Da Vinci, Degrees Of Freedom and Duet – Making Postsecondary Pathways Relevant and Reachable for All Students

Students at Da Vinci schools enjoy highly personalized and individualized programs.

Move over 3Rs, you have competition.

The 3Ds are here and they are tackling what you’ve failed to do – ensure that rigor and relevance in reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic carry through a student’s education journey and prepare them for both college and career.

As the world is grappling with failing education systems that cannot and will not open, many little-known “higher” education innovations are taking states and their communities by storm. The high schools that still haven’t figured out how to innovate or deliver great education pre-pandemic have had atrocious matriculation rates for college and credentialing. So it’s no surprise that visionaries have created new pathways that not only challenge the idea of high school and higher education as we know it, but threaten to make the traditional system obsolete. Yet another not-so-big coincidence is that three of today’s most interesting mission-driven solutions were founded by charter school leaders whose work to address inefficiencies and ineffective education in K through 12 are now trying to innovate through college.

Da Vinci Schools were founded by Matt Wunder, an unassuming public school educator who believed that it was vital to give students real world experience through education, if we expect them to succeed in the real world. “Our work is more focused on finding the sweet spot that connects education to employment,” he told the architecture firm, Gensler. “We’re about giving students a combination of ‘college prep meets career technical education,’ and making it more personalized. At Da Vinci, we wanted to provide a setting where students could see and work in places that look like where they’ll be after they graduate.”


Da Vinci offers Design, Communications and Science across its five schools, including fully remote, hybrid and onground opportunities for students. In addition, students earn college credits for free while they are at Da Vinci, “reducing the time and cost of attaining a college degree… Students have opportunities to participate in career exploration through project consults, paid and unpaid internships, training, mentorships, and industry-relevant events.” The theory – and practice – shows that students who have an extra year of high school while earning college credits leads to increased rates of college completion.

Wunder is also a co-founder of Portal Schools, “an emerging network of independent high schools in Los Angeles, embedded on leading corporate campuses in successful, thriving industries,” whose model is sure to take off nationwide. In five years, portal students will have a high school diploma,a bachelor’s degree, and a career track, for a fraction of what such achievements normally cost.

It is the widespread and justifiable concern for the increasing number of students who do not make it through college, often despite success in high school, that has fueled such innovative, continuous-education models.

According to Richard Whitmire, author of The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America, “America’s higher education problem is not a college enrollment problem. The percentage of students who head straight to college after high school has risen from 63 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2016, according to the Department of Education. What we have is a graduation problem, especially among low-income minority students: Just 11 percent of students from the lowest-income quartile earn bachelor’s degrees within six years (the commonly used indicator of college success), compared with 58 percent of students who come from the highest-income group.” Low income students are disproportionately enrolled in remedial courses upon entering higher education, which negatively impacts their completion rates.

It is these stats that have inspired many to rethink how students might best be served as they progress through school.

That’s what led Seth Andrew to invent his latest educational offering for students, Degrees of Freedom. Andrew is best known not just for his role in driving new education technology policy for former President Barack Obama, but for his role in helping to found Democracy Prep Charter Schools, a national network designed to “ to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.” Democracy Prep is now 21 schools strong.

But getting students to and through college with the right combination of support and instruction, while recognizing that many still want and need to work in their communities, has rarely been done successfully in traditional higher education. The school will start this September, 2021 with two different, entirely publicly-funded pathways. The first is a one-year, credit-rich gap year; and the second, a two year “Liberation Launch” program that allows students to be in residence three times a year to the Marlboro, Vermont college campus Andrew invested in. Throughout the remainder of the Liberation Launch years, students would do the majority of their coursework online, proctored by highly-selective college instructors, accomplished educators and mentors.

Says Andrew, “Most of Traditional Higher education was built specifically to include low income and first generation students in favor of legacy admissions and $60,000 annual price tags. At Degrees of Freedom we’ve questioned all of the assumptions of college and built something with our students, not just for them.”

Duet’s study spaces are designed to support student college work.

Last but hardly least is the Duet program for New England-area students, which pairs support from enrollment to completion, including study locations, with the widely-acclaimed online curriculum of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) the fastest growing non-profit university in the nation. It’s based on a model first begun by the Match Charter School in Boston, which not only helped its students enroll in SNHU courses, but after they graduated from high school at Match, continued to proctor them through their college onsite. But why not work to reach students at all schools, they thought, particularly when their completion rates were so much higher among their students than comparable students not being supported in real time? SNHU was all too willing to help. As its well-regarded president Paul LeBlanc said in an interview last year, “I see and hear right now an enormous conversation about the academic side. And ironically, not nearly enough about the supports when students need those more than ever before.” Its mission is focused on “relentlessly challenging the status quo and providing the best support in higher education…and creating high quality, affordable and innovative pathways to meet the unique needs of each and every learner.”

From Boston, where Duet works to expand the reach of the University’s low-cost, career-driven, degree programs, to the College for America program at Da Vinci schools, also a partnership with SNHU, entrepreneurial educators everywhere are defying location and destiny when it comes to educating kids.

And that kind of thinking, particularly in a day and age when large, bureaucratic, staid institutions have a hard time adapting, is precisely why the model driven by these 3Ds is not only here to stay, but the model for the future.

I’m the founder & CEO of the Center for Education Reform, whose mission is to expand educational opportunities that lead to improved economic outcomes for all Americans,