By Stephen K. Peeples
Part 1 of 2 parts. Read Part 2: Students and Parents Talk About SCVi .
Santa Clarita Valley International, or SCVi for short, is a tuition-free public K-12 charter school authorized by the Wm. S. Hart Union High School District that differs in a multitude of ways from the traditional schools most kids attended in the 20th Century.
A visitor to SCVi’s campus will notice the physical difference right away. The school is in the well-manicured Hasley Canyon Commerce Center on Hasley Canyon Road in Castaic, and looks nothing like a typical American school building on a campus surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire.
What’s really different, though, is the school administrators’ creative and very 21st Century approach to teaching, and the way they have transformed the school’s interior design to complement that approach. Areas were designed and built to be places kids think are fun, where they can freely enjoy exchanging knowledge and ideas, and learning together.
That’s a paradigm shift from the old-school ways in the old days, when kids were often jammed in classrooms and told by authoritarian teachers to sit down at our neat rows of desks, shut up, listen, memorize and regurgitate information on demand, and be punished in some way if we got it wrong.
None of that bad stuff happens at SCVi.
Inside the storefront entrance and beyond the lobby, a visitor sees how most of the classrooms for the elementary grades have open floor plans. Kids are seemingly scattered all over the place, but most are in small groups, and each is purposefully doing something.“The kids are up and around and not sitting quietly at desks. No one looks bored. Everybody looks engaged,” said Amber Raskin, SCVi’s co-founder and executive director of business development and operations, describing the scene.
Raskin said the school’s project-oriented curriculum is designed to engender teamwork, creative thinking and real-world problem-solving ability among kids. So the rooms’ physical layouts are likewise designed to make it easier for different age and interest groups to share their experiences and work on projects and learn from each other.
“We like to see interdisciplinary and joint projects, shared projects, whenever possible,” Raskin said. “Team-building is a 21st Century skill.”
She said all the activity going on in the class areas is an essential element of SCVi’s approach. “We believe that learning happens when you're active. Research shows that when you connect your learning with emotion, positive or negative, you remember more. So, we intentionally work with the students to build relationships – with each other, the adults on campus, the community – because you learn better that way. And you learn when you're in a good mood. You learn when you're happy to be where you are. My whole incentive for starting this school was I think learning is fun, and it should be fun.”
On the building’s second floor, the middle school and high school wings look a little more like traditional classrooms, but instead of rows of desks, there are tables that seat five or six students each, and furniture arranged in other creative ways. The older kids work on projects, read, and/or interact with their teachers much in the same was their younger schoolmates do, but far more quietly.
Another big difference between SCVi and traditional schools is the presence of electronic devices like tablets and smartphones. Tablets are in use by some students in the elementary grades, but electronic tools are ubiquitous in SCVi’s middle school and high school classes. When used in the course of studying or learning, the teachers and staff consider the devices to be valuable tools, not time-wasting distractions.
With a background in the business side of television and children of her own, Raskin founded SCVi in 2207 and opened the first school on Smyth Drive in Valencia in September 2008, with about 40 students and a handful of teachers. The school has since moved to its present location and continued to grow as local parents and students discover it as another alternative to traditional public schools, aside from home-schooling or private schools. Now, there are nearly 800 SCVi students enrolled in grades K-11, with 12th grade to be added next year, and about 30 teachers, also referred to as facilitators, now on the staff, Raskin said.
Because SCVi is a public charter school, there’s no fee to attend, and no residency requirement, so any student from anywhere in or out of the Hart district can apply. There have always been more applicants than available space, so the school holds a public lottery each March for the coming fall term.
Modeled after Wildwood, an innovative private school in West Los Angeles, and High-Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, SCVi has developed a curriculum that emphasizes projects and creative problem-solving in math, science, English and history, as well as the arts and technology.
Raskin said SCVi is in the final stages of securing its accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), and expects that imprimatur by early 2014. She also anticipates SCVi will receive full A-G accreditation next fall for its grades 9-12 high school courses, so SCVi credits will be transferable to any UC or CSU college.
SCVi’s most recent API score (Academic Performance Index) from the state Department of Education, based on statewide STAR tests students took in 2012, was 764. Statewide, Raskin said, “We’re doing pretty well.” The target is 800.
Compared to other Santa Clarita Valley schools, SCVi’s score is “a little bit lower than average,” she said. “What’s hard about API scores is that there are no K-12 schools like us to compare us to. Typically we’re compared to an elementary school, and some of our elementary schools are off the charts. Also, we choose not to focus on the test, and we’re intentionally not teaching to the test, so we don’t score quite as high as they do. But when you talk to the kids, they obviously know the material.”
California’s DOE is now transitioning to the Common Core State Standards (aka National Standards) for academic performance. “The current STAR testing system has been designed to measure the current California State Standards, but these new Common Core State Standards are more closely aligned with SCVi's philosophy,” Raskin said. “At SCVi we have been using them for a few years. Once the testing system shifts to assessing the Common Core State Standards, we anticipate and expect a rise in our API score.”
In summer 2011, SCVi was named an International Baccalaureate candidate school, and Raskin expects final IB approval for the school’s upper grades in spring 2013. The designation comes from an international nonprofit academic group that has established standards for students’ problem-solving skills and real-world practical application of concepts.
“We've been designing our courses and our course outlines and all of our trainings to have an environment that IB will say is appropriate to offering a diploma program,” Raskin said, “and we do plan to eventually offer IB in kindergarten through 12th grade, which is a unique thing about our school.”
With traditional funding augmented by an active, ongoing fundraising effort, SCVi has expanded its campus to meet the needs of its growing student body.
Parts of the 33,545-square-foot main building ground floor were built out last summer, just in time for the fall semester, Raskin said. The school has also recently leased another adjacent 14,141-square-foot building recently left vacant when a growing church congregation moved to larger quarters, and plans to transform it into SCVi’s high school by fall 2013.
And in the not-so-distant future, the school hopes to add new science labs to the campus as soon as funds are lined up to design and build them. “That’s our fundraising goal this year – science,” Raskin said.
Amber Raskin takes care of business and operations at SCVi.
Meanwhile, SCVi has already opened a second public charter school in Lancaster, called the iLEAD Lancaster Charter School , modeled after SCVi, that’s now enrolling K-5 students and will soon expand to include grades six through eight.
On the day we visited the Castaic campus, SCVi celebrated the grand opening of its new café, set up in an adjacent 3,874-square-foot space vacated by a restaurant that went out of business. The new café serves a lunch daily for the school’s students and staff, with Whole Foods sponsoring the salad and fruit bar. A sign painted on a café wall reads, “Gathering Place to Nourish the Mind, Body, Heart and Soul.”
“Instead of doing a traditional feels-like-a-like kind of cafeteria, we decided to create a special space for kids, because we're all about honoring kids here,” Raskin said. “It almost feels like a gift to them. We've done this for the same (cost) but it’s not what a traditional cafeteria would look like. We got very inexpensive flooring, we had it installed by volunteers, most of the furniture and all of the kitchen equipment is used, the TVs and monitors you see have been donated by Comedy Central and installed by volunteers. It's just a huge labor of love.”
The Café’s kid-friendly casual, social atmosphere is one thing; what about the food?
“The chef is a parent who now works here, and she has created extremely healthy menus,” Raskin said. “She has spent hours and hours and hours researching food and ingredients to make sure they're as clean as possible, so they have as few preservatives and red dyes, as little hydrogenated corn syrup, as possible. And part of this is an effort to show that it can be done, so we can do it (at our Lancaster) school.”
Raskin encourages interested parents, potential students and community members to take a tour of SCVi. “You really don't get a sense of it until you're here on this campus,” she said. “It looks and feels so different, and you don't know that until you walk through the doors. But there are tours every Thursday, almost every Thursday morning, given by current parents at the school who are volunteers, and it ends with a Q&A with the administrators.”
Raskin also suggests a visit to the school’s website at www.scvcharterschool.org  before visiting in person.
“You can read about how and why we do what we do in the ‘About Us’ section,” she said. “ And you can apply to get your kids on the list to go into the lottery, which happens in March. It's all electronic. On the Admissions page, it talks a lot about how to do that. And you can take a look at the schools that were models for SCVi. There's also a place to apply for jobs.”
Raskin said SCVi is the only school of its kind in the Santa Clarita Valley. “At least right now, but we're not the only one in the country. There are a lot of other project-based schools. It’s definitely the way of the future.”
Check out SCVi’s YouTube channel .
Read Part 2: Students and Parents Talk About SCVi .
Photos: Stephen K. Peeples