Vidya Community High School Focuses On Being Life Ready, Joins Maker Learning Network

Michael Niehoff
March 1, 2021

High schools are beginning to focus more on learner outcomes and graduate profiles. These are often housed under terms such as college and career ready, future ready and many others. But at  Vidya Community High School – a new private, non-profit, year-round high school serving the San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley, and beyond – the focus is on being life ready.

The What

Vidya aims to leverage each student’s unique strengths to prepare them for success in all aspects of their lives, according to Muthu Jeganathan, Vidya’s Founder & President. This curricular approach combines a broad-based liberal arts education combined with practical life skills. Jeganathan said the school’s foundational philosophy focuses on organizational skills, personal finance, information technology, ethics and self-efficacy that are essential to being a happy and successful adult in the 21st century.

“One way to explain this is that we are working to embrace the applied vs. the abstract, the practical over the academic,” said Jeganathan. “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 Why

Much of Vidya’s impetus stems from Jeganathan’s experiences as both a learner and 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,” said Jeganathan. “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. He judged success on getting in or attending  Stanford,” said Jeganathan. “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, success even looks like.”

The How

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 that young people will use and need everyday.

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

There is also a design learning approach in terms of the Vidya mission and vision, according to Vidya’s Director Dr. Armine Movsisyan. She said she and the team are truly focused on a student-centered learner 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 to have,” said Movsisyan.

This Design Thinking approach for Vidya’s foundation connects to the ongoing learner experience they want to cultivate where 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,” she said. “Change agents first have to have a sense of their own agency.”

According to Movsisyan, Vidya wants students to enter as freshman, 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 of our learners to have very unique and high-quality experiences long before they graduate,” said Movsisyan. “We want to be the kickstarter to their individual professional lives.”

As an illustration of the change that needs to occur instructionally, Jeganathan shares a story about Vidya’s Board Member/Treasurer Tito Ortego to illustrate the difference in how this can work in school. Ortega, who is currently a Project Business Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, grew up in Los Angeles and was never interested in math in school.

Indeed, according to Ortega, he remembers thinking how useless Geometry was in school and how it would have been helpful to see the application of Geometry – both for himself and his peers.

“Learning proofs and theorems about disconnected shapes seemed pointless,” said Ortega. “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 concurs with Ortega and shares an example of how it 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,” said Jeganathan. “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 made it more challenging when the concept of Vidya was born. Private became the only practical path, according to Jeganathan.

“The choice came down to private profit or non-profit and we chose non-profit. We felt that this was the best way to keep our school’s culture focused on learning,” said Jeganathan. “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.”

Looking Forward

Vidya’s inaugural freshmen class begins this fall and applications are underway. Other plans include a robust afterschool program, summer camps, several community partnerships and more. They plan 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,” said Jeganathan. “Their focus will be on developing themselves and connecting to their communities for service, work-based and authentic learning experiences.”

Michael Niehoff has been a teacher, advisor, site leader, leadership coach and professional learning facilitator at the high school, community college and county office levels. He is a Google Certified Innovator, PBLWorks National Faculty Member, CUE Lead Learner and Getting Smart Columnist who currently supports professional learning and communications with iLEAD Schools and the Maker Learning Network, as well as his own work with Learners Empowered.

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