Relationships Form the Bedrock: New Village Girls Academy I

An article written by Innovation Unit's project lead Mark Blundell for the website

Back in March, Louise Thomas and I visited New Village Girls Academy on behalf of the Innovation Unit. This is a reflection on the amazing school we found. Deep relationships form the bedrock of this school. From advisor to pupil, from pupil to pupil, and from mentor to pupil, the school build structures that foster deep and lasting relationships that help young people explore their interests, talents and passions on the way to becoming responsible adults.

New Village is an all-girls charter high school set in the old Filipino district of Los Angeles. Historically this has been a very tough area of the city, with problems caused by poverty and gang violence, but it is beginning to improve in part due to a neighbouring district becoming a very sought after area for young adults to buy property.

The school serves some of the most vulnerable young women in Los Angeles, many of whom have experienced abuse, gang violence, prison or teenage pregnancy. The girls at New Village often seem shy but the school also seems to have brought out huge courage to tell their stories and the drive to succeed in adult life. Javier, the Principal, describes the defining characteristic of the school as ‘deeply trusted relationships’, and this is clear from the moment you step into the school.

The school has 140 regular students and 20 who are part of their ‘independent study programme’, mostly teen mums, who make twice weekly trips to the school. The site of the school is a single story building set around a central outdoor space, and is co-located with a large sheltered housing facility called St Anne’s, which houses foster children and young offenders. Originally, the school’s building was used as a very small scale learning facility for pregnant teens. But in 2006, the chair of the board at St Anne’s had an idea to found a school for those girls they were finding impossible to place in local schools: “The ones no one else wanted”.

Four Principals and five years later, the school decided to implement a Big Picture Learning design, and brought in the current head, Javier Guzman. Big Picture is a network of schools in the US and beyond that start from the principle of ‘one student at a time’ – radically re-building the curriculum and the structures of the school to take this principle seriously.

Students spend most of their time in ‘advisories’ of 15-20 students, led by one teacher-advisor who stays with the group for their entire school career. Students also spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at an internship site somewhere in the city. Each student is asked to find an organisation they would like to work with, they are supported to broker a conversation with an adult from that organisation, and if it seems like a good match, then the employer becomes a ‘mentor’ for the young person and the internship begins. We accompanied a student to her internship at Union Rescue Mission (a local homeless shelter) where she helps LA’s population of 58,000 homeless people by preparing and serving lunches. She described how working on a project that has helped her understand and give back to the city’s most disadvantaged people has had a huge impact on her own confidence and sparked her desire to work for a charity in the future.

Most schools just wouldn’t provide the space for these kinds of relationship to develop, and as a result they struggle to engage huge swathes of young people. Big Picture represents a fundamentally ‘different way to do school’ and we here at Innovation Unit are working hard to bring it to the UK so that all young adults, no matter their background, can reach their full potential and develop the social capital to succeed in later life.

Published 13th October 2014 - Mark Blundell is a Project Lead at the Innovation Unit. You can find him online at @marksblundell.
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