Leader Spotlight: Anthony Saba, Samueli Academy

May 25, 2017

Samueli Academy is a school with a unique mission of serving foster youth and underserved kids. We sat down with Anthony Saba, Head of Samueli Academy, to discuss the school’s future and meeting the needs of a diverse student body.


NTN: Hi Anthony. Thanks for speaking with us! Can you talk a little more about the mission of Samueli Academy? What makes this school unique? How are you meeting the needs of your underserved students?

The heart of our mission is to serve foster youth and underserved kids in our community.

We partnered with Orangewood Foundation. We are building a residential hall for foster youth that should be finished in 2018. Right now 3-4% of our students are foster youth, but after the residence is built, our aim is 10-15%. We pride ourself on trying to reach those kids. Only half of foster kids graduate high school in the state of CA.

NTN: How does the New Tech school model contribute to a learning environment that meets the needs of Samueli students?

When I think of the New Tech model, I’ve talked to people in the network that incorrectly state that it is Project Based Learning. That isn’t correct. We learned as much about school culture as we did about PBL. Both are extremely important. If you were to build a pyramid of rocks and the first rock was ultimate student achievement, then the bottom rock would be school culture. Students feeling welcome and cared for. It all starts with school culture. I don’t care what pedagogy you subscribe to — if you don’t have a good culture, the students won’t learn anything.

NTN does a good job of creating a warm welcoming environment in which students want to be engaged. The model is focused on meeting the needs of all students.

For our school specifically, I didn’t want to put the words trust, respect and responsibility everywhere and hope it was the magic potion. We try to do specific things to teach students trust, respect and responsibility.

One specific way is every year, at the beginning of the year, I stand up and take $20 out of my wallet and wedge it into a lunch table. I tell the students that if we are really going to build a school based on trust, this $20 should be here tomorrow morning. It has always been there the next day. Our culture is not just words on a building, it is something that we are building.

NTN: We have heard wonderful things about Samueli’s summer internship program. Can you talk more about the program? What have been the successes and challenges?

One area that Orangewood really has provided support is with our internship program. All of our students do a 45 hour minimum summer internship between junior and senior year. One of our biggest challenges in getting the program up and running was finding 120 internships. Orangewood provided a lot of support with this by connecting us with companies.

We received great feedback after our first year. Both the businesses and students had an overwhelmingly positive experience. We had a couple of kids who fell in love with their internships and have decided to pursue a major in college based off of their experience. For example, we had students who interned in engineering and law fields and realized it was something they are passionate about.

Alternatively, we had some kids who thought they wanted to go into something and realize that they did not feel passionate about it. That is just as valuable. It is vital to give students real-life experience and show them what certain industries are really like.

NTN: What role does the portfolio and portfolio defense play in preparing your students for post-secondary success? Can you describe this further?

We are big believers in portfolio and portfolio defense. I think it prepares students because it makes them reflect on all the wonderful things that they have done over their 4 years at Samueli. Students also have to deliver a 45 minute defense to people they have never met. This defense mirrors a real-world job presentation. Several of our students have said that they can’t believe how much they’ve done and learned from being here. I would like to think that our kids have more confidence than most because of all the things they have done. Senior portfolios bring this to life just before they step into post-secondary environment.

NTN: You are in your 4th year, working to improve an audacious school design–what are your biggest challenges? What keeps you going?

I don’t think our challenges are too different than most schools’. My main challenge is making sure we are serving both ends of the spectrums. Even though we have good scores and rankings, we still have kids that struggle and don’t want to engage. We’re really trying to get those 3-5% of students that are struggling. We spend 99% of our time talking about these kids. We have several courses designed for struggling learners, we implemented mandatory after school tutoring. We are really looking at how to motivate disengaged students.

On the flip side, I also am working to make sure we are keeping our kids as competitive as possible for college applications. I don’t like it to admit it, but SAT/ACT scores are valuable to colleges. We need to make sure our students are prepared for these tests while staying true to what we believe – authentic learning. Sometimes those goals don’t seamlessly coincide. We pride ourselves on being different, but we still need to prepare our university-bound students.

How do we play that game without losing sight of who we are and what we believe in? We need to do a more concentrated push next year. We are trying to reconcile that. We are working on that now and trying to navigate those waters.

NTN: Thank you Anthony! We are inspired by your school’s mission and your hard work. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the network is on the right path and it is the answer for all kids. Not just underserved kids, but all kids in general. I think that if a school can get close to mastering what the network pushes and believes in, it is the answer to education. NTN is tailor made for small charter schools because we have flexibility. I’m a big believer in this movement, while understanding that there may be struggles some schools face (like very large classes, large campuses, difficulty creating a 1:1 environment or co-teaching partners who haven’t bought-in). But I believe it is what every high school in the country should be doing.

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