Where do you want to be in 2027?

Have you asked yourself that question? A glimpse into your life ten years from now may look crystal clear and well charted–or unknown and blurry at best. Last month in Los Angeles, we asked a packed room of high school students from Downey Unified School District to answer this question. With eyes closed tightly they conjured up a vision of their future selves. While I’m not sure of the exact images that entered their minds at that moment, our time together in the hours that followed gave us a deeper understanding of their hopes, challenges, dreams and realities.

Using design thinking to empathy map a student.

Downey Unified is a hidden gem tucked into the bustling landscape of greater Los Angeles. If you glance at a few stats, you will find that the dirstrict has an impressive 96% graduation rate (17% higher than the county’s average). It also has more than 65% of students living at or below the poverty line, and 94% from minority populations.

In a world where change is constant and learning never stops, Downey Unified knows that students need a broad range of experiences that will help them develop the knowledge and skills needed to thrive. Along with investing in real-world learning for students, DUSD is in investing in its teachers. Knowing that teachers are key to empowering and supporting students to succeed, the district promotes a shared leadership model and offers innovative professional development.

What makes this possible at Downey Unified?

A growth mindset seems to purvey at all levels of the district as teachers, students, and administrators imagine what could be, and work together to make it possible. Phil Davis, Director of CTE, and an energetic force in the district shared,

“We would be doing our kids an injustice if we underestimated their abilities. They are capable of great things.”

Multi-stakeholder teams led to richer solutions.

Building upon a growth mindset culture, Downey Unified is not only thinking differently – they are DOing things differently. In 2015, the district was awarded a $6M grant from the California Department of Education to further prepare students for high-demand careers. Through this grant, Downey Unified worked with its partners (Bayha Group and the National Academy of Science: Science & Entertainment Exchange) to bring LeadLocal to Downey.

With a desire to elevate student agency and better understand what inspires students to achieve their goals, Downey Unified students, teachers, and administrators gathered at the USC Bridge Institute. The purpose: provide a “sneak peek” of learning and innovation at USC, explore big questions, and imagine the future together using participatory processes from design thinking and lean startup methodologies. Students and teachers worked side-by-side, to uncover what “fun” learning really looks like, what inspires students, and what programs or activities could support them in reaching their desired 2027.

Creating collective stories during the design sprint.
What did they uncover?

Students shared that their most fun and memorable learning experiences have been hands-on and collaborative – which they have experienced in many of their bio-med classes and chemistry labs. Learning to use different types of technology (i.e. virtual reality – which students had a chance to experience first hand in USC’s Mixed VR Lab) was a big highlight. Several mentioned that they are more likely to have fun while learning if a teacher has “good energy” and piques their interest around a topic.

When asked about inspiration, the power of family role models was evident. More than half of all students mentioned uncles, siblings, or parents who had gone onto college or stood by their side and encouraged them to do great things.

With a storyboarding sprint, teams created a series of short stories to highlight avenues of support that would help students achieve their college and career goals. Students shared the desire to gain exposure to different careers, discover what they love, connect with mentors, and gain hands-on experience to see if a career may be a good fit.

Students and teacher, Henry Davenport, brainstorm ideas together.

The main characters portrayed in most of the students’ stories went on to pursue career paths that are fairly traditional (doctor, teacher, artist, scientist)– something interesting to note in a day and age when the variety and vastness of professions is growing by the minute (data attribution analyst, director of customer experience, design quality manager, just to name a few).

A nearly unanimous wish for more opportunities to learn about careers illuminates this gap. Whether it is job shadowing days, career camps or “Careerchella” (as one team dreamed up) – students (and their families) need these opportunities in order to imagine the career possibilities they could move into in the 21st century.

As the students’ stories came to a close and the field trip came to an end, it was evident that these students ultimately want to be part of careers that make a difference and serve others.

With continued opportunities to play an active role in planning their own futures, the students of Downey Unified (alongside committed families, teachers, and communities) will approach a very bright 2027.

About the author: Brooke McDoanald is Co-founder & CEO of LeadLocal. You can follow her on Twitter @brookemc23


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