Santa Ana, California
A school developing connected lifelong learners.
True to its name and rooted in its culture, every student at Círculos is part of a tight-knit learning circle of peers, teachers, and community members. The name Círculos originates from the Spanish word for “circles,” representing the school’s design and structure. Círculos aims to connect students deeply with Santa Ana through rigorous place-based learning projects that encircle the greater community.
The small school is part of the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD), the sixth-largest district in California, where 32 percent of students are English learners and 71 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. During the XQ Super School challenge, community members wanted to design a school that could give first-generation Americans and students from low-wealth communities access to the resources and opportunities surrounding them in the famously wealthy Orange County.
They came up with Círculos: an innovative approach to connect students with the county’s industry, arts, and culture through powerful place-based and project-based learning. Círculos started as a small pilot program before launching in 2018-19 as an option for high school students housed at the Advanced Learning Academy, a district-dependent charter school. Círculos serves more than 160 students. The graduating class of 2022 consisted of 12 seniors, with more than double that number in 2023. The school has been sharing its success with project-based learning by creating four PBL classes that are state-approved and available to any school in the district.
“We believe students want to have fun and experience success as they learn, so we work hard with our staff and our community partners to co-create authentic opportunities where students can experience success now and beyond high school.”
Curator of Talent, Círculos
“We have a lot of connections with experts. We have a project each year, and mine was on the separation of children in Santa Ana. We got to talk to experts at Latino Health Access and have another point of view from experts who are connected to our community and making an impact.”
Class of 2022
Design Principles in Action
Learn how Círculos applies these XQ Design Principles to sustain student success:
Strong mission and culture
Located in Orange County, a region with incredible resources and stark economic disparities, Círculos aims to break the structures that have isolated low-income communities from the county’s many opportunities through place-based learning. This structure encourages student participation and strong academics. The school emphasizes personal connections with learning circles and small classes and drives student learning through community impact projects they develop and pitch themselves.
Meaningful, engaged learning
“Círculos reimagines high school by placing the learner at the center of instruction,” said history specialist Jaime Caldwell. “Círculos cultivates student’s creativity, voice, and inquiry by designing instructional opportunities that connect our student’s lived experience and the larger community.” Class of 2022 graduate Ana made a documentary about “food deserts”—neighborhoods where residents have limited access to nutritious foods. “Usually, these communities are prey for fast food companies, and the prices are targeted for them,” she said. “It made me sad, and I wanted to see how this issue could be solved.”
Caring, trusting relationships
Every student at Círculos is part of a learning circle of peers, teachers, and mentors. The school has an AP for All policy. It also uses a Socratic-style workshop format so students are seen and heard daily and encouraged to develop and cultivate their voices and discuss their goals, victories, and setbacks with teachers and peers. Social and Emotional Learning is embedded into the fabric of the school’s design, which fosters a strong community asset-based community and a sense of belonging—students don’t always know who has special needs or is still learning English. “Our teachers see us as people,” said one student.
Youth voice and choice
Students at Círculos are given space inside and outside of their academic settings to flourish. There are numerous opportunities for students to exercise voice, agency, and input on key decisions and to have agency in choosing learning experiences that reflect their interests and also leading their peers in learning. A 9th-grade project involved building something, and one student chose a clinic because Santa Ana is an expensive place in need of low-cost healthcare and free services. During Community Week, students can choose Passion Sessions—classes where they want to learn something specific—that can be taught by fellow students during a club like robotics.
Students work on projects with a wide range of local organizations, including the Santa Ana Business Council, Santa Ana Public Works Department, Well-Beings Studio, Visioneering Studios, and Latino Health Access. Educators at Círculos integrate these place-based projects with interdisciplinary courses. Projects are aligned with the school’s competency framework. To ensure that community partners share an authentic understanding of these competencies, Círculos educators work with community partners to co-create lessons and project ideas, co-teach the interdisciplinary material, connect these projects to core content areas, and conduct pre- and post-project surveys to measure student growth in specific competencies.
Smart use of time, space and technology
What began as a school-within-a-school model, Círculos has evolved into a comprehensive program emphasizing place-based learning as a core feature of student learning. Students can learn beyond classroom walls, thus expanding the scope of instruction. With flexible scheduling, students can design their own academic plans and choose to take college-level coursework, earning an associate’s degree by the time they finish high school. Much of their learning occurs outside the classroom, as students make frequent visits to local museums, businesses, nonprofits, and other community organizations to broaden the scope of their education.
In XQ’s student survey of the Class of 2022, 11 seniors were surveyed. All said they were going to college—and all but one of them said they’d be the first in their family to do so. Ten of those 12th graders had earned college credits during high school. And nine (82 percent) said they felt at least somewhat prepared for the future. 100 percent of the Class of 2022 graduated, compared to the Santa Ana Unified District (92 percent) and the state of Calirfornia (87 percent). More than three-quarters of those students cited collaborating and demonstrating knowledge as key strengths they had developed at Círculos that will serve them well as adults.