We had the good fortune of connecting with Erin Whalen and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Erin, how does your business help the community?
In Los Angeles County, there are more than 63,000 homeless students. Another 28,000 of the County’s children are in foster care, and close to 20,000 students in Los Angeles are incarcerated. These facts and figures are exacerbated by the lack of adequate educational, social emotional and material resources for these students. With that, it was imperative to develop a new approach. Based on a pilot that began in 2015, Da Vinci RISE High was launched in 2017 to provide a highly responsive, holistic, and integrated model that meets the unique needs of youth navigating the most challenging types of disruptions to academic journeys. Through collaborative work with youth and community members, the team at RISE learned the importance of providing not only equity of outcome, but equity of experience. Built upon the Da Vinci Schools model, RISE provides youth with a competency based and project based learning curriculum baked within a flex-schedule. RISE provides these resources through co-locating and integrating services with non-profit organizations around Los Angeles. RISE currently has three locations all uniquely designed to meet the particular needs of the student body at each site.
For young people in the foster care system, juvenile justice system or experiencing homelessness, school may be the only place where they can reliably find stability and security. Da Vinci RISE’s mission comes in the form of a simple but powerful sentiment: meet students where they are and get them where they need to be—both physically and academically. To accomplish this, educators at RISE work with students to create a learning environment that nurtures personal and academic growth while cultivating the confidence they need to successfully navigate their futures in an uncertain world. The passionate commitment and solidarity of the RISE staff with their students, co-location partners and stakeholders is changing the game for these young people. Youth in foster care and/or whom have experienced homelessness typically attend at least three schools per year. RISE disrupts this trend entirely: 90% of foster and homeless students return to RISE each year, a number that speaks volumes about the quality and depth of their wraparound services.
Erin – we really appreciate the work you and the Da Vinci RISE High team are doing to help bridge the gap and help students who might otherwise be left behind by our education system. So let’s dig in a bit deeper – can you you tell us more about your role and what keeps you busy and anything else that we should know about RISE.
As the Executive Director of Da Vinci RISE High School, it is my mission to strengthen our systems to best meet the dynamic needs of our student body. In tandem, we must also refine how we tell our story of success in order to be a proof point for other’s to look to in service of youth. Born into a Black, Chicano and Indigenous family in Los Angeles positioned me to see a wide array of experiences and perspectives in the educational landscape. Attending small private schools within a family from whom this has never been an opportunity allowed me to understand societal inequities at a young age. As a brand new teacher at North Miami Middle School, I quickly learned how ill-equipped our school system was to address the challenges our students face, particularly those impacted by housing instability or the foster care system. After adopting one of my students deeply impacted by these inequities, I knew that I needed to make an even larger change in my home city of Los Angeles. With these experiences and perspectives at the forefront, I come to this work with a fearless desire to enact change in our communities.
Black and Brown youth are disproportionately impacted by the hardships within and beyond the American school system, our youth are often militarized in schools to attempt to meet the academic standards of their white and more affluent counterparts. Many schools have created a system that is substrative, asking our kids of color, queer students, trans students, to leave their identities and experiences at the door rather than celebrate, amplify and empower these experiences. Schools often spend their energy punishing the manifestations of deeply engrained trauma, rather than creating healing communities to address the root-cause of this pain.
Through our journey at RISE, we’ve had to rethink metrics and measures for success. How do we celebrate the intangible hurdles our students surpass everyday when they continue to make academic and social emotional progress in the face of vast societal inequities? As a young school leader, I was pushed to learn the political frame, practices of negotiation and advocacy on behalf of my community. As a young Black man, I had to learn how to get in the door, gain respect, find a seat at the table and use my seat to ensure a better tomorrow for my community. Challenges of budget cuts, low per-capita funding, environmental and societal inequities, challenges within the juvenile justice system and foster care system all impact the RISE family. With that, we identify as a research and design institution that will consistently shift and iterate as the needs of our community morph. We proudly stand in solidarity with our students to ensure access to a happy and independent adulthood.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
As a Santa Monica native, I carry deep pride in my city. Even within a week, there is only so much you can see in this micro-universe we call Los Angeles. We’d start for an early morning workout with Nichelle Hines, my favorite spin instructor, or Aaron Bryant, if boxing is your thing. From there we’d head over to Marina Del Dey to grab mimosas and breakfast at the Warehouse. After that we’d take bikes down the boardwalk, through Venice beach, over to the Venice Canals for a walk heading into Abbot Kinney for some shopping and green juice from Kreation.
From there we could head over to the Santa Monica mountains for a scenic hike leading into a dip in the pacific ocean, assuming it’s warm outside. WeHo (West Hollywood) is always a great time for food, drinks, shopping or fitness. We’d probably head there for lunch at Zinque or Ep&LP (I clearly like to eat). From there we could take a walk on Santa Monica or Sunset to people-watch and peruse some shops.
A few other favorite spots:
Fitness: F45, Barry’s (Donald Pennington)
Food: Dialogue Cafe
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Kari Croft, dear friend and Founder of RISE High School, gifted me with the opportunity to serve as a leader in building a school model that would better serve our at-risk youth in Los Angeles. Kari and I met through Teach for America, where we began to share our concerns with the American School system’s lack of ability to serve and support our most at risk students. Kari took this charge to the next level by writing the original charter petition through her master’s program. From there she assembled a team of students, nonprofit leaders, educators and community members to collaborate on the creation of RISE High School. Kari taught me how to manage and support the on the ground operations while also having a keen eye to logistics, leadership development, data and politics. Kari also modeled how to lead with a fierce heart and strategic mind. I would not be the leader and human I am today without the solidarity, coaching and support of Kari Croft.