Vidya Community High School Focuses on Being Life Ready

High schools are shifting more focus to learner outcomes and graduate profiles, using terms like “college-and-career ready” and “future ready.” But at Vidya Community High School, a new independent, nonprofit, year-round high school serving the San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley, and beyond, the focus is on being life ready.

The Design

Vidya aims to leverage students’ unique strengths to prepare them for success in all aspects of their lives, according to Muthu Jeganathan, Vidya’s founder and president. This curricular approach combines a broad-based liberal arts education with practical life skills. Jeganthan said the school’s foundational philosophy focuses on organizational skills, personal finance, information technology, ethics and self-efficacy, which are essential to life in the 21st century.

“One way to explain this is that we are working to embrace the applied versus the abstract, the practical over the academic,” Jeganathan said. “Every report or study we have seen tells us that far too many young people are struggling with interpersonal and soft skills: how to collaborate, interact, listen, get things done — or ultimately how to learn.”

The Purpose

Much of Vidya’s impetus stems from Jeganathan’s experiences as both a learner and a professional, as well as the school experiences of his own kids and their friends.

“What I learned from both of my kids is that they made an effort to get good grades but not to really learn,” Jeganathan said. “They were compliant but not motivated. School didn’t seem to teach them that this is not a way to work in the professional world.”

Another epiphany for Jeganathan came from his son’s friend, who even as a preteen wanted to go to Stanford University. Jeganathan asked him, “Why Stanford?”

“He didn’t have an answer,” Jeganathan said. “He judged success on getting into or attending Stanford. Instead of being a means to an end, college has become an end in itself. It made me realize that our students are not fully prepared to even know what learning and success look like. Many children face the same struggle for the race to the top and experience tremendous disappointment once they get there. With Vidya, it is about the journey and not the destination. Lifelong success and inspiration are the focus, rather than just ‘getting there.'”

The Model

All of this is contributing to the curriculum emphasis at Vidya, which includes financial literacy, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and a focus on real-world, professional skills. These correlate with the decision-making skills young people will use and need every day.

“Students need to understand the process and the ‘why,’” Jeganathan said. “I had to learn these at work, but our young people need to learn these now in school.”

Vidya is taking a design learning approach to its mission and vision, according to Vidya’s school director, Dr. Armine Movsisyan. Movsisyan said she and the team are truly focused on a student-centered experience.

“We are asking ourselves about what type of learning environment needs to be created and fostered in order to have a space where students can figure out who they are and what type of life they want,” Movsisyan said.

This design thinking approach for Vidya’s foundation connects to the ongoing learner experience, in which young people are continuously asking, “What are my strengths/talents?” and “Who am I?”

“If we want to support learners in changing the world, which we do, we need to help them first figure out themselves,” Movsisyan said. “Change agents first have to have a sense of their own agency.”

According to Movsisyan, Vidya wants high school students to enter, start asking large questions and never stop doing that. She said this process is at the core of students starting a lifelong learning journey that includes service learning, work-based learning and project-based learning.

“We want all our learners to have unique and high-quality experiences long before they graduate,” Movsisyan said. “We want to be the kickstarter to their individual professional lives.”

As an illustration of the change that needs to occur instructionally, Jeganathan shared a story about Vidya’s governing board treasurer, Tito Ortego. Ortega is currently a project business manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He grew up in Los Angeles, and when he was in school, he wasn’t interested in math.

Ortega remembers thinking how useless geometry was and how it would have been helpful to see the application of geometry. “Learning proofs and theorems about disconnected shapes seemed pointless,” Ortega said. “However, had my math teacher at the time given us fun labs to contemplate these rules and compete, I have no doubt I and others would have been hooked.”

Jeganathan agreed with Ortega and shares an example of how this can be done. “If school had taught Tito geometry through cars, they would have engaged him. They needed to teach math in a way that was relevant to him,” Jeganathan said. “He would have discovered his math abilities much earlier. PBL allows you to do that. Homework, worksheets and textbooks don’t.”

The Private Choice

The decision to go private was initially informed by the recent anti-charter trends happening in southern California. According to Jeganathan, following the Los Angeles Unified strike in the fall of 2019, the political climate added a new level of challenge when the concept of Vidya was born. Private became the only practical path, according to Jeganathan.

“The choice came down to private for-profit or nonprofit, and we chose nonprofit. We felt this was the best way to keep our school’s culture focused on learning,” Jeganathan said. “Another advantage of being private is that we can be nimble and continually improve to give our students, families and community what they want and need.”

Vidya has partnered with Maker Learning Network and is MLN’s first brick-and-mortar private school.

Looking Forward

Vidya’s inaugural freshman class will begin their classes this fall, and applications are currently being accepted. Plans include a robust after-school program, summer camps, several community partnerships and more. The team even plans to offer short-term courses for younger students and financial literacy courses for college students and adults in the community.

“Our students will experience Socratic discussions and project-based learning on a daily basis,” Jeganathan said. “Their focus will be on developing themselves and connecting to their communities for service-oriented, work-based and authentic learning experiences.”

Interested learners, families and community members can discover more about Vidya at their website.

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