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Promise Amid the Pandemic: Antelope Valley Schools and Industries Join Forces to Engage Students in a Vital Mission

May 26, 2020 | Rachel Zaentz

Across the country, schools, communities, and industry are coming together to dramatically redesign learning experiences in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. In Antelope Valley, the deep and enduring partnership between industry and education that has been the foundation of Linked Learning has also paved the way for an extraordinary community response that is continuing student hands-on learning while helping protect health care professionals at the frontlines of COVID-19.

Antelope Valley is a desert region 70 miles north of Los Angeles. The area’s economy relies heavily on Edwards Air Force Base and several other major government and private aerospace development facilities including NASA, Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, among others. In the early 2000s, these entities approached the Antelope Valley Union High School District (AVUHSD) because they knew that many aerospace engineers and professionals in the region were nearing retirement, and they wanted to build a strong local community of future workers. In the early 1990s, with an aging workforce, Antelope Valley’s growing health care sector faced similar concerns. With one central hospital at the time, local leaders in this sector wanted to develop the next generation of health care professionals. Meanwhile, educators were seeking ways to motivate and engage students and improve long-term outcomes through high school to college and career.

Against this historical backdrop, Antelope Valley educators and employers were deeply motivated to pursue Linked Learning, with its integration of rigorous academics and real-world work experiences, as a way to engage all students in meaningful, highly relevant learning opportunities. As a result, the Linked Learning approach to college and career development became an integral component of the Antelope Valley’s education and economic landscape. Today there are five Linked Learning pathways in AVUHSD. The Biomedical Science Academy at Eastside High School and Multimedia and Engineering Academy at Lancaster High School are Gold certified Linked Learning pathways and among the first in the nation to achieve this distinction, which recognizes pathways for reaching the highest standards in college and career preparation.

When the coronavirus crisis began shuttering schools and straining local health care systems, the Linked Learning infrastructure that has connected schools and local industry for over a decade enabled a highly coordinated response that is engaging students and supporting the community.

Linked Learning pathways essentially function as small schools, in which students are cohorted with the same classroom peers and educators for all four years of high school. Faced with the COVID-19 crisis, educators and industry partners immediately recognized that many of their students would need help meeting basic needs in order to stay healthy and connected to peers and teachers in their Linked Learning pathways. Corporate partners were quick to reach out to schools, offering financial support for addressing students’ technology and other needs.

Industry partners were also acutely aware of the opportunities AVUHSD Linked Learning students were missing due to school closures. Beyond traditional high school rites of passage, such as prom and other end-of-year celebrations, Linked Learning students would likely miss out on the culminating educational experiences where they typically demonstrate what they know and what they can do. In the Antelope Valley, these academic milestones take the shape of robotics and aerospace drone competitions, and capstone projects and senior defenses, which students present in front of their teachers, peers, along with postsecondary faculty, and industry professionals. As the reality hit that there was no safe way to continue on with these opportunities in person, educators and industry and community partners from the cities of Lancaster, Mojave, and other areas of the Antelope Valley began collaborating to fill the void left by physical distancing with learning opportunities that bring students and business professionals together—and provide a valuable purpose amid the pandemic.

An innovative collaboration among schools, hospitals, and industry now has educators and students working to provide protective equipment and enclosures for health care providers. Dr. Elizabeth McKinstry, AVUHSD Director of Career Technical Education (CTE), who oversees the District's Linked Learning pathways, noted: “Industry partners understood, not only what equipment was available in aerospace and biomedical Linked Learning pathways, but also what Linked Learning engineering and biomedical students were capable of—that they understood complex design and processes and could in fact quickly work together with industry professionals to support health care workers on the frontline of the pandemic.”

The city of Lancaster originally created a task force to bring academic, industry, and health care leaders together to develop N-95 masks, but through conversations, the group surfaced additional pressing needs to develop mask straps and protective enclosures for health care professionals to safely test patients for COVID-19. Now, engineers are working hand-in-hand with teachers who are, in turn, dropping off equipment and lesson plans to students at home, who are using the district’s 3D printers to prototype these innovative and much-needed pieces of protective equipment.

Relevant and engaging educational opportunities are also taking place online, as the district pivots to delivering Linked Learning virtually. For example, partners from Lockheed Martin and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) have already launched a series of webinars where students connect with fighter pilots and engineers to learn what it’s like to build and fly the F-35, the world’s most advanced stealth jet fighter. Such virtual experiences will continue throughout the academic year to make school real and relevant as students learn from home. Other partners such as Northrop Grumman Corporation, Kaiser Permanente, and Edwards Air Force Base are also providing virtual opportunities for students.

While much remains uncertain, the Antelope Valley is optimistic about the future. For over two decades, educators and their partners in this close-knit community have come together in support of the region’s students and economic prospects. Today, that partnership has catalyzed a coordinated effort that, despite the distance, is engaging AVUHSD students in learning and motivating them with work experiences that matter to everyone in the community.