Project-Based Learning is Rooted in Community at this Santa Ana High School

Curriculum and community go hand in hand at Círculos—an XQ school in Santa Ana, California.

By Andrew Bauld

At Círculos—an XQ school in Santa Ana, California—students learn the power of place-based and project-based learning firsthand through an authentically designed curriculum tailored to address the challenges facing Orange County, a region of stark economic contrasts.

The school even has a curator of projects and partnerships, Deborah Park, who plays an instrumental role in the initial design of the four-year Project and Place-based Learning (PBL) curriculum. Her role at Círculos makes the school’s commitment and integration into the community through partnerships with local organizations and businesses tangible.   

“The students learn so much through these projects and partnerships,” said Park, adding that while she helps coordinate the projects, most wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of Círculos faculty. “I’m so impressed by how our teachers get energized and love the creative process, taking something that we started like local partnerships and running with it.”

Community Partners That Bring Learning to Life

The school’s dynamic approach to learning means that students don’t just learn about abstract issues in the classroom. Instead, students partner with local experts to construct community impact projects together, connecting their academic studies to relevant, real-world experiences—a cornerstone of the XQ Design Principles that are fundamental to every XQ school.

Círculos launched in the Santa Ana Unified School District in 2018, designed explicitly based on feedback and input from parents, students, and local community members. By integrating the challenges the community faces directly into the curriculum, students engage in meaningful learning and come up with real-world solutions alongside partner organizations like the Santa Ana Business Council and the Santa Ana Public Works Department. These partners also work closely with Círculos educators to co-create lessons and ensure projects align with the school’s competency framework.   

For example, students interested in sustainability partner with a local architectural firm, like Visioneering Studios, to think about a new green alleyway project for the city, working alongside professional architects to model and learn the ins and outs of drafting tools. Meanwhile, other students interested in topics like childhood obesity and mental health in teenagers worked with local nonprofit Latino Health Access to gather data and complete community service projects.   

Putting Learning Into Action 

The PBL curriculum at Círculos is divided into four unique courses that help students learn how to conduct interdisciplinary research, make connections with their community, and put their learning into action. In their first year, students take “PBL 1: Applied Research: Community Connections,” where they identify a problem in their community, create a proposal for a change, and learn how to assess credible sources in their research.

In their second year, students learn how to take their rigorous academic research and share it with their community through the course “PBL 2: Place and Multimedia Curation.” Students gain important skills like analyzing and synthesizing data, conducting ethical research practices, and sharing their findings through an open-ended multimedia presentation, ranging from podcasts to photo exhibitions.

This past year marked the launch of the third and fourth units of the curriculum. 11th graders explored how to put their research to the test through “PBL 3: Action Research: Cultivate Your Voice,” creating TED Talk-style presentations based on their experience working with a local partner organization. 12th graders, meanwhile, shifted away from external projects and instead researched themselves through “PBL 4: Our Collective Codex,” learning how their identity is impacted by the past and present, and what that means for their future.  

Through all these projects, students aren’t just identifying problems but imagining new solutions for themselves and their community, a cornerstone of the XQ Learner Goals to ensure students are original thinkers to face the challenges of an uncertain world.     

Finding Their Voice Through Documentary Film

Last year the district moved to remote learning and students and teachers had to adjust to learning in virtual environments. 11th graders in PBL 3 worked with Círculos history teacher and curriculum leader Dr. Jamie Caldwell to come up with a new project to replace their in-person partnerships. Instead, students created their own documentary films to explore an area of concern for themselves and their community and to raise awareness and help search for a solution.

The films were a big hit with students, offering a manageable project for online learning while still providing students a chance to address the issues that mattered to them and work with community partners virtually. 

“I knew I wanted them to work on a documentary because we could do it online, but it would still allow students to cultivate their voice and engage with their community,” said Caldwell.   

Even in remote learning, students were still able to make connections with their community partners, a relationship that not only empowers student learning but also creates new opportunities for the businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations partnering with the school to devise solutions for community members.  

Through their films, students addressed issues they encounter on a daily basis, from wealth inequality to a lack of greenspace in Santa Ana. For their film, 11th graders Ana Luviano and Jade Soriano decided to explore food deserts, areas where people have limited access to healthy foods—a pressing issue for folks in Santa Ana.    

“Growing up in Santa Ana, I’ve seen the struggles of the low-income communities and how they manage to access food, especially healthy food,” said Ana. “Usually, these communities are prey for fast food companies and the prices are targeted for them. It made me sad and I wanted to see how this issue could be solved.”

Ana and Jade submitted their short film to CSPAN’s student documentary competition and launched the school’s first community gardening club that begins next year.

“I think the film and the club will help the community learn about food deserts and also ways they can help,” said Jade. “I love nature and gardening and I hope that my community members find the joy of cultivating their own food, learning where it comes from, and continuing this lifestyle.”

A Hub of Learning

The work started at Círculos has the potential to impact the rest of the district as the school board and University of California’s Office of the President approved four PBL courses that will count towards California’s A-G subject requirement credit. The four courses are now available as an elective to all high schools across the Santa Ana Unified School District, the sixth largest district in California.

By expanding the potential reach of PBL projects, Park and the faculty of Círculos will train teachers and administrators across the district on PBL pedagogy and will continue to update their virtual exhibition with ideas and tools.

“We hope to become a hub of learning for teachers across the district, offering a platform to share ideas and innovative practice,” said Park, who believes that as more teachers engage in the curriculum, it will lead to more authentic learning for students beyond Círculos.

By developing this place-based curriculum and showing how redesigning the traditional high school approach to learning can lead to powerful change not only for students but also their community, Círculos has built a model that can now be replicated statewide and maybe one day around the country. 

“We want as many teachers as possible to be part of this learning journey and be equipped to bring these skills to other school sites. This kind of engaging, authentic curriculum really can change how students learn.”    

Get inspired by the innovative work at Círculos. Learn more about Círculos and all the XQ Schools at:

Author: Andrew Bauld  

Author Bio: Andrew Bauld is a freelance writer and podcast producer exploring how the arts, innovation, and entrepreneurship are reshaping K-12 and higher education. A former classroom teacher, he holds a masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife.