Transforming Compton’s Schools into a STEAM Pipeline for Students

AASA Leading for Equity: Innovative Action and Equity-Driven Processes for Student Success edWebinar recording link


If your understanding of the Compton area in Los Angeles is based on hip hop songs and a 2015 movie about young people growing up there, you’re likely to be surprised by the tech-focused students and schools in the neighborhood now.

The remarkable seven-year transformation of Compton’s schools was discussed during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, featuring Dr. Darin Brawley, Superintendent of the Compton Unified School District, and Michele Dawson, Senior Director of Technology and Innovation of the Compton Unified School District.

Dr. Brawley and his team emphasized the importance of both innovation and inclusiveness in preparing students for a future in which technology jobs are growing faster and paying better than many other forms of work, but women and people of color remain underrepresented in the tech workforce.

Compton and Its Transformation Process

Dr. Brawley explained the Compton Unified School District is one of 80 in Los Angeles, and it currently has about 23,000 students in 36 schools. Almost 85% of the students are now Latino, with the remaining 15% African American. 99% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but the district’s graduation rate is now over 90%, exceeding the state and national averages.

This success has been accomplished by focusing on equitable achievement outcomes through the use of small-group instruction and access to content that is self-paced and personalized. Students receive differentiated support based on MTSS and RTI models and are encouraged to develop collaborative and critical-thinking skills that can be used for problem solving and computational thinking.

The transformation of Compton’s schools began by thinking about what students would need in order to take advantage of job opportunities as adults. While tech jobs were clearly the wave of the future, many students in Compton were not being exposed to STEAM programs, coding classes, and extracurricular activities such as robotics competitions. So, a decision was made to eliminate the opportunity gap for Compton students through a comprehensive PreK-12 approach.

Building the STEAM Pipeline

One of the core beliefs was students needed early and systematic exposure to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) classes and activities. Another was, “You can’t be it if you don’t see it.” Field trips and guest speakers, therefore, became an important way to provide exposure to tech careers and to show students role models who looked like them. District administrators were able to obtain grants from companies such as Apple and Verizon and leverage their location to build partnerships with Boeing and other firms.

There was also an emphasis on including the A for Arts in the STEAM programs, and in this regard, Compton’s location was also an advantage. A partnership with Capitol Records allows students to explore different roles in the entertainment industry, and proximity to Hollywood resulted in the actor Tim Robbins and others working with Compton students.

These sorts of partnerships enhance rigorous K-12 STEAM classes, which are supplemented by after-school programs, summer camps, and family and community events. Elementary students participate in groups such as Girls Who Code and a Lego League, while middle school students can join e-sport leagues or do work as “medical detectives.” The years of preparation make it easier for high school students to participate in AP computer science classes.

Prior to the pandemic, the district organized a STEAMFest that attracted 10,000 participants, with students giving presentations and exhibiting their scientific and artistic projects. Judges selected a winning school that received the STEAMFest trophy for the year. There were also Digital Parent Nights during which family members could learn about and participate in tech-related activities.

The district’s digital focus helped it make the transition to distance learning during the pandemic. After finding there was less student engagement during the spring of 2020, the district created four-day virtual summer camps, which became so popular and successful that parents from other districts tried to sneak their kids in. Through their partnerships with local firms, the schools were also able to arrange virtual field trips and remote guest speakers.

In these and other ways, Compton schools are taking the teaching of 21st century skills to a new level that will benefit their students as they move on to college and careers in the decades ahead.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

Watch the Recording Listen to the Podcast

About the Presenters

Dr. Darin Brawley, Compton Unified School District’s (CUSD) Superintendent, has been with the district since 2012. He has led the turnaround in student performance in CUSD which has seen both test scores and graduation rates increase.

Dr. Brawley received his doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Southern California. He has a Master of Arts in educational leadership from California State University, San Bernardino, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Redlands.
He has served as a superintendent for the past eight years. His experience in education includes serving as a high school teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary principal, middle school principal, director of human resources, executive director of human resources, deputy superintendent of student learning, and superintendent.

Prior to his appointment as Superintendent in Compton, Dr. Brawley served as a superintendent in the Adelanto Elementary School District for three years. In addition to this, he served as Deputy Superintendent of Student Learning for three years prior to his role as a superintendent.

Dr. Brawley has been instrumental in exiting several schools from program improvement. Under his leadership, two schools have been awarded National Blue Ribbon status. Several schools have received Title I Performing Schools recognition, as well as California Distinguished School Awards. He is committed to continuous improvement in relation to the core mission of education.

Michele Dawson has 25 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and technology director. She earned a master’s degree in leading for equity, achievement and democracy. Currently, she serves as Senior Director of Technology and Innovation for the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) where she leads 21st century learning, technology integration, and organizational management, as well as the CUSD Computer Science Initiative. As an accomplished grant writer, Michele was accepted to the League of Innovative Schools, awarded the VILS grant and wrote the EETT competitive grant for PBL with Multimedia, for which she garnered the CSBA Golden Bell Award. Recently she authored and received the RISE Award (Recognizing Innovative Strategies in Equity) for Compton from the National School Board Association (NSBA). Michele is committed to closing the achievement gap for underserved students through the lens of equity and social justice.

About the Moderator

Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

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Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.

The summary of this presentation was written by Robert Low.

Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.