El Segundo has a new private school in town, and it has a different approach to accelerated learning.
Portal Schools, a high school in its first academic year, plans to help teenagers from all over the Los Angeles area become the next leaders in the technology field and other industries without spending up to four years in college — by awarding them multiple degrees at the same time.
Portal, which opened in August, has a partnership with Belkin, an electronics manufacturer, that allows the school to operate at the company’s headquarters. The school first opened at Belkin’s Playa Vista headquarters. When Belkin moved to El Segundo in March, Portal went with it.
And that’s just one of the partnerships upon which Portal relies.
Students will earn either associate or bachelor’s degrees from Southern New Hampshire University at the same time as their high school diplomas during their four or five years at Portal, according to school officials. The core curriculum satisfies college credits.
Portal chose SNHU because of a “philosophical alignment,” officials said. But West LA College also provides some coursework to the school and Portal is looking for other educational partners.
Because the school is in its first year, it’s not yet accredited.
But Portal has applied to be accredited through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The school had its initial walk-through with WASC officials this spring.
Once the school receives WASC accreditation, the Portal website says, it will work on aligning its coursework with University of California requirements. Eventually, the website says, Portal will also pursue accreditation through the California Association of Independent Schools.
The school, meanwhile, also benefits from having its campus at Belkin’s headquarters.
Belkin employees volunteer to mentor students one on one. The mentoring is virtual for now, but the employees and students will soon meet in person once the company’s COVID-19 protocols lift and all workers return to the physical campus.
Freshman Juliann Keegan, for example, gets advice from her mentor, Belkin Creative Director Ardith Nishi, about her artistry goals, learning from Nishi’s 25 years of experience.
The school — whose motto is “high school done differently” — is designed to expose youth to a plethora of career interests through real-life work, said Valerie Green, director of outreach and external affairs at Portal.
“The fact that we’re embedded on a tech campus lowers that barrier to access for careers in tech, graphic design, human resources” and the many other fields that Belkin employees come from, said Head of School Grace Cruz.
Cruz’s goal in leading the El Segundo campus, she said, is to lower barriers to entry in various industries that aren’t as diverse as they need to be.
There are a lot of talented people, Cruz said, that typically don’t get to see those career options. Now, she said, they can come through Portal and get in front of those opportunities.
Students come from more than 20 different ZIP codes around Los Angeles County, Green said, including in Long Beach and Pasadena.
The El Segundo campus is the pilot site, Green said, with officials planning to open eight micro schools in Los Angeles by 2025. Each campus would have up to 60 students.
Portal is planning to open a new campus in 2023, Green said, and is looking at partnering with companies in multiple industries — including in health care, marketing and entertainment — and eventually having a central campus with several corporate businesses surrounding it.
A ninth-grade class of 28 students started at the pilot campus in the fall. Another group of freshman will enter this coming school year. Those two classes will graduate before more students can enroll at the campus.
Freshmen will explore their interests with mentors and during career workshops, Green said. As they get older, classes will become more tailored to the passions they find, and students will choose a “path” to pursue at the end of their junior year based on those interests, Green said.
Sophomores will have a day during the week when they can decide to work off campus, practicing life skills such as time management, Green said. Seniors will have two of those days per week, she added, one of which they’ll spend interning at Belkin.
Career-connected, project-based learning, school officials said, will allow students to apply their knowledge to the real world, rather than trying to get as many correct answers on a test as they can.
During winter term, for example, students did a design challenge project in which Belkin employees picked a problem they were actually facing and students — with weekly check-ins from Belkin — had a month to find a solution, said Ivan Cestero, Portal’s director of strategic partnerships.
That way, students are not just assignments, Cestero said, but seeing how their work actually impacts things.
On top of typical grading, students must meet competencies, showing how they best individually use the content rather than striving to reach a baseline standard.
Students should be inspired by each other, Cestero said, not worried about who can do what better than whom.
Cestero said he wants to see Portal’s model normalized in the next 10 to 20 years.
Green, for her part, summed up Portal’s goal for her pupils: It’s not about where students started, she said — but where they’re going.