April 2,  2014

Every month in this newsletter, we feature one of the extraordinary educators we have worked with at the UCCI Institutes and in the UCCI Teacher Exchange. We started this feature because we were struck by how creative, innovative, and smart California teachers are—and wanted others to meet them. These features are also collected on the UCCI website on our Teacher Spotlight page.

Andre Hargunani

Andre Hargunani, the principal of the Critical Design and Gaming School at Augustus Hawkins High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, believes preparing students to work in the video and computer fields just makes sense.

“If you look at the video or computer industry,” he notes, “while the economy is going down, in that sector there has been an increase in jobs and it's growing, going against the trend - so that's what I want to prepare students for. Also, I think it's the fastest way out of poverty. There is a mismatch right now in the available jobs and the skill base of the current workforce.  By helping our students develop the skills they need for these high-paying unfilled job positions while in high school, they will be able to take advantage of this opportunity for quick economic advancement."

His school (known as C:\DAGS for short) is in the third cohort of the LAUSD's Linked Learning pathways initiative, and the above philosophy is reflected in its mission statement: “Urgently educate and empower the teenagers of South Central Los Angeles to excel through college and become transformative leaders of our local and global communities.”

Integrated courses from UCCI are part of Andre's plan to to help the school achieve its goals. Beginning in the next academic year, he hopes to offer Algebra 2 for the 21st CenturyCommunication by Design and World History by Design, all developed at the UCCI Institutes, plus a course that integrates mathematics with the Information and Communications Technology CTE industry sector, developed by the Alvord Unified School District with one of UCCI's Pathways Grants.

Even before he learned of the UCCI program, Andre was thinking in terms of integration. He holds a computer engineering degree and worked as a programmer designing games “a whole other lifetime ago.” He got into teaching through a program called Los Angeles Teaching Fellows, which recruited workers from various industries to be teachers, and taught math for seven years.

During that time, he was asked to take on leadership roles, becoming a lead teacher for the small learning communities that were being formed then, and heading the math department for a couple of years. He also earned an administrative credential and a master's of education from UCLA, and has been principal at C:\DAGS since it opened in August 2012.

During his time teaching math, Andre says, “I always had it in the back of my mind that I would love to relate this to programming, right? I had students who would tell me they wanted to design games, and I told them, 'You'd better learn algebra, because programming is algebra.' I had the dream of developing a programming course that uses math—and then it materialized at UCCI.”

When he learned of the UCCI Teacher Exchange, he signed up and brought five math teachers with him to get support for teaching UCCI's Algebra 2 for the 21st Century. At the Exchange, Andre mentioned his desire to offer three more courses that would blend integrated mathematics with ICT.

UCCI had just the right answer for him, in the form of an introduction to Dr. Oghwa Ladner, Teacher on Special Assignment for STEM in the Alvord Unified School District in Riverside. Dr. Ladner developed exactly those courses with the help of a UCCI Pathways Grant last year.

All four courses use the Scratch program, which is “a really easy programming tool—you don't have to worry about syntax, it's all drag-and-drop programming,” he says. “That way you can actually concentrate on creating algorithms, how you set up your variables, use your variables, and show why you would need them, so it becomes a real application of the math.”

The teachers loved practicing with Scratch at the Teacher Exchange, he says. “I think they felt challenged in a new way. Most of them hadn't thought about programming, so it was their first time programming.”

They engaged so completely with this new tool at the Exchange, he says, it was difficult to stop for lunch. “People were glued to their computers, trying to get over whatever challenge they were working on. They couldn't even give it up to have a sandwich. They couldn't let it go.”

The collaboration required when working with integrated curriculum “is vital,” Andre says. “You can't do this work without collaboration.”

At Hawkins High School, teachers have common conference periods and scheduled meetings where they can work together, not in isolation. Andre has discussed more collaboration with Oghwa Ladner, teacher on special assignment Alvord High, where the math/ICT courses were developed. “We were talking about how we need to get her teachers and my teachers together, maybe at the end of the school year, to go over what her teachers have learned, and what our teachers have learned.”

Facilitating these kinds of connections is one of the greatest rewards in our work at UCCI.

Looking ahead, Andre says there are more courses he would like to create for his school. He has also been making connections with industry, “getting information about what should our students have when they graduate, so they're viable candidates in the game industry, let's say.”

He's been happy that his teachers are willing to seek out people in industry, like the history teacher who arranged a workshop with an artist who contributed to Call of Duty: Ghosts, and visited the school to show students how to do 3-D modeling and animation.

The school has also been assisted by the LAUSD's Linked Learning office, which helped make connections for an industry panel, including representatives from Naughty Dog and Disney.

When it comes to work-world connections and integrated learning, Andre says, “I feel that this is the way of the future, that our schools do need to be redefined, because the current structure of school was cretead specifically for the industrial age. Now we need to recreate our schools for the new 21st-century reality, and the way to do that is being clearly defined through these UCCI courses, where we're applying core content knowledge to the new careers of the future.”

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“I've gained more from this institute in regards to curriculum development than any other program I've been associated with in my 12 years of teaching.” 

- Aaron Lemos, Spring 2013 UCCI Institutes