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Exploring the Digital Safari

Mount Diablo High School’s unique academy combines academics with hands-on learning.

Exploring the Digital Safari Exploring the Digital Safari

When 16-year-olds Karina Velazquez, Bany Noguera and Dat Ngo came to Mount Diablo High School two years ago, Ngo was “stuck” in English and math, Velazquez was "not trying at all," and Noguera was getting poor grades. When they joined the school’s Digital Safari Academy (DSA) in their sophomore year, everything changed.

DSA is a three-year program that integrates traditional academic content with career skills to provide students with a more complete and relevant 21st century experience. DSA teachers such as Heather Fontanilla and Randy Depew, who founded the academy in 1996, work closely with other DSA colleagues to develop complex projects that incorporate critical thinking skills while applying what students are learning in core academic classes. Projects range from developing sustainable “green” businesses to solving oppression in third-world countries.

What’s cool, Depew said, is watching kids produce work that they see is making a difference. “They approach their work differently when they know it’s going to be seen by others and put to use in the real world,” he said.

Courses are taught collaboratively, with overlapping lessons immersing students in the subjects. “Students actually get twice as much time learning a subject,” Fontanilla said. “All of a sudden the reason for academics becomes that much more relevant.” But it’s not easy. “The academic rigor is the most challenging part for students to get used to.”

The Legacy of Imperialism project, for example, requires students to research the history and current conditions of a third-world country. Students develop a public works project designed to improve living conditions using multimedia tools to express ideas, and ultimately gain “funding” from a group of community members posing as international grant providers. Students are evaluated on the quality of their research and printed materials, the validity and appropriateness of their plan and their persuasiveness in presenting their argument.

Every DSA project culminates with a public presentation, according to the DSA website. “When students know their work is to be reviewed and evaluated by other adults, and when it fits naturally with the problem they’re solving, quality jumps.”

For Noguera, projects like these have helped her understand why the information is important. “History now sticks,” she said. “Even though it’s hard, it sticks.”

Although the work is rigorous and requires coordinated efforts with other students and teachers, the academy style of teaching leads to a better understanding of the complexities of a subject. Students have access to a sound stage, video and camera equipment, and software from which they learn desktop publishing, 3D design and interactive authoring.

“I like the academy style,” Ngo said. “I’m doing so much better compared to my freshman year. I was really stuck in English and didn’t have the push that I get in the academy.”

Velazquez says DSA teachers seem more passionate about their job and that passion transfers to students. “They’re really trying to get us out there,” said Velazquez, who now gets A’s and B’s in class. “Every project you do in DSA gives you a feeling of accomplishment. You were stressed out, but you got through it. And being in the academy gets you a lot closer to teachers.”

In addition to regular class time, thanks to a MDRC grant, students participate in teaching workshops, tour local marketing companies such as  Bars & Tone in San Francisco and visit college campuses including UC Berkeley and the Art Institute of San Francisco. They also participate in summer internships that are coordinated by business consultant Mark Westwind, who has volunteered his time with DSA for the past 13 years.

Last year, students participated in 24 summer internships, with 35-plus planned this summer.

The DSA program also includes a Spring Campaign, in which students work closely with local nonprofit organizations. Ngo, Velazquez and Noguera are creative directors for teams of students  working with the Nor Cal Family Center (NCFC), the Cerebral Palsy Center in Oakland and the Willows Theatre in Concord.

Each team works closely with its client to develop a marketing plan to enhance the client’s brand or to promote a specific product, and uses software such as Dreamweaver, Digital Design and Illustrator to create marketing materials. Creative directors utilize project management and leadership skills within their teams to meet deadlines, and often email or Skype with clients throughout the process.

“The biggest challenge is communication and getting people under control,” Velazquez said.

DSA projects inside and outside the classroom have opened Ngo’s mind to the number of career opportunities available to him, and he said he's excited about the future.

This year, 40 percent of DSA’s senior class was accepted to college (an impressive number since 50 percent of DSA students are considered “at risk”). Next year, Mount Diablo High School plans to expand the academy model to include all its students beginning their sophomore year.

“The public at large believes kids are apathetic, but that’s just not the case,” Depew said. “When you give kids an opportunity to do something cool and create something interesting, they jump at the chance.”

For Noguera, the most powerful aspect of DSA has been learning that she can overcome so much. “There is no obstacle too big for me now,” she said. “I’ve done it. I’ve been through it. I can do this.”

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