Unlocking ZIP Code Expectations, Opening Up the World

A VISA student studies a white board. Image courtesy the school.

A VISA student studies a white board. Image courtesy the school.

Yvonne Chan’s students don't enter her school’s hallways with the social capital of their suburban peers. Many depend on food stamps, and some live in garages, vans, or even converted chicken coops with their families. Many are recent immigrants or children of immigrants who settled in the tough San Fernando neighborhoods that surround the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a preK–12 charter school spread out over four campuses in northwestern Los Angeles County, Calif., that Chan founded 12 years ago. 

These students need an education that prepares them not only for work and citizenship in their community but also for the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing global economic and civic environment. Chan believes that education that makes her students college ready and globally competent, like their suburban counterparts, is a necessity, not a luxury.

Global Curriculum in a Community Context
While the charter movement has many critics, charters like Vaughn are setting the stage for a new way of tackling K–12 education that gives young people a choice rather than locking them into zip-code expectations. Among the 18 schools in the Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network (ISSN), Vaughn is one of two charters based in low-income communities and is doing exemplary work to prepare young people for success in an interconnected world. Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA), the high school within Vaughn Learning Center, is particularly mission-driven and supportive of its diverse community. 

Unlike traditional public high schools, VISA has the curricular autonomy to successfully meet the unique education-related needs of its students. As school leader, Chan uses VISA's international focus to match the school to its community. Mathematics, for example, can be taught much differently in a global context. Many parents of VISA students send money to relatives in different countries. To create a relevant learning environment, VISA teachers help students learn and practice conversion rates and purchasing power of the dollar versus the yuan and peso. Not only is this a valuable strategy in the classroom, but it also provides the opportunity for students to apply their homework to their everyday lives.

Autonomy and Professional Support
Not all charter schools are successful, but some, like VISA, achieve promising results. VISA's first 10th grade class surpassed the state average pass rate (76 percent) for the California High School Exit Exam, with a pass rate of 92 percent. And this year, VISA graduates its first class of seniors. What has helped VISA grow within its community is the network of colleagues within Asia Society’s ISSN with whom VISA staff brainstorm, collaborate, and discuss the challenges they face along the path toward sustaining their vision. ISSN also gives charter movement leaders the space for customization and choice within a framework, providing curricular guidelines while allowing administrators to tailor them to their students and the community they are serving.

No single problem ails our schools, so there is no single solution. While charter schools are by no means a cure-all, some provide an injection of innovation that allows individual community needs to be addressed while meeting state standards of accountability. With VISA and other ISSN schools, charters and otherwise, the Asia Society has managed to meet the growing demand for international education and graduate successful young people who are ready to take on the world. 

Author: Anthony Jackson