Orange County’s Samueli Academy Makes Space for All Learners

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    Space matters. Our physical environments affect not only how we feel but how we function. This is especially evident in schools. A classroom environment communicates what students will be doing in the classroom and what’s important. Busy educators know that the business of teaching and learning can be messy, chaotic, and often unpredictable. However, schools can overcome time constraints and limited resources to meet the requirements of digital-age teaching and learning.


    One school that is bravely re-envisioning learning spaces is Samueli Academy (formerly The Academy).


    Samueli Academy is a college-preparatory public charter high school in Santa Ana, California that will ultimately serve a student body of 480 foster, underserved, and community teens. The attendance rate in that first year was 97%—one of the highest rates of any school in Orange County, California. Additionally, 50% of students finished the first year with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. As Samueli Academy’s 7.1 acres campus is built out, it will eventually include residential living for up to 80 foster teens.


    “Most of us school administrators have gone through our lives experiencing only one form of education,” says Anthony Saba, the head of school at Samueli Academy. “But just because learning has been delivered the same basic way for all these years, doesn’t mean that that’s the best way to do things anymore. Samueli Academy is engaging kids like no other school I’ve ever seen. But engagement through neat and engaging learning spaces coupled with phenomenal teachers is, unfortunately, not the traditional formula. That’s why we have a 97% attendance record: Kids really want to learn this way. And our learning spaces go a long way in achieving that.”


    Seeing the Difference


    Walking through the classrooms of Samueli Academy, you can immediately notice a contrast from traditional school configurations. For one, there are no typical desks arranged in rows facing a teacher up in front of the class who is disseminating a lesson. You also notice flexible groupings of students who are collaborating with one another freely and with purpose. 
“We not only teach collaboration in everything we do, but we assess on collaboration as well,” explains Saba. “It’s part of every student’s grade in every single class: how well they can collaborate with one another. It’s very hard to positively and effectively collaborate when seated side-by-side in rows, listening to lectures. They must collaborate with one another in every project, learning the essential interpersonal skills it takes to work in teams.” 


    The classrooms of Samueli Academy feature Steelcase Verb tables and Node chairs so that the furniture can be quickly reconfigured to suit learning needs. The Node chairs have special arms specifically designed to accommodate tablet devices or laptops, and are in effect mini workstations. These mobile chairs allow students to easily form spontaneous learning groups to discuss a project or lesson with one another, or to congregate around the teacher for a teacher-driven discussion.


    All students at Samueli Academy have Toshiba laptops, while teachers have their own tablets, laptops, and smart projectors with interactive pens that allow them to navigate through content and draw graphs. Teachers also have document cameras. The school’s engineering room has a 3D printer, and science labs feature microscopes with miniature LCD screens that are connected to laptops so that students can better carry out experiments. Even Samueli Academy’s health education classes have heart rate monitors that the students can strap on so that teachers can wirelessly monitor the bodily stats of each student.


    Building the Skills Students Need to Succeed


    As part of the New Tech Network—a nonprofit organization that works nationwide with schools, districts, and communities to develop innovative public schools—Samueli Academy uses much of what the organization provides in terms of a rubric when teaching collaboration. At the end of every project, students must present their projects before a group composed of not just teachers but also outside community members who score and critique student presentations. Many of the same community members who assessed student presentations in Samueli Academy’s first year came to do the same in the following year since they were so impressed, seeing for themselves how the students grew in confidence and delivery.


    Samueli Academy actively assesses students’ written and oral communication skills, as well as agency skills such as literacy and numeracy. According to Saba, having the right flexible and adaptable furniture configurations lends itself to all of this perfectly. Verb tables feature detachable, personal whiteboards so students can easily visualize learning concepts, share ideas with group mates, or write answers to a teacher’s questions. This technology allows the teacher to instantly gauge the student’s understanding and better assess outcomes. 


    “In this day and age, 21st-century skill building is not only about what students need to know, but why they need to know it,” Saba says. “Students need to embody the skills that today’s companies are screaming for. Not just ticking off answers to bubble tests, but a thorough mastering of how to work efficiently in dynamic teams; how to stand up and present your work with confidence; and how to work with and incorporate meaningful feedback. It’s really hard to do any of those things when you’ve spent your school days sitting still and listening to lectures, simply regurgitating notes. True education is most powerful when students are in charge of their own learning with this dynamic learning experience facilitated by skilled teachers well versed in new tools and new ways of engaging with their students.”


    Read the entire Samueli Academy Case Study in the book Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Success.