By Merrill Balassone
USC President C. L. Max Nikias made his first visit to USC Hybrid High School on Jan. 17, touring classrooms where groups of students — each with their own Apple MacBook Air laptop — worked intently on math and writing projects as teachers peered over their shoulders.
Developed by the USC Rossier School of Education, the new Los Angeles Unified School District public charter school in downtown Los Angeles opened its doors to more than 125 ninth-graders in September. By blending personalized curricula, technology and flexible schedules, Hybrid High allows its students, most of whom were at risk of dropping out, to master the curriculum at their own pace.
A group of students told their visitor how radically different Hybrid High has been in comparison to past experiences in school. For starters, they’re getting better grades and taking ownership of their progress. It’s easy to get extra help from a teacher, they said, and because of the school’s expanded hours, that even applies on Saturdays.
“How many of you aspire to college?” Nikias asked the group. Every hand shot up, and students listed their dream majors (engineering, architecture and marine biology) and colleges (USC, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University).
“This is not a group that is absent of their ability to dream,” said principal Stephanie McClay.
One student asked Nikias how he had become USC’s president. Nikias answered with advice he gives his own daughters and students at USC.
“None of us can predict the future — you don’t know what the future holds for you,” Nikias told the group. “But what you really control, whatever your job or assignment is — in this case, you’re students at USC Hybrid High — is doing your very best. You have to work very hard and, eventually, you’ll be rewarded for it.”
Hybrid High math teacher Stefnie Evans told Nikias her students feel a sense of pride and belonging when they wear their burgundy sweater vests emblazoned with the school’s name.
“For these kids to have a uniform with USC on it, that really means something,” said Evans, an electrical engineer who once lent her expertise to building satellites. “They’re creating this identity that says ‘I’m connected with USC.’ ”
Walking the hallway with USC Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher and Hybrid High founder David Dwyer, Nikias stopped at a bulletin board tacked with the names and faces of Hybrid High’s honor roll students. Among the honorees on the board: a girl who had struggled so much during her middle school years she had been bounced between four different schools.
“We are not a school for dropouts,” said Dwyer, holder of the USC Rossier Katzman/Ernst Chair in Educational Entrepreneurship, Technology and Innovation. “We are a school that’s about inspiring children in a way that makes them want to work harder — a school where no one ever thinks about dropping out.”