By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown News
Every day, students at e3 Civic High are greeted by a familiar face. After trekking up six flights of stairs in the San Diego Central Library to reach the school, Dr. Cheryl James-Ward meets them with a therapist by her side.
Even as her role has expanded — she was recently promoted from serving as chief impact officer and principal of the charter school to its CEO and chief engagement and innovation officer — she still takes time for this morning ritual.
“Four hundred-plus kids come up the stairs. So those are the ones that I greet every morning. I say a ‘good morning,’ it’s a bump fist. You look in the face to make sure that they’re ready to go,” Dr. Ward explained in an interview conducted in an open lounge in the middle of the school. “If
they’re not ready to go, then I have my therapist on the ground with me.”
Students facing a crisis can immediately head up to the therapist’s office, but otherwise, a note is made and they are brought to his office throughout the day. Dr. Ward said having the therapist on-site is important in addressing the unique needs of the student body, many of whom come in with “a lot of trauma.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ward is visiting classrooms and seeing what is going on between meetings. She does not get a chance to open her email until late in the workday, which for her often stretches past 12 hours.
e3 Civic High is in its seventh year, and has continued to pioneer new methods of teaching to help accommodate the diverse group of students walking through its bright halls. Dr. Ward’s predecessor Helen V. Griffith has moved on to be the inaugural executive director of The Preuss School UC San Diego, a middle and high school that enrolls 800 low-income students who are aiming to be the first in their families to graduate from college. Griffith was the founding executive director and CEO of e3 Civic High.
The school’s success in helping students — who have experienced trauma and struggled with learning in the past — reach college comes as the role of charter schools has become more controversial under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Data analysis by Voice of San Diego and the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research and Evaluation showed charter school teachers on average are half as experienced as those in traditional public schools in San Diego Unified School District. In Los Angeles and San Diego, an online charter school fraud scheme stole $50 million from the state. Students’ education has been disrupted by sudden charter school closures. Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a comprehensive rewrite of the charter school law, which requires more transparency and accountability. Assembly member Shirley Weber’s goal in the next legislative session is to fix school funding across the board. Charter schools have long been accused of taking needed resources from public schools.
Dr. Ward points out charter schools are more agile and can more quickly utilize new teaching methords. She has worked in both public and charter schools and sees the need for both in meeting individual students’ needs.
While e3 Civic High’s method of teaching changed from being project-based to something called “design thinking,” from its start, it incorporated technology and cutting-edge research on education.
“The school was designed to be a next-generation school,” Dr. Ward explained. Each incoming student is given a laptop and trained to use the Google suite of programs. Students volunteer in the community and also participate in internships.
Senior Christina Arias’ internship last year was also her first job. “I had the internship and I found out that I actually like customer service — so that helped me. Then also getting paid, which is fun,” she said. This year, she is interning at Digital Gym after taking a class there previously. Christina took part in making two documentaries during her class, one of which was shown at the Latino Film Festival. “That was a really cool experience.”
The charter school has a slew of other opportunities: a student-run garden, a boys-to-men mentoring group, and optional college classes. Electives include outdoor adventure, play production, robotics, competitive rowing.
Dr. Ward’s plans for the future of the school include expanding travel opportunities and curriculum focused on solutions to global problems. She said, “See the world, go out and help people, and then solve real problems.”
Three students who spoke to Downtown News said their favorite experience was traveling outside the U.S. While in China teaching English, 11th grader Jahaziel said he “learned the true value education and then how to cooperate with people.” Initially, they were drawn to the school for a variety of reasons such as the resources it has because it is located within a library, its unique opportunities, and inclusive, familial atmosphere.
The school uses competency-based grading, a move that resulted in a handful of students being withdrawn from the school.
“[Competency-based grading] means it’s not time bound. You have a little extra time to complete your work until you’re ready. So you might have a semester end in four months, you might have an additional three months because different people complete things at different times,” Dr. Ward said. “Some kids completed early, some kids completed late. But we continue to work with them to help them get there.”
Since much of the school’s curriculum is online, each student’s learning progress is personalized. Instead of the online classes driving teachers out of the school, more are needed to give each student individualized help. For the 400 students, there are 38 staff members, not including administrators.
Sophomore Eligha said of online classes, “I think it was very useful and provided you with a lot of resources as well as allowing me to learn at my own pace.”
“[Those online resources] adapt to where each child is. They also give a lot of feedback to kids.
That helps us to personalize the learning and start to fill in the gaps the kids are coming with” while still hitting grade-level rigor, Dr. Ward said.
Dr. Ward believes the personalization is necessary to address the needs of the students. Some high-achieving students come from across the county for the unique programming at e3 Civic High, but she said many of the students from surrounding neighborhoods come in two to five grade levels behind.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Dr. Ward said. In addition, 1 in 5 students enrolled in the school has special needs, which is higher than the district and state average. “More kids come here with special needs because they feel that we can meet their needs better. I think we’re higher because people say, ‘OK, there’s a place where my child can be served, where they can feel good, where they can be accepted.’”
That acceptance starts at the top of the stairs, where they are welcomed into school each day by Dr. Ward.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.