEM classes was a challenge. But with Linked Learning, we have this theme that brings in science and humanities. Watching us go from separate entities to a community has been really great.”

While some of the students said they were interested in medicine, their interests ranged from law to fashion. They all agreed, though, that the pathway has brought positive change and an important focus to the school. What they’re learning feels more applicable to the real world and connected to their community. They feel more engaged, more motivated.

Karina Ruelas said she is interested in medicine and sees the opportunity to study the subject in high school as an advantage. “When I get to college, I’ll already know certain things that other people might not know,” she said.

Reyna Pablo is interested in fashion. Students have presented their work (for example last May, a multi-disciplinary, multi-grade level presentation called “What hurts us, what heals us”). Reyna said she enjoyed preparing the presentation and planning, and the opportunity to show what she learned to people outside the classroom. “I’m not sure what career I want to have or what I want to become,” she said, “but maybe something related to planning and just being out and active.”

Jesus said students are working on research projects where they’re identifying local public health issues and then are presenting that information to members of the community. “We become critical thinkers and become aware of what’s happening and how we can help our community,” he said. “The best thing is we get to inform others, share our knowledge. I think that’s the whole purpose of education, not to keep your knowledge to yourself but to share it with others and inform them.”