California School Reimagines The Education Model – Forbes

Covid-19 inadvertently put the education industry on notice. No longer could traditional curriculum and delivery mechanisms outperform the momentum produced by technology, new models and learning approaches that focus on the skill sets that prepare students for future careers.

Remote learning pushed the envelope of what is possible, inching the industry closer to current, flexible working environments for wage-earning adults throughout the world. In the education world, one California school may have already authored a long term response.

Oaks Christian School (OCS) is changing the traditional education model and incorporating institutes, cast with industry titans, to underpin student experiences based on real-world environments and opportunities. OCS leadership, pre-pandemic, went beyond state lines and national borders to pursue new and updated methods to educate students.

Groups of OCS educators, leaders, administrators and Board Members traveled across the country and around the globe in search of dynamic best practices. “At the Singapore American School, our team became enthralled with their creation of what they called Individual Learning Pathways,” said Rob Black, OCS’ Head of School.

Upon returning to the U.S., leadership set out to make this [Individual Learning Pathways] concept distinctive to their offering at OCS. The result was the development and launch of 3 initial “Institutes.”

After finding additional inspiration from Andy Ellwood’s 2012 Forbes article, “The Dream Team: Hipster, Hacker, and Hustler,” the school created the Institute of Arts and Innovation (IAI), the Institute of Engineering (IE), and the Institute of Global Leadership (IGL). These institutes allow students to explore their subject of choice on a deeper and more intensive level, with an eye not only on college but on future post-college vocational opportunities.

Three years later, OCS is getting noticeable buy-in from major industry players. Alyssa Lein-Smith, vice president of Quincy Jones Productions, 16 time Grammy Winner Jimmy Jam, and Grammy Winner Rami Yacoub are some of the iconic names now associated with OCS efforts.

Rami is a Grammy award-winning legendary songwriter and producer who has worked with the biggest names in the entertainment industry for two decades (Ariana Grande, One Direction, Lady Gaga, to name a few). Rami conducts masterclasses yearly at the Institute and is one of the members of the advisory council.

“Music education is critical to the future of our industry. It is vitally important that the professional music community guide these students to share new stories through entertainment, no matter who they are or where they come from. It is an honor to work with OCS students and I encourage other artists, around the world, to support music education as well.”

OCS has evolved traditional education, based partly on theory, into one centered on application and driven through relationships with industry experts that provide students with invaluable mentorship and collaboration potential. Whether connecting producers with young songwriters or providing masterclasses that share firsthand lessons learned, students have the opportunity to consider their career options with greater clarity based on personal experiences and expert anecdotes.

According to Matt Northrop, Associate Head of School at OCS, not only does this broad and unique scope of mentors help shape student perspectives, but it raises confidence levels and augments their passion for their chosen industries. 

“Our advisory councils have been key to the success of our institutes,” he says. “These professionals, power-players, and influencers have provided remarkable vision, unique perspectives, vast connections, and much needed trust. They are the bridge that connects our students directly to the industry. They help keep us relevant and help our institutes from becoming complacent, while at the same time helping us remain current with new trends and technological advances in the various fields.” 

Education is trending toward more individualized learning pathways and project-based learning. The institute model appears to seamlessly connect the traditional foundations of education with more in-depth, cutting-edge, and accelerated pathways.  

“Employers today are looking less for the ‘straight-A student,’ but more for the critical thinking creatives who will be integral and innovative in moving companies and industries forward into the future,” says Mary Kay Altizer, Director of Institute of Arts and Innovation.

An increasing number of secondary schools and universities are exploring and implementing institutes, academies, and conservatories in the arts, business, and sciences. The objective is to offer students options to excel beyond the classic curricula to be more competitive in the marketplace. 

Working from an entrepreneurial mindset, the school leadership has demonstrated massive support for the new model of education. In addition to funding new positions associated with these institutes and pending plans for an IAI center, the school leadership invested significant capital into a new building for the IE. Formerly a pet food warehouse, the 10,000-square-foot facility houses state-of-the-art manual and CAD lathes, robots, and 3D printers and has become a hub for Southern California’s engineering-minded students.

With only three years in and still navigating the public-private partnerships, OCS has seen notable initial success. 

The IAI partnered with the foremost songwriting school in Europe, Songwriters Academy of Sweden, and their Principal and Educational Manager, Ulla Sjostrom. This fostered groundbreaking, international songwriting collaborations between European and American students. 

Also, the IGL acquired support from the international fiber-optics company Bandweaver and CEO Howell Zhao. As a result, the engineering students have started working on a fire-prevention solution that may form into a future LLC, directed by entrepreneurs in the IGL.

“What excites me the most about the Institute of Global Leadership is how timely it is given the void in leadership seen today. We are missing a leadership approach that is driven by principles and values,” says Steve Randol, former Vice President of Nestle Retail Operations Center and Advisory Council Member of the Institute of Global Leadership.

“At the backbone of the Institute of Global Leadership is the concept of servant leadership—putting others first. Helping enable those we lead to be the best version of themselves and uniting people of different backgrounds and experiences towards a common goal. The world needs more courageous leaders that are willing to stand for something other than their own self-interest. The institute is committed to developing such leaders, which gives me hope for the future.”

Gezim Gashi, a partner of the IAI and provider of mentoring services to students, believes recent student successes would not occur without incredible collaboration between the school, the institutes and the industry-represented advisory councils.

“It was a monumental achievement for IAI student and artist Asher to be signed by Quincy Jones Productions. My work with Asher would not have been complete without a village mentality underpinning the effort school-wide.” Gashi’s upcoming personal empowerment book, tentatively titled, Unlocked: The Power of You, draws from his mentoring experiences with students at OCS.

“Doing things differently has become a ‘distinctive hallmark’ of the student educational experience at Oaks Christian,” said Black. “Rather than just thinking outside the box, when it comes to student learning and student engagement, OCS has determined that the box doesn’t really exist at all.”

The future, compliments of a global pandemic, has arrived sooner than expected. OCS appears to have sped up the opportunity wheel for the next generation to excel now.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity