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Daily Breeze | June 9, 2011

Grade Advancement Not A Given at Da Vinci

By Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer

For students at Da Vinci Charter high school in Hawthorne, advancing to the next grade doesn't come easy.

Instead of year-end finals, they perform a task that is even more nerve-racking: delivering a presentation to a roomful of adults and fellow students to prove their salt. It ends with the student getting grilled - oftentimes aggressively - by a panel of teachers and industry professionals.

The exercise calls to mind how doctoral students must "defend" their dissertations, and at Da Vinci, it isn't perfunctory: At least a quarter of the kids fail, and the sessions can be deeply embarrassing for the under-prepared.

For the past couple of weeks, the 2-year-old school has been holding the high-stakes "presentation of learning" sessions in every classroom. On these days, the school's 650 students are free to roam in and out of classrooms, where their nervous peers - sometimes all gussied up for the occasion - are sweating on center stage, trying to convince the audience they're worthy of moving on to the next grade.

It's an emotional time of year, and the general mood in the hallways is simultaneously tense, elated and dejected.

Da Vinci Charter - which consists of a pair of twin campuses on Aviation Boulevard, one focusing on science, the other design - is among the South Bay's latest additions to a growing reform movement in public education that turns traditional schooling sideways, if not on its head.

While the school is still legally obligated to teach students the content standards adopted by the state of California, it - like other charter schools - is free to do so in a way that is decidedly unorthodox.

Da Vinci is hands-on without being vocational. That is to say, students learn by doing, for the purpose of attending a four-year college, and eventually attaining a white-collar job in fields such as engineering, law or design.

In the science school, to learn about the path of a parabola in quadratic equations, students build machines that launch golf balls. In the design school, to better understand the anguish felt by World War I soldiers, students create their own gas masks.

Not coincidentally, Da Vinci is a reflection of its unique environment: The school sits in the shadow of an aerospace hub, filled with rocket scientists and high-end designers.

The businesses - such as Northrop Grumman and Mattel - provide mentors and even part-time instructors, as well as a place for students to work as apprentices.

As for the end-of-year presentations, they can occasionally call to mind an episode of "American Idol," with the panel dispensing some potent doses of constructive criticism.

"There's a lot about your presentation that tells me you thought you were bright enough to skate without really working hard on it," Jeannie Hardie, a professional designer, told a smart student whose mastery of the material - the history and purpose of propaganda - proved less than complete.

"I think you know everything in this presentation, and you thought you could just kind of wing it. You can't do that."

As the sophomore grimaced in front of a class of about 30 students, another professional designer on the panel weighed in.

"You weren't sure of the level of detail used to present because you didn't know - you need to know," David Chodosh said. "That's on you. That's just not acceptable to come into a presentation and not know the level of detail that's required."

Matthew Wunder, the school's executive director, said the aim is not to tear students down, but rather to push them closer to their ultimate potential.

"It's all about: Here's what you're going to need to do to be successful beyond your current trajectory," he said.

Even though a sizable proportion of the students fail on the first try, they can present as many times as they need to in order to advance. Last year, just a couple of students were held back.

As for the young school's success rate, the test scores are thus far mixed. For whatever reason, the science school has vastly outperformed its design counterpart. When compared with schools across California with similar demographics, Da Vinci Science fares in the top 10 percent; Da Vinci Design ranks in the bottom 10 percent.

Wunder said there are many reasons for the discrepancy, but added that he expects the design scores to soon head upward as the school becomes fully enrolled.

Meanwhile, this week, in one of the many rooms hosting the presentations, ninth-grader Michael Moreno stood in front of a full classroom. Bedecked in a dark suit and tie and clutching a laser-pointer to enhance his PowerPoint presentation, he humbly defended his grasp of literature and mathematics.

Defining one of several terms associated with Shakespearean themes, he said: "Fate is something that your whole life ... you were supposed to meet this girl, you were supposed to love this girl or you weren't," he said.
During the dreaded Q-and-A session, Michael's English teacher took him to task for some grammatical errors on the PowerPoint slides.

"How do you spell Shakespearean?" she asked, noting his erroneous spelling: "Shakespearn."

His math teacher asked him a contextual question about geometry: What is the name of the operation that takes place when solving the problem 3X + 5 = 14?

"The subtraction property of equality?" he tried.

"OK, thank you," the teacher said, satisfied.

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