The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) is launching a project-based learning program for 100 students entering ninth grade in the fall in a renovated space at Olympic High School.

The students will embark on a four-year program that will allow them to pursue their own interests, form relationships with real-world experts in those topics and demonstrate their knowledge with a project or presentation at the end of each semester. The Olympic campus at Lincoln and Ocean Park Boulevards will accommodate the program, said Jessica Rishe, principal of Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH).

“Project-based learning is already threaded throughout the district … it improves student-teacher engagement and helps close the achievement and opportunity gap,” Rishe said. “We’re trying to expand what’s there to help students in postsecondary preparation, accessing meaningful work and fostering high levels of civic engagement.”

Parents of current eighth-grade students from Lincoln Middle School, John Adams Middle

School, SMASH and Malibu Middle School, along with others living in the SMMUSD boundaries, are invited to an information session about the program. The sessions will be held Monday at Malibu High School, Tuesday at John Adams and next Tuesday at Lincoln. All sessions will start at 5 p.m. and end at 6 p.m.

Students will participate in four main activities each week, Rishe said. The first, Leaving to Learn, entails weekly off-campus fieldwork in groups of 14 students and one teacher that will allow students to explore interests of their choice by learning from real-world experts, she said. Upperclassmen may be able to receive individual mentorship from professionals as the program develops.

Rishe said Leaving to Learn aims to supply students with the social network and social capital that private schools often provide in addition to cultivating college readiness and career skills.

“Besides what they learn about specific topics, it teaches them how to navigate public transit, dress appropriately for certain settings and productive communication skills,” she said.

The program also includes a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) block with an integrated STEM curriculum that includes some visual art and a humanities block that covers the district’s English, history and social justice standards, Rishe said.

Students will also participate in advisory, where about two dozen students will stay with the same teacher for at least one year and hopefully all four years, Rishe said. Advisors will check in on students to update their individualized education plans, reflect on what they have learned in their fieldwork and their STEAM and humanities blocks, and identify their strengths and goals.

“It’s about practicing how to express your feelings and identify your needs,” she said.

Advisory will be at the end of the school day and students will have the option to use the time to take a college course or join a sports team at nearby Santa Monica High School.

At the end of each semester, teachers will write narrative report cards and students will create projects and presentations related to what they have learned.

“Students will present not just their final projects, but what their process was, what they’ve learned about themselves and what they can do to apply themselves next semester,” Rishe said.

SMMUSD will post the application for the project-based learning program on its website Mar. 19 and it will be due Apr. 30, Rishe said. The district will then conduct a computerized lottery at the beginning of May and contact parents.

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