On May 21st, Schools That Can hosted innovators focusing on the need for a K-16 pathway, and blurring the lines between K-12 schooling, postsecondary education and training, and the world of work to create more equitable opportunities. Listen to the full session, featuring Matt Wunder (CEO & Superintendent and a founder of Da Vinci Schools), Michelle Rainey (Executive Director, Da Vinci Connect), Joel Vargas (Vice President of the Education practice at Jobs for the Future), and Yusuf Ahmad (Playlab) below, and scroll on for key takeaways.


Panelists were asked: What’s your why?

“My “why” comes down to this 7-year-old version of myself who felt very disjointed within educational settings. I was diagnosed with processing disorders and dyslexia when I was young, and having an IEP in a school system that was fairly competitive created a lot of shame in my entire educational journey. It really wasn’t until I landed at Da Vinci Schools, and there were these open dialogues about the gifts that we all have, and an acknowledgement that we all have gaps, and that there isn’t shame in that, that I really started to become vulnerable enough to grow as a learner. My “why” is to create school systems that take the shame out of learning differences, and all of our gifts and gaps, and create spaces where that can be talked about and used to advantages–not used to hold people back.” Michelle Rainey

“I did my undergrad at Columbia, and I was part of a program–if you know Posse Foundation and Posse Scholars, that was similar to it, that did a lot of youth and identity development work. That transformed me. like I thought about learning very academic or as career oriented, being a first-generation immigrant, and it showed me that learning is much more than that. Learning is about finding your identity, finding your voice, finding your power to do things in the world with other people. My “why”  is really helping people find their power. Most people don’t realize that they can create and they think that they need to consume things that other people have created. I think that you know consumption is great–I love Netflix–but I think it’s also really powerful when each person has a feeling of creation. A lot of my work is oriented around creating tools, software that empowers more people to create and to bring their ideas to life.” – Yusuf Ahmad

“My “life launch” program was not called such, but I stumbled upon it, in a good way, in middle school and it changed my life. I’m convinced I would have stumbled on the way to college and career had it not been for that program, which really stuck with me through my high school and in college years. It opened my eyes to the inequitable education system that we have in this country. I was determined that my “why” would be to eliminate those stumbling blocks for others and to create programs that people didn’t have to stumble upon, because they would be just something that would exist at scale that young people would find themselves in that would help launch their lives.” – Joel Vargas

Food for thought:

“The other thing I’m sitting with is–this is a bigger problem than education. It’s connected to our civic institutions. It’s connected to the geography of our cities.  I think there’s the bigger problems that are outside of education that impact opportunity and mobility. How might you start to integrate kids into real life in their teens? What are the kind of ways in which you scaffold with their connection to real communities of adult learning and adult practice? Where they can see it. Imagine a kid at a skate park–it’s really cool to just see the culture of learning that can develop in context like that. The challenge is a lot of adult life and adult work is like cordoned off for most young people.” – Yusuf Ahmad

“I’m a firm believer in exposure through scaffolded experiences that really stretch young people to do things with support beyond what they thought they could do themselves. It’s so important with the right support and the right exposure, and the skilled teaching and learning that comes with good instruction. I think those build a sense of self-efficacy in young people that’s invaluable. It’s a durable skill, as I say, throughout life. I actually think settings that encourage what Raj Chetty called “economic connectedness,” which is knowing people who are not from your own background necessarily. Everybody has social capital, right? But it’s really social capital across class, racial lines that is associated seemingly with mobility. We can talk about ways that plays out, but it’s there. I think we should design around that, design for it. Stability, momentum, some connection to the economy–that’s what supports choices, ultimately. It slays me when people just come back and say, well, we’ve got to give them a choice. People have very bounded views of what their choices are. So all the things that I talked about, I think, are ways to expand that field, realistically, of choices.” – Joel Vargas

Our newest high school at Da Vinci Schools launched with the intention of students earning their AA and/or bachelor’s degree within their time here at Da Vinci. We have had some success, and examples of that system working, but our college partnerships have been many and morphing. What we’ve learned in the process is that I believe there are three main ingredients that have to be there for it to be successful for kids and for the K-12 schools that are partnering for dual enrollment outcomes: affordability, transferability and reliability. […] Kids don’t know when they’re 14, 15, 16 necessarily what they want to be doing in a few years or 5 years and 10 years. We want to keep all those avenues open for them. Even students having agency over whether that course is transcripted is really important. We really are intentional about what grade levels kids have certain experiences in, and when they can safely have those experiences with certain dual enrollment partnerships.” – Michelle Rainey