Da Vinci Schools: Making Sure Kids are Career Ready

Worksheets are a thing of the past at Da Vinci Schools, a network of four charter schools and a university transfer and career pathway program spanning grades K-13 in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Instead, students design and build  Beats by Da Vinci headphones. They develop sustainable solutions to homelessness in Los Angeles. They create apps and advertising campaigns  to discourage smoking and bad habits. They could probably outsmart you in their sleep.

Da Vinci Schools’ CEO Matthew Wunder has a vision that all of Da Vinci’s students will grow up to be happy and independent adults who are ready to take their place in the global economy. He and his team realize that they have to think outside of the box in order to make that a reality.

Da Vinci students engaging in Robotics.
Da Vinci students engaging in Robotics.

By the time Da Vinci students graduate from high school, they are equipped with 21st-century cognitive and career skills, many have explored career pathways through internships and industry partnerships, and those who have taken advantage of dual-enrollment coursework graduate with valuable college credits, putting them at an advantage in the next phase of their educational career.

A Disconnect

Many K12 schools and school districts across the country are  not effectively preparing students to be independent and to pursue meaningful work as evidenced by low college completion rates and high un- and underemployment rates.

Da Vinci seeks to tackle both of these challenges through a cohesive program that prepares students for both college and career. In addition to dual enrollment options and comprehensive college guidance, students are encouraged to consider other viable pathways to success after high school. ”Vocational education and college prep are separate in most traditional schools but should be integrated in a dual track approach,” Wunder believes. “There should be college prep but also career exposure and readiness for all sorts of possibilities.”

Students succeed when they can connect what they are learning now with prospective future careers. When education enables the exploration of passions and possible career pathways, students are no longer passive learners; they actively engage in their coursework. Da Vinci Schools facilitate this exploration of interests through project-based learning,  21st-century pedagogy, and real world experiences  that bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace.  

Changing the Game – Redefining College and Career Readiness

College and career readiness is an elusive term. Da Vinci Communications High School Principal Nathan Barrymore believes that “Reading, writing, critical thinking, the ability to present [one’s] work, and think through multi-faceted issues are big indicators of preparedness beyond high school.”

Wunder adds that, “We are trying to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist.” That’s no easy task, so where can we start?  At Da Vinci, educators “listen to what businesses, professional organizations, and colleges need, then… focus less on what we are teaching our students, and more on how we teach them and the skills we hear [that] colleges and employers need,” Wunder explained.

However, despite a focus on tangible skills, Da Vinci educators seem to care most about the intangibles. “We want 100 percent of our students to live happy, fulfilled, productive lives, which is more challenging to measure after graduation,” Barrymore says.

It takes a village

Another particularly interesting element of the Da Vinci Schools is the culture. Da Vinci puts a lot of time and energy into designing experiences that promote a strong sense of community. From freshmen overnight bonding experiences to promoting collaboration across interdisciplinary projects, students and teachers work hard to make school enjoyable and fulfilling.

Moreover, Da Vinci’s staff care deeply about their students. “We think of ourselves as parents or uncles who are invested to make sure their children are happy and equipped with the skills to do something that they love. Our job is not done when a kid walks across a graduation stage,” Wunder said.  

DV students collaborate on a mural
DV students collaborate on a mural

In addition to building a cohesive school culture, the Da Vinci “village” extends beyond school walls to connect education to employment and build professional networks that help students secure employment. Unfortunately, all too often, young adults across the country transition from undergraduates to unemployed or underemployed adults — a strong indicator of poor communication between K12,  higher ed institutions, and industry.

Da Vinci Schools seek to bridge this gap by partnering with industry  and local businesses and organizations to help define the knowledge and skill sets needed for success in the global workplace. Industry also  design curriculum projects and prepare students with career ready skills. Students complete projects in every course, and industry professionals are highly involved in designing and supporting these projects. Industry partners may collaborate directly with teachers, serve  as guest lecturers to help inspire students’ thinking, or provide feedback after students present ideas to the company.

“The role of industry partners is to help us develop projects so students  acquire industry knowledge and skill sets that teachers would not know about,” External Relations Director  Carla Levenson said. “They help us define those readiness skills and incorporate them in our  projects. Industry partners also  host internships, field trips, career talks, and much more.”

72andSunny, a leading advertising agency in Playa Vista, CA, is one partner that helps Da Vinci prepare the next generation of creative problem solvers. This year, eight Da Vinci student-interns spent hours immersed at 72’s headquarters exploring storytelling, brand strategy, and production. As a culminating project, they created a Truth ad campaign to stop smoking and then presented it to 72andSunny’s staff. Other students have been paired with a 72andSunny mentor to explore colleges and careers, discuss life management, and more.

DV Design teachers collaborating with Guild (guildisgood.com) employees to spend the day learning about the design process and receive feedback to on upcoming projects.
DV Design teachers collaborate with Guild employees to spend the day learning about the design process and receiving feedback on projects.

Amidst the innovation, Da Vinci schools remain human-centric and student-focused. “The people who support our students on a daily basis are what makes Da Vinci schools special. There is no automated formula that will take the place of caring, confident adults and good teachers know that,” Wunder finished. At Da Vinci, education is about collaboration and building relationships within schools and beyond to close the opportunity and skills gap.


Learn More About Da Vinci Schools

The Da Vinci Schools are comprised of 4 charter schools:  Da Vinci  Innovation Academy – a “homeschool-hybrid” K-8 model , and 3 high schools: Da Vinci Science, Da Vinci, Design, and Da Vinci Communications. Collectively, these schools serve over 1,600 students. Da Vinci students hail from 84 zip codes and represent a range of socioeconomic statuses and ethnicities. Located just south of the LAX International Airport, Da Vinci  is at the hub of big industry and creative neighbors, and they uniquely leverage their geography to design relevant real-world learning experiences for students.

To learn more about their innovative practices to close the opportunity and skills gap one student at a time, attend the Ed Thoughts: Defining Readiness panel at our 11th Annual Forum. Da Vinci’s CEO, Matthew Wunder, will share  his wisdom learned from over 25 years in education. Register here.

Additionally, a small cohort of STC schools will conduct a deep dive into Da Vinci’s best practices this July during our first ever Leadership Institute. Attendees will learn how to design project-based learning, conduct mastery-based grading, build positive school cultures, and create effective industry partnerships. For more information, email clamb@schoolsthatcan.org.