Da Vinci Charter Academy - reaching students with special needs through project-based learning

April 2, 2013

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CCSA's special education team has recently had the pleasure of learning about the Da Vinci Charter Academy's program. In the 9th year of operation, the school achieves tremendous success with unique populations through a project-based learning approach to instruction.

Da Vinci Charter Academy is a dependent charter school serving 7th-12th grades in Davis, California. The school's total enrollment is close to 550 students, with approximately 60 students per grade in grades 7-9 and 100 students per grade in grades 10-12. Da Vinci is one of the oldest out of over 100 members of the New Tech Network, a national school reform organization that works with schools, districts, and communities to develop innovative public schools and fundamentally rethink teaching and learning. All of the teachers at Da Vinci use project based learning (PBL), a student-centered approach to inquiry-based curriculum contextualized in real-life circumstances. Students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity, and communication in order for them to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems. "Students aren't just assessed on their understanding of academic content, but on their ability to successfully apply that content when solving authentic problems. Through this process, PBL gives students the opportunity to develop the real life skills required for success in today's world"

Da Vinci's Approach to Special Education

The special education population at Da Vinci is approximately 8.5% of total enrollment with a wide range of disabilities represented. The school serves a relatively high percentage of students with low-incidence disabilities including autism, vision and hearing impairments, and cerebral palsy. The high school's special education program is run by 2 special education teachers--one with a mild/moderate credential and one with a moderate/severe credential - Nicole Chiamparino Roper and Kristen Uliasz, with support of 4 para-educators. While the primary focus of the team is on full inclusion of all students achieved through co-teaching and co-planning projects with the general education teachers, the education specialists also teach an elective course called Study and Transition Skills that allows them to provide daily individualized instruction to all of the students on their caseloads that builds essential skills and understandings aimed at helping students be successful in core classes and beyond. They also offer a reading and writing intervention classes. The students' IEP goals are typically addressed through the general curriculum, which, in the words of the team, "is much easier to embed in project based-learning". Special Education is also very much a part of the school culture; the team runs an after school homework club for the whole school, and they have a lot of resources that many students on campus take advantage of.

Integrating Project-based Learning

So how does PBL work? The PBL units or projects last typically 3-5 weeks. The students work collaboratively in teams to solve a challenge and provide evidence of their learning through a public demonstration of understanding. Da Vinci ensures a one-to-one student to computer ratio and the curriculum is entirely delivered through learning management system in a 7-period day and 90-minute modified block schedule. "Because of the nature of the program, the learning is unique. Sophomores are just coming up on their big feature project--World War I museum project. The students formed groups of 5 and chose a country or a topic (e.g. Red Cross) to become experts on. They are creating a museum exhibit which will be a huge community event where they will serve as museum docents and guide community members through their exhibits," described Nicole. Like many projects at Da Vinci, this is an interdisciplinary project; the students are reading historical fiction in English and studying the literary pieces that focus on realism, artifacts, and primary sources (e.g. writing letters from a soldier's perspective).

While Da Vinci Charter Academy has been designed around PBL, the majority of the projects have been developed from scratch by the teachers, and they continue to evolve every year. Most importantly, the special education teachers have been involved in planning and revision of the projects in order to ensure the level of flexibility that is necessary to reach every learner. They use an online software where teachers and students can interface and upload/download assignments, which significantly aides in transparency, collaboration, and accountability.

Many of the curricular strands are still being developed, particularly in the areas of math and science. From a special educator's perspective, PBL allows for variety of options to meet the students' needs including modifying assignments, adjusting grading rubrics, and helping students find appropriate roles in their teams to maximize their learning and allow them to feel successful while continuing to work towards their individualized goals and objectives.

Key Challenges and Tips for Other Schools

As is the case with most success stories, Da Vinci's journey has not been easy. Some of the main challenges include funding, training and maintaining effective para-educators, getting a grasp on all of the different projects and content areas, and finding the time to co-plan the different elements of various projects. However, their investment, dedication, and collaboration have paid off. This past year the school's API for students with disabilities subgroup was 713--significantly higher than a statewide average (584 for grades 7-8 and 515 for grades 9-11). In English Language Arts, almost 78% (compared to 35.7% statewide) of students with disabilities scored proficient or advanced on the CST.

"The magic of Da Vinci is the spirit of inclusion that permeates our professional culture. The amount of work that teachers put in is mitigated by the fact that we area so highly collaborative and we see our students succeed," said the school leader, Rody Boonchouy. Kristen added that, at Da Vinci, "PBL lends itself to meaningful inclusion on a secondary level because it is so easy to adapt to any students' needs. You can modify the access point, you can modify the process, and you can modify the product. That's the key; it's the most successful inclusion I have ever seen."

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