Pragmatic Education: A Young Vice Principle still Believes in the Power of Education


Photo Credit: Vaughn International Studies Academy Faculty


“I think that one of these days,’ he said, ‘you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there” Sound familiar? If you’ve attended an American high school in the past few generations it should. It’s a quote from J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye.

The award winning novel about teenage angst is required reading throughout the country. Students can relate to its character, Holden Caulfield, a physically abused student who struggles for identity through drug use. Traditionally students are required to explore the story through tests, essay prompts and literary analysis. For a student like Caulfield this may be a disillusioning approach. What does it have to do with what’s going on in his life?

At Vaughn International Studies Academy ¾ a charter school serving high school students ¾ faculty and administration employ a more hands on approach. 28-year-old Vice Principle Brent Wozniak says, “The idea is to engage students in learning by guiding them through real-world experiences that are relevant and, in turn, cause students to care about their learning.”

For this very reason Wozniak worked with an English teacher to contact non-profit organizations that deals with similar issues expressed in Salinger’s novel. The assignment required students to act as advocates for organizations like the Child Abuse Prevention Center. After researching an organization and interviewing its staff students presented an argument as to how their organization could help Caulfield.

“The follow-up and true reward came when students were actually able to fund raise and/or advocate on behalf of their respective non-profits,” Says the young VP, “At a certain point, students stopped worrying about an “assignment” and they started being far more concerned with achieving a real goal that could benefit others within the local community.”

99 percent of students qualify for participation in the free-reduced lunch program, an indication of low socio-economic status. Admission is based on a lottery system to avoid discrimination. 98 percent of students classify themselves as Hispanic or Latino (1 percent white and 1 percent black)

“Most of our high school students will be the first generation in their families to attend college or even graduate from high school,” says Wozniak.

Teachers and administration have an exchange program with Chinese schools. Why China? The answer is in line with the schools pragmatic approach. China has the largest population on earth and one of the fastest growing economies. Cities like Shanghai have become hubs of international business. This is why students at Vaughn International Studies Academy are required to take a minimum of two years of Mandarin-Chinese. An exchange program exists enabling students to travel to China and visa-versa.

“One of the most sought after attributes by U.S. companies today is empathy,” Says Wozniak, ” So many barriers are broken and stereotypes debunked when individuals make meaningful connections with peers abroad.”

Wozniak works hard to support and enhance the positive outcomes of the programs his school offers. Students have benefited from teachers and administration that share his ideals. The school has a 90 percent graduation rate and many students go on to four-year universities. It seems schools have some to learn from Vaughn International Studies Academy pragmatic approach.

What does this innovative VP ask of education? “I need to see more school’s working toward the incorporation of authentic learning experiences for students. Why is a student going to pay attention to some person rattling off all the reasons they “might” use trigonometry or some obscure information about the French Revolution?


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