Winner of $10 million grant to found school brings opportunity to homeless youth

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In 2016, XQ: The Super School Project challenged educators across the United States to rethink and revolutionize high school education. Grinnell Posse Alumnus Erin Whalen and fellow educator Kari Croft rose to the challenge with the idea for RISE High—a school designed to bring equity through education for homeless or foster-care students in Los Angeles.

Imagined as a completely new model, RISE, which stands for Revolutionary Independent Student Experience, became one of 10 schools to receive the incredible grand prize: $10 million in funding, to be awarded over five years.

Erin believes in the value of education and its ability to transform lives and build equity.

Reflecting on his own education growing up in California, he says, “My family was supportive of school. My best would always be good enough.”

“Posse was really a family network, there to see you succeed."

Erin’s best eventually earned him a Posse Scholarship to Grinnell College in Iowa.

He credits Posse’s support and leadership development for empowering him—fueling his passion to fight for equity for marginalized and disconnected students.

“It was really a family network,” he says reflecting on his time as a Scholar. “A network that was there to see you succeed.”

At Grinnell, Erin’s passion for education grew.

“In my first month at Grinnell I learned so much about myself in the classroom,” Erin reflects. “I felt that teaching was a magical experience. It made me interested in leading in the classroom and personally affecting many lives at once.”

After graduating, Erin taught in Miami through Teach for America. As a teacher, he saw firsthand how traditional schools can fail to meet the unique needs of transient students, who might come in and out of school due to circumstances at home.

“The system is not always there to support them,” Erin says.

He has since returned to his Los Angeles roots. After the XQ competition, Erin is now the founding assistant principal of RISE High with a mission to empower disconnected youth through education.

Erin Whalen (back row) with graduating students and community members at the first RISE High graduation in 2017.
Erin Whalen (back row) with graduating seniors and community members at the first RISE High graduation in 2017.

“In a city with such high numbers of homeless and foster youth, there really is no other option than to create something different, something that really rethinks the needs of those communities,” he says.

Erin and Kari developed RISE High to exist and function beyond the traditional structures and rigidness of the U.S. high school system. Following a fluid, holistic and competency-based model, RISE meets its transient students where they are, both academically and geographically.

Erin leads with an unwavering dedication to the particular needs of his students. Co-located with service providers in Los Angeles, RISE High aims to lift up students by providing them with the facilities, resources and education they need to not just graduate, but also pursue higher education.

Take young people and give them a chance to compete in college.

When asked about the core values of RISE High, Erin says, “The biggest one is student voices.”

As a student-centered approach to education, RISE High gives tremendous agency to its youngest community members. Students not only design their own schedules and timeline for graduation, but also are involved in the hiring of teachers and lesson evaluations.

In 2017, RISE High produced its inaugural class of graduates. Having completed their self-designed curriculums, 10 students walked the stage with diplomas held high.

“I’m excited to produce students who will be able to go through the process I did with Posse,” says Erin. “To take young people who have been ignored and give them a chance to compete in college is the goal.”

Looking to the future, Erin hopes to launch RISE High’s first mobile learning center, an idea that stemmed from conversations with his students. The mobile learning center could “create a space with hygiene products, Chromebooks, a therapist and whatever support the students need,” he says.

Erin is excited to expand RISE High to empower more students across Los Angeles.

“To have students feel supported, loved and valued as people—that’s our definition of success,” he says.

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