Oxford Day Academy (ODA) opened its doors in East Palo Alto this month, welcoming students to a different kind of school day. At ODA, students are rarely sitting down inside a classroom. Instead, they spend mornings working at an internship at a local nonprofit, creating with their art teacher a mural for a building in their community, or practicing their Spanish by writing an op-ed for the local Spanish newspaper. They spend their afternoons in “learning studios,” coming up with a solution to a local problem and then defending their research findings during “tutorials” with their peers. They end their day one-on-one with a counselor who guides them through the social-emotional tools and skills they need to reach their academic goals.

For most of us, this isn’t our traditional picture of high school. But at Oxford Day Academy (ODA), this kind of learning is the new normal.

“So often, we have just accepted what most high schools have to offer, and we believe there’s just no space to cater to a student’s individual experience,” says Mallory Dwinal, the school’s founder. “But I want parents to believe that they have every right to demand this level of learning from their schools.”

I want parents to believe that they have every right to demand this level of learning from their schools.”

ODA is a tuition-free charter public school. It opened its doors this fall with 68 freshmen and will grow to serve 272 students in total after its first four years.

Before opening ODA, Dwinal was part of Innovate’s Start-up Schools Fellowship, an intensive one-year leadership program that helps school leaders launch new, innovative schools. The fellowship supports Innovate’s mission to increase the number of high-quality schools in the Bay Area serving underserved students. ODA is one of over a dozen schools supported by the program.

ODA is a “multicultural social leadership academy” that aims to “transform the traditional public high school model by engaging and developing intelligent, compassionate young leaders with the character, ability, and passion they need to create positive change in the world.”

ODA’s model combines service-learning projects with academic “tutorials” where students learn how to defend their research work. Dwinal first observed the “tutorial” method during her PhD program at University of Oxford in England. At ODA, students use the tutorial method to connect their real-world projects with their academic learning.

Here’s how it works: first, students pick a challenge they see in their own community. They then work with their teacher in “learning studios” to learn everything they need to know about the topic, brainstorm an inter-disciplinary solution to the problem, and test it. For example, a student tackling the issue of littering would learn algebraic equations in order to graph data on local litter distribution. She would learn the historical strategies used by environmental movements in the past and compare it with strategies used today. She could use biology concepts to predict the consequences of littering on the local ecosystem. Then, she would learn expository writing structures to help draft a trash reduction strategy brief for city officials.

I want our school to prove that engaged, hands-on learning doesn’t have to be a privilege of the wealthy.”

“We focus all our work around helping students use math, reading, social studies and other content to be better problem solvers for social issues,” says Dwinal. “Instead of learning information just for information’s sake, they directly apply academic learning to social problems.”

Afterwards, students write a paper explaining the logic behind their decision-making and process, and defend their findings in front of a small group. They then reflect with their teacher about what they can improve in the future. The following semester, students can choose to dig deeper into their topic, or move on to address a different one.

Dwinal was inspired to use this kind of service-learning after seeing this kind of approach at high-performing private schools like Acton Academy in Austin, Texas and Khan Lab School in Mountain View. Since July 2015, Dwinal has been piloting ODA’s model at Khan Lab School to test and refine her approach.

“I want our school to prove that engaged, hands-on learning doesn’t have to be a privilege of the wealthy,” says Dwinal. “I want people to believe that all students are capable of critical thinking, of being leaders in their communities, and of learning in this rigorous, applied way.”

The most important facet of our teacher training model is that it mirrors the learning model students experience at our school.”

But you don’t get this kind of student learning without first training teachers to teach in such an innovative way. That’s why ODA put its teachers through the same learning cycle students would experience during the school year. For example, instead of sitting through a professional development lecture on personalized learning, teachers tackle the subject using experiential learning, individual research, group discussions, and debate about how to best use personalized learning in the classroom. They then create lesson planning templates that incorporate their findings.

“The most important facet of our teacher training model is that it mirrors the learning model students experience at our school,” says Dwinal. “This allows our teachers to ‘live’ the Oxford Day Academy model, and fully understand the nuances of our approach.”

Last year, Dwinal hired an initial staff of 12, including six teachers who spent the entire 2016-2017 school year in this learning cycle.

In November of 2015, ODA was recognized at the White House’s Next Generation Learning Summit, a gathering that presented the most promising new models for education. The school was also a recent finalist in the XQ Superschool competition.

The school started with only a 9th grade class this school year. Any 9th grader can enroll, however the school gives priority to families living in the Sequoia Union school district. ODA’s first day of school was August 14.

For more information, you can learn more about Oxford Day Academy at their website:

http://www.oxforddayacademy.org/