Model Programs for SET High—A California Distinguished School
Passion Projects and a Community of Acceptance
Students come to SET High enticed by its small school environment where no child gets lost or ignored. Our school prepares students for a life beyond college by focusing on two 21st century skills: Entrepreneurship and Technology. Our students are SETUP for success by teaching them the entrepreneurial mindset which includes a focus on: Social Responsibility, Effective Leadership, Technology as a Tool, Uncertainty as Opportunity, and Passion, Purpose, and Performance.” (SET High LCAP 2016-17). At our school, cultivated by our Community of Acceptance program, every student feels comfortable going up to a teacher or principal for any kind of help. According to one SET parent, “This school develops strong character in its students, like integrity, compassion, and respect. The school is big on reinforcing the concept of doing things the right way and making good decisions in life.”
At SET, we have built a model that recognizes students learn best when they have passion, whether it be for a particular subject, a cause, or an expression of their art. Passion is the fuel that drives learning and discovery. Passion Projects is the SET program which recognizes the power of helping students discover their gifts, their passion, leading them to higher pupil achievement (CA State Priority 4). We find students who participate in SET Passion Projects have higher attendance rates and stay engaged through graduation, as pursued in CA State Priority 5 (Pupil Engagement) leading to higher school attendance (94%) and high school graduation rates (100%). The Passion Projects program is an integral part of SET’s positive, connected School Climate (CA State Priority 6) as indicated through SET stakeholder surveys, personal interviews and social media input.
At SET, we ensure that all students have access to a safe and effective learning environment. Our Community of Acceptance approach has proven to not only help students find their own place in our academic environment, but also improve students’ academic achievement and attendance. We do not tolerate bullying, and we offer a number of clubs where students can be a part of a support group. Students and faculty at SET High practice full acceptance. We do not just practice tolerance, as tolerating is not fully accepting, but we create an inclusive and accepting learning environment for everyone. Students at SET have organized clubs to support students from all walks of life: LGBTQIA+, peer tutoring/peer buddy system, and military meetup (for children of parents in the military). Advisory programs are a big part of SET’s makeup. Each advisory teacher has a group of students they look after for 4 years, and at graduation they deliver personalized speeches for each of their graduates. These advisories are designed to work like families where student academic progress is monitored, students are helped and the students have a safe, comfortable, and familiar environment to go to whenever necessary. SET’s Community of Acceptance program has led to students meeting SET’s LCAP Goal 2: “Increase the number of students who score proficient or above in Math and English language arts on the SBAC assessment each year from a baseline year score in 2014-2015.” As more students benefit from the Community of Acceptance components including Anti-Bullying, Academic Coaches who support all students, Peer-Counseling, test scores have increased, truancy rates have decreased and students who historically would miss many school days now attend class. The Community of Acceptance, like Passion Projects, are instrumental in SET achieving its LCAP Goal 2 (Increase students proficient CAASPP test scores), Goal 5 (Improve student behavior and boost student interest in academic pursuits.), and Goal 7 (increase Student Attendance rates.)
The Passion Project program was launched in the Fall 2016 to systematically engage students in discovering their passion whether it be an academic subject, a much loved hobby, a dream for a business, an expression of talent or the drive to answer the question, “what if…” Passion Projects are an outgrowth of our school’s entrepreneurial mindset. Since its origins at Coleman Tech High School (the school’s previous name), entrepreneurship has been a strong focus at SET. In October 2016, with SDUSD approval, the Board of Directors formalized this emphasis via the school’s name change from Coleman Tech Charter High School to the School for Entrepreneurship & Technology. From its very roots eight year ago, our high school encouraged students to follow their entrepreneurial passions, starting with SET’s Information Technology (IT) system. In 2011, students designed and implemented the IT infrastructure of the school. With support from faculty, for the past seven years, the resulting Systems Administration department (Sys Admin) continues to be student-led, overseeing computer maintenance and internet support for our technology based campus. Faculty and students continued with entrepreneurial ventures informally until their efforts were codified in the Fall of 2015 with the establishment of the Passion Projects program. In the program, students are provided with, and encouraged to participate in Passion Projects, in which they collaborate to create works of art, start a business, or investigate a problem.
A Passion Project begins with a student’s reflection on what they are passionate about. While this discovery phase is free-flowing, a formal time (Flex Time on Wednesdays for 60 minutes) is set aside each week for students to work on Passion Projects. During this period students may hear a community member speak of their interests during a “Passion Talk.” Teens may use this interval to brainstorm, talk to a faculty member, or search for resources. Students’ discovery phase begins with conversation and discussion, often inspired by the Passion Talks from community members and leaders who love what they do. Once students have defined the focus of their Passion Project, they enlist a faculty mentor, establish objectives, and begin work.
Unique in its origin, its free flowing structure and in its flexibility to involve solo or group projects, for-profit or for-fun adventures, the Passion Project program is not replicated elsewhere. While there are a few parallels to project-based learning at High Tech High or the Genius Project at Sage Creek High School in Carlsbad, SET High’s Passion Project program stands apart. All students: incoming freshman, newly transferred junior, or graduating senior are invited to ponder what they are passionate for, and to set up a project to tap into those dreams and share it with the SET stakeholders.
Rooted in the belief that students who are passionate about what they are learning, will go above and beyond the minimum basic requirements in school, the Passion Project program is instrumental in achieving SET High LCAP Goal 4, “Increase the academic rigor of the curriculum and encourage students to go above and beyond the minimum graduation requirements.” Similarly LCAP Goal 5, “Improve student behavior and boost student interest in academic pursuits,” and SET LCAP Goal 7 “Increase Student Attendance Rates” have at their heart the premise that engaged students, those discovering or expressing their passion in business, science, technology or the arts, will attend the school where they have support to work on their Passion Project (Goal 7). Likewise teens actively engaged at school with their Passion Projects will be more focused and seek to learn more including those academic pursuits which earlier held little importance or draw. (Goal 5).
Why Were These Programs Adopted and What Needs Do They Address?
SET High’s Expected School-wide Learning Results (ESLR) are expressed with the acronym, SETUP, with P standing for “Passion, Purpose and Performance.” Passion Project is the codified means to help students to achieve that result. At SET, we have built a model that recognizes that students learn best when they have passion. Passion is the fuel that drives learning and discovery. In high school today, many students struggle to conform to a traditional model of learning which they perceive limits them to learn traditional subjects. As students struggle in the classroom, it spills over into higher absenteeism, achievement gaps and difficulties maintaining academic standards in English, Math, Social Studies, and Science especially if they have no or limited interest in these curricular areas.
Fostering a Community of Acceptance is a foundational principle of SET High informed by scores of families in search of a place in which their children could ‘fit in.’ “My child had excelled in this school (SET High) after many years at other schools that failed him,” declared a SET parent. By helping students identify their passion, or their area of interest, and providing an avenue to put their passions into a reality, students are empowered in their learning. In turn teens can recognize the benefits of the academic foundations through courses they may not have been interested in initially. The excellence students strive for in their Passion Projects, can be translated into academic excellence.
Perhaps the most valuable resource at SET is its faculty inspired by its students and supported by its parents. The small school Community of Acceptance model has been very effective for students’ academic achievement and social behavior. Teachers are very involved and vested in every student’s success, and are there not only to teach their subjects, but also to guide and inspire. According to one of SET’s students, “SET High has been one of the most important assets to my education, as my previous schools never attained the level of kindness, help, and understanding that SET High has.”
Teacher Support and PD for These Programs
Passion Projects have become one of the top priorities at staff meetings and Professional Development. We share ideas on how to inspire all students to pursue their passions, helping them in whatever ways we can. Quarterly, in professional development meetings, we discuss ways to improve our Passion Project program, recalling successful projects which give students the freedom to use their passions and refining how to point students in the right direction. Weekly Passion Project time allows teachers specific opportunities to mentor students giving them project support and advice.
To inspire students, SET offers a rich array of electives, harnessing our own teachers’ passions and expertise, exposing students to an energy and excitement for subject matter that is rarely found in education. Our own teachers (who serve as mentors) model the Passion Project concept in the electives they teach. For example, our biology teacher, Mr. W., teaches space science for his passion of rocketry; our history teacher, Mr. G., teaches documentary design for his passion of storytelling; and our English teacher, Ms. G, teaches theater for her passion in performing arts. 76% of SET teachers teach at least one elective per year. Computer science, robotics, engineering, painting, drawing, 3D graphics, bio tech, sys admin, sci-fi literature, guitar, and leadership classes were all chosen to inspire students to become lifelong learners and to reignite that love of school that unfortunately, for so many, was extinguished sometime after 2nd grade.
Community and Parents
SET’s partnerships are an integral part of the school’s culture. We partner with several companies in the engineering and technology fields such as Northrop Grumman, Qualcomm and BioCom. We are currently working together with Hands-on-Mobile to showcase the best students’ works created through our Passion Projects program. Four of our students will be presenting their pitches in a Shark Tank show during the Tech Week sponsored by BioCom Institute. Our students will also be showcasing their Passion Projects at the Petco Park event organized by BioCom.
SET parents are instrumental in helping to run the new events we have introduced to the school, including robotics competitions, fundraisers, special events such as the Tech Week and Shark Tank. Parents have come in daily to volunteer their time, helping to organize and participate in all fundraising events, helping to improve our website, and running a marketing campaign to grow our school.
Our LCAP states, “We (SET) have also placed increased emphasis on our external outreach to the broader community. Securing corporate partnerships, mentorships, internships, donors, volunteers and civic partners who all contribute to cultivating our students’ positive educational experience is a vital component of our school operations.” These partners including Northrop Grumman, Burundi Friends International, Rack and Roll, Inc., and Traveling Stories, contribute valuable support and insight into student Passion Projects and their pursuit of Passion, Performance and Purpose. Our FTC robotics team was recently awarded a Connect Award trophy for their work in reaching out to engineers in outside corporations to influence their robot design.
How These Programs Benefit All Students
Passion Projects not only inspire students to create and learn beyond their school curriculum, but also build students’ self confidence, and skills necessary to become the next generation of business and social leaders. “I’ve had so many opportunities here that I would have never had at other schools. They’re going to find your skills and they’re going to grow them,” shared Gavin. G, former SD Union Tribune intern, a sophomore. Senior Santiago S., co-host of the student initiated and produced weekly update Newsday Tuesday reflected, “I think SET is an amazing school because I’m given an opportunity to do other projects besides math and English…We have full range to do whatever we’re passionate about.”
Passion Project students have also started or expanded profitable businesses: a junior’s drop shipping business, an artist’s production firm, a DJ’s company. “I’ve been able to craft and build my own business, and I’ve actually been pretty successful in that and I attribute a lot of that to the school,” – Junior Camden W., founder of BeatGrid and DVY Marketing. Each year SET’s Shark Tank competition highlights marketable inventions like “Ryder Eye,” a motorcycle helmet with blind spot detectors, a hand-held portable refrigerator, and a French Fry mobile.
Students interested in charitable Passion Projects have run the “We Have Your Back” campaign, after a hurricane devastated the Houston area. Many SET community members donated backpacks that were filled with school necessities and this giant gift was presented to students, parents, and staff at one of Houston’s public schools.
9th graders are required to take a leadership class and 10th graders, a marketing class where they learn about how to brand themselves. The entrepreneurial mindset becomes the foundation of their education.
How These Programs Connect to Social/Emotional Needs
The special aspect of our Passion Projects is that it includes and involves all students at SET, not just a few bright star students. This is in fact what distinguishes SET from many other schools. SET dedicates a specific number of hours each week for every student. Every teacher has a dedicated group of students and acts as a mentor, guiding students through the entrepreneurial process of creating, sharing, and becoming community leaders and young social entrepreneurs. In addition to this, our Community of Acceptance program has a profound impact on students’ social and emotional needs. When a student feels accepted for who they are, when they feel like they belong to a community, the social and emotional needs are at least partially met and the student has a higher capacity to focus on the abstract concepts taught in the core classes. We have seen students thrive when their basic safety needs are finally met.
How These Programs Connect with Chronic Absenteeism, Suspension, and Expulsion
One reason for students missing days of school is a lack of interest in the curriculum or a lack of passion. We have found that students learn better when they are inspired to explore their passions and encouraged to be their best selves. Our students involve themselves in every aspect of our school day-to-day, whether it be helping serve lunch, acting as system administrator, serving as a Teaching Assistant for a teacher, producing the weekly newscast Newsday Tuesday, giving tours to prospective families, or acting as peer tutors. Having students take ownership of their school and being an integral part of the day-to-day running of the school encourages and allows them do more. They are seldom absent and the culture of ownership has dramatically reduced suspension rates.
Implementation/Monitoring of Program/Practice
How Parents Are Involved
Parents play a very important role in helping us on our mission to inspire our students. We encourage parents to support their children’s passions and to have meaningful conversations about how these passions can be used to drive success in all aspects of their lives. We have even invited parents who have backgrounds in business and entrepreneurship to deliver Passion Talks where they tell the students their story and talk about what they do.
Passion Projects are demonstrated every semester in the form of Exhibition Night. On this night, all students and parents are required to attend, and community member attendance is highly encouraged. Academic projects are put on display for each class. A special exhibition of Passion Projects is put on display in “The Den.” This semester’s Passion Projects included a student-made documentary about a SET High attendee who commutes across the border from Tijuana every single day, because of his great pride for his school. Another student created a short animated film as a Passion Project, and others developed a set of robotic arms, one of which was equipped to paint the nails of the user. Exhibition Night is special because various Passion Projects can be communicated with students, families, and community members in a kinesthetic manner. Similarly, the many murals and decorated doors at SET High serve as a visual representation of the hours that certain students have spent painting to improve their school.
SET High’s Newsday Tuesday team is a Passion Project within a Passion Project. Lead by a student team, interviews with peers, parents, staff, etc., are broadcasted to the school each Tuesday, and are then posted publicly on SET High’s website. For example, a student who participates in a band (and would like to pursue music as a future career) was interviewed and filmed live as he played a song on his guitar. Newsday Tuesday is also a way to keep the SET High community in the loop through announcements and news updates.
How Are We Distinguished?
Every school wants their students to be passionate and to follow their dreams. What sets us apart with our Passion Projects is that we have specific time during the school day every week for students to do just that. Furthermore, each student (or group of students) has a mentor teacher. During this time the teacher can meet with the students and discuss their projects. Our staff are particularly well-suited for this because many of them come from entrepreneurial backgrounds, and/or have direct experience with the fields in which the students projects are based.
Monitoring and Assessment Methods
Effectiveness of parent/community engagement is measured by qualitative observation and collected data. Utilized methods include: regular meetings with principal McCurdy, quotes from parents, positive comments on SET’s GoFundMe page, positive facebook comments, parent involvement in school board meetings, and parent involvement in daily volunteer work on-site.
Direct quotes from parents about SET High (taken from SET’s GoFundMe page—https://www.gofundme.com/set-high-school-annual-giving):
“My daughter finally found a place where she loves to learn! This school and the community that supports it is so amazing! THANK YOU SET HIGH!!” – Amanda D.
“Finally someone, or should I say, a school, is finally addressing the lifelong issue of the pressure, teasing, and bullying kids have been subjected to for so many years. Our son is in his senior year and the 4 years at SET High was the right choice for him to thrive. Way to go SET and staff!!” – Joe I.
“My son loves SET. Two of his quotes “They will know my name here,” and “There are no cliques at SET, I can go from table to table enjoying lunch with anyone.” – Brenda M.
Parents are engaged in all aspects of their student’s life here at SET High. Attaining this close involvement allows students to not only feel comfortable, but to thrive in their own skin. Students who participate in a safe and positive learning environment are more likely to ask for help in implementing entrepreneurial ideas and projects. The true character and personality of the student shines when they are valued by parents and their community, inspiring creative innovative learning and Passion Projects.
Capacity-Building Activities Related to Professional Learning
SET has seen a tremendous success in improving student achievement outcomes because our principal recognizes the power of teacher leadership. Empowering teachers and continuously supporting the job-embedded professional development have affected both the performance of teachers, and by extension, their students. In addition, all non-instructional staff and administrators have always been a part of SET’s professional development opportunities, team-building excursions, and department meetings. Our meetings and professional development are at times organized by either teachers (e.g. upon return from a training), the school psychologist, and/or community advocates. Professional Development is held once per month during the school year and during 10-day summer session planning for the upcoming school year. This school year’s PD includes the following topics:
9/6/2018 — Department Meetings
10/4/2018 — Seizure Training
11/1/2018 — Interim Assessment
12/6/2018 — Verbal De-escalation
1/10/2019 — Department Meetings
2/7/2019 — Passion Projects, Defining School Vision, Pre- and Post- Assessment Analysis
3/7/2019 — Best Practices – Pedagogy
4/11/2019 — Book Review – The Self-Driven Child
5/2/2019 — CAASPP Testing
6/6/2019 — Department Meetings
How Monitoring and Assessment Results Are Used to Evaluate Effectiveness
Passion Projects included with our Community of Acceptance have given most students ownership of their education and the school as a whole. This has inspired students to push themselves to succeed even when they felt discouraged. Since implementing Passion Projects and Community Acceptance practices, our overall test scores, attendance, and graduation rates have improved tremendously. Our graduation rates have increased yearly and by 2017/2018 our CAASPP scores met or exceeded both LCAP goals and state averages.
How Is It Distinguished from the District?
Although the testing scores and graduation rates are calculated in the same way across California, the way that SET High prepares for tests and class completion differs from traditional schools. SET High is decidedly NOT a test-prep school. We teach and expose students to the standards and we encourage the students to use their own passion to extend their learning.
Results and Outcomes
For the past two years SET High has seen a steady increase in test scores in Math, and our English scores have remained above the state average. Our graduation rates increased from 84% to 97% during the same time frame.
Qualitative data from parent and student surveys also show that these programs are being received well by the community. SET students and parents have the following to say:
“This school has an effective approach to homework: With the 4×4 format, the kids have a lot of time to learn the material and start homework in class. I also like the way the teachers post homework on their websites and parents can follow up on PowerSchool.
Teachers at this school are effective: The teachers really take the time to get the know the students and because of the small school size they often have multiple classes with them over the years. This school develops strong character in its students, like integrity, compassion, and respect. The school is big on reinforcing the concept of doing things the right way and making good decisions in life.
Leadership at this school is effective: The staff is firm but fair and always looking to help the students mature into well-rounded adults.” – SET parent
“My child had excelled in this school after many years at other schools that failed him.” – SET parent
“I really love this school, and the staff is great. Dr. McCurdy is a terrific principal. He’s involved and connected with the students. Since coming here my daughter has made new friends, is doing better in class, and she is happy. The teachers are wonderful, helpful, and truly care about my daughter’s academic and emotional well being. SET High has been a great experience for our family.” – Carrie Banna, SET parent
“Everyone’s like a family…everyone supports each other, and I just love that.” – Joslyn B., student
“SET is one of the few places that I feel safe to be myself and I feel happy to be myself.” – Matt Y., student
“Being who I am here is probably what makes me the happiest.” – Adam R., student