The power of this project-based learning and place-based learning school

The power of this project-based learning and place-based learning school

At Círculos, project-based, place-based learning isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s reshaped the way students experience school.

Working with local nonprofits, arts groups, businesses, public officials, and others, students take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it to relevant, real-world opportunities to improve their city. The school staff even has a special name for it: P2BL—representing both place- and project-based learning. Not to mention a hashtag: #OurCityOurCampus.

This hands-on approach to education remains especially important, even during the pandemic. It’s given students the chance to stay engaged and reach far beyond the walls of their bedrooms. Instead of tightening their community to ensure learning takes place within the school, Círculos educators have expanded the reach of its classrooms and so created opportunities for its students to feel connected to their peers and their community. 

Making students feel seen and heard

The school started with an effort to ease incoming 9th graders into their new school with a six-week series called “Ash and Feather: Stories Inside Out.” This series allowed students to get to know their classmates in a meaningful way, and prepare for their upcoming learning journey. All via virtual learning rooms.   

Using a combination of project-based learning and community partnerships, the series featured independent art, dance, storytelling, photography, and writing projects for students to complete at home, culminating with a virtual exhibit for parents, peers, and community members.

“We really wanted our students, especially our 9th graders, to feel seen and heard, to be able to cultivate their voice in a safe place,” said Deborah Park, Círculos’ curator of projects and partnerships. “Now we know so much more about our students than we ever would have known, and they know about each other. This really made our school feel like a community.”

Thinking about identity, goals, and community

Círculos partnered with several organizations and individuals—including Dr. Sharon Francis of Well Beings Studio in Orange County, choreographer Allie Fogel based in Atlanta, and the rap improv group Freestyle Love Supreme based in New York City—to help students create artistic pieces that express who they are. Students were encouraged to think about their identities, their goals, and how they see themselves in relation to the broader community.

As part of the six-week series, students read the school edition of Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood,” and studied the Humans of New York series to learn different ways to express personal identity. To learn the nuances and techniques of visually depicting a personality, students paid a virtual visit to the National Portrait Gallery.

“It helped me feel not alone like we all share the same feelings.”

—Kimberly, 9th grader at Círculos

Kimberly, a 9th grader at Círculos, focused on a personal narrative, writing about how she went from being a bubbly, outgoing child to an adolescent who’s sometimes mired in insecurity and self-doubt—but a young adult that is determined to work through it. “I’m slowly learning to dance with my insecurities because to me they are like a shadow,” she wrote. “They whisper so that only I can hear them.”

The project gave her confidence in her writing abilities, and the comfort of knowing that others in her class occasionally feel the same way, she said. Numerous other students explored the same themes, in different ways.

“It helped me feel not alone like we all share the same feelings,” Kimberly said. “It helped me feel connected to the school. The exhibit was really cool, in my opinion.”

Her classmate, Abdiel, for his project focused on social and economic justice, and what that means to him. His artwork featured a tree, loosely shaped like a triangle, depicting the stratification of wealth in our society with the rich at the top and the poor at the bottom.

“It seems like an unfair system,” he said. “If you’re not rich, you feel excluded.”

He explored the theme further through poetry, a subject Abdiel had never liked poetry until he did the “Ash and Feathers” project. But his teacher, Ms. Edwards, inspired him to push beyond his usual boundaries.

“They helped me find my voice,” he said. “They showed me how to express myself using the simplest of words, and find a kind of beauty.”

The virtual exhibition, held in mid-October, was a chance for students to show off their work and support each other’s efforts. It culminated with a virtual dance party for parents and a follow-up discussion for students and community partners.

Park said she was awed by how the students embraced the project.

“At the debrief circle, students started crying,” she said. “They said it changed their whole perspective. It helped them realize we’re more similar than different.”

Collaborating with a wide range of community partners

Círculos is a district-dependent charter school within Santa Ana Unified School District, an urban school district, and the sixth-largest in the state where over 80% of students are English language learners and almost 90% of students participate in the free and reduced lunch program. 

Learn more about how Circulos educators and leaders are rethinking high school through this “virtual school visit.” 

The school is a tight-knit, nurturing environment that is centered around building community: on campus and in the city at large. Students regularly engage with local arts and cultural groups as a way to connect their academic studies to relevant, real-world experiences—a key part of the XQ Learner Goals.

Park said the community partnerships have enriched the online learning experience for students and kept them engaged when they might lose interest and drift away.

“Even though we’re operating in a virtual world, there are things we can do to make learning more authentic, so students can see how the content is relevant in the real world,” she said.

“And it creates a culture of community-building that goes beyond just one project,” she added. “It bleeds into all aspects of the school. It’s been lovely to see.”

A school philosophy of collaboration

Circulos’ projects during the campus closure are part of a broader philosophy that was in place long before the pandemic. Community partnerships, civic engagement, and project-based learning are the backbone of the school.

“We’re taking all the resources of the community and making them available to our students,” site administrator Jessica Salcedo said. 

“The mentors, the expertise—it’s all at their fingertips. Students can take learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.”

—Jessica Salcedo, Administrator at Círculos

A project-based learning and place-based school learning in action

Círculos, which operates within Advanced Learning Academy, primarily serves low-income, Latinx students. Opened in 2017, Círculos focuses on connecting students with the community around them, creating opportunities, and broadening the horizons of students who might not otherwise see much beyond their own neighborhoods.

Before the campus closed due to the pandemic, Círculos students spent two afternoons a week working at local businesses and nonprofits on specific projects intended to enrich the community. These learning experiences merged academic rigor with practical skills and real-world lessons. They allow students to work closely with professionals in the field, researching problems, and creating real-world solutions.

Students showed their work at a community gathering in a student-curated gallery in downtown Santa Ana.

For instance, Isaiah Robles, a 10th grader at Círculos, worked on a plan to expand youth sports opportunities as a means of gang prevention in Santa Ana. He said he was inspired by his mother, who sacrificed parts of her pay to let him play in recreational football and baseball leagues when he was younger. Although it was a financial hardship for the family, playing sports kept him off the streets and on a path to success, he said.

“I think everyone should have that chance,” explained Isaiah. “I want to create a sports league where you don’t have to pay.”

In the process of doing research, Isaiah also learned more about Santa Ana itself—its history, its neighborhoods, and its people.

“The city has a lot more meaning than I thought it did,” he said. “I feel proud of where I come from. Santa Ana is rich in culture and history…It really opened my eyes.”

Similarly, his classmate, Javier Castel, also worked on a sports-related project. Collaborating with Latino Health Access, Javier studied the benefits of youth sports: how they can reduce childhood obesity, improve mental health, and result in higher grades and academic performance.

“I like this project because it’s hands-on,” he said. “You’re not stuck in a classroom.”

Similar to Isaiah and Javier, 9th-grader Adonai Roque worked with the Heritage Museum of Orange County on the benefits of public art: why it’s popular, what makes it good, and how it can help communities build a sense of identity and pride.

The project involved plenty of creativity and research.

“We have to figure things out on our own,” Adonai said. “I feel like I’m getting prepared for college. I’m learning how to research and read scholarly articles…I’m more confident about my ability to succeed in college now.”

Getting students excited about their futures

For Sofia Garcia, the P2BL program introduced her to a whole new career option. Sofia wanted to be an artist for most of her life but was concerned about not earning enough to support herself. Then, while working with a local design firm, Visioneering Studios, she discovered architecture and developed a new plan for her future. 

With her cohort, she helped design an alley in downtown Santa Ana that was underused and filled with trash. She and her classmates crafted designs to turn it into a vibrant public space with a garden, benches, tables, and a performance area.

“Instead of a dangerous place to be, we want to make it safe and inviting,” she said. “It’s a lot more fun to work on (a project like this) when you can actually be in the physical place you’re learning about. It’s inspiring.”

Using project-based, place-based learning to create meaningful learning

Almost all XQ schools feature off-site learning opportunities, but a few stand out. Latitude 37.8, PSI High, Washington Leadership Academy, Iowa BIG, Summit Shasta, and Grand Rapids Public Museum School are a few with, especially, active and dynamic programs.

For teachers, project-based, place-based learning is a way to engage students who otherwise might be hard to reach, explained Park, Círculos’ curator of projects and partnerships.

“Some students don’t love going to biology class, but they love projects,” she said. “Hands-on projects are another way of bringing them into the learning experience…They’re getting authentic learning experiences. In school, it’s all hypothetical. But we’re getting students into the community spaces where the work is actually happening. It’s not abstract, it’s actual, real-world experience.”

Students also gain exposure to adults with wide and varied expertise their teachers might not have. Whether it’s the latest in design or public health research or historical data, students are learning things that stretch beyond the usual high school curriculum.

“They’re getting access to experts in the field,” Park said. “They’re not just leafing through pages in a textbook. They’re learning from the world around them, and seeing how their work impacts the community…That’s a real level of empowerment for students.”

Continuing placed-based, project-based learning in uncertain times

Though the COVID-19 school closures forced Círculos to rethink and readjust their approach to placed-based, project-based learning—educators at Círculos strategically adjusted their place-based projects online and allowed students to feel that they can still share their experiences working on projects with each other. 

The community at Círculos is helping students feel connected and resilient in the midst of uncertainty. In virtual meeting rooms, students presented on semester-long inquiries they researched in their community, from “How has the representation of African Americans and Latinos in the media caused conflicting perspectives of their communities over time?” to “How has family separation impacted students in Santa Ana and how do they adapt to these changes over time?” And while we may not know what the next few months keep in store, Círculos provides a great example of how we can continue to engage with students even if in a remote setting. 


Are you an educator or school leader determined to make meaningful and engaged learning experiences? Do you want to share how you and your community are getting it done? Share your story with us at [email protected]