News and Tribune

Education/Schools

June 12, 2014

ITS OWN CULTURE: Clarksville's New Tech model stresses collaboration, project-based learning

Renaissance Academy will open its doors to students in August

COLUMBUS, Ind. — Darrean Beller, a freshman at Columbus Signature Academy, said after attending a traditional school for most of his K-12 career, he learned he’s better suited to the New Tech model.

“When I was at a traditional school, I was always a little scared of everyone,” Beller said. “I wouldn’t ask for help, I wouldn’t talk to anybody about anything and I didn’t learn. I just sat there in class for seven hours, it didn’t work.”

He said his grades have improved and he’s more confident in himself, abilities and interactions with others.

Students aren’t the only ones expected to work together, though, in the New Tech model, which stresses collaborative, project-based learning.

Facilitators — what teachers are called at New Tech schools like Renaissance Academy, opening in fall in Clarksville — often teach interdisciplinary courses, such as Global Science Perspectives. One facilitator for English and another for World Geography teach the course and work together on what they teach.

Facilitators also don’t have their own rooms. Class can shift from one to another on any given day or week, but facilitators use a shared office space for planning, grading, collaboration and meeting with students.

“When you walk through a large, traditional high school and you see the door with that little bit of glass that’s covered up by construction paper and teacher owns that room, they can walk in that room at 7:15 [a.m.] and not come out until 4 [p.m.] or 3:30 [p.m.] and never have to collaborate,” said Mike Reed, CSA principal. “We don’t compartmentalize.”

Though the laptops largely stay at school, students can apply for take-home privileges. Even if they don’t get approval, they can still access Echo, a web-based course management system, from home.

Nick Bullman is a fresh hire at the school, facilitating algebra 1, precalculus and trigonometry. He said students have a hand in how everything works at the school, from culture to policy.

“It’s interesting to see how much impact students have, everything from who gets hired and what colors go on the wall,” Bullman said.

And yes, students sit in on hiring committees and interviews for new facilitators. Reed said they have an equal vote with adults whether they join the team or not.

“I’ve had kids tell me I’m not going to hire someone I really wanted to,” Reed said. “That decision-making process, involving kids from the very beginning in what their school’s going to be, is central.”

Industry partnerships are a part of the culture, too. Reed said engineers from the Cummins engine plant in Columbus play a big role in its engineering pathway program. Engineers don’t just talk to students, but also become directly involved in projects. On top of that, some of them grade student projects.

Students can participate in internships with businesses and use that to get their New Tech Seal, a designation that goes with their high school diploma that also requires 12 college credits earned in school and 100 community service hours.

Reed said without the support of business and industry, New Tech wouldn’t be a successful model in Columbus or anywhere else.

Brian Allred, director of Renaissance Academy, said he knows those relationships will take time to develop, but industries locating in Jeffersonville and others in the region are going to hear from him to develop partnerships.

“I think River Ridge [Commerce Center] is going to be a springboard for why we’ll be so necessary,” Allred said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re pushing out those kids that are going to be college and career ready. I think we will definitely be able to benefit from that.

“It is our perspective that River Ridge will be able to benefit from us as well.”

Sarah Hess, a parent of two children in the New Tech schools in Columbus, said her 16-year-old son, Shafer, has gone to one of the CSA schools since middle school. She said though he hasn’t really known anything but New Tech for most of his academic career, she’s seen how he’s changed since his elementary school days.

“What I noticed was he was on the shy side, and working in groups and giving presentations is a typical part of the project-based learning,” Hess said. “That really helped him with his confidence. He’s so comfortable in front of people with his presentations and I don’t know how much of that he would have gotten in a traditional school setting.”

Madi Allen, a sophomore at CSA, said she’s done well in the model, but keeping multiple group projects going simultaneously can become overwhelming. She said in the traditional high school model, she’d have more opportunity to work alone.

Hess said the model isn’t suited for all students, but it has helped her sons blossom.

“It’s not for every kid,” Hess said. “It really does speak to a new learning style. Some kids, it just doesn’t work with them. The projects, working groups, but I’ve found some kids have gone in who didn’t like it. I don’t know if they were used to a certain style of learning, but at least with New Tech here, it seems to be heavier on the science, technology, engineering end of the curriculum.”

 CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

Reed said CSA also has its own approach to conflict resolution at all levels. If a student or staff member has a problem with what another person said, did or a policy they’ve proposed, they have to take it up with that person within 24 hours.

If not, they have to drop it.

“The thing that kills school culture and work culture is those conversations that happen in the parking lot or happen in the teacher prep room where people aren’t brave enough or know how to have those tough conversations,” Reed said. “That policy of giving each other reminders, having check-ins, holding each other accountable changes student culture from snitching to ‘hey, I’m supposed to hold you accountable.’ It’s part of the culture.”

Because of that model of solving personal issues, Reed said he’s doesn’t have to worry about managing student discipline too much.

“The amazing thing is when students are engaged, when you trust them and give them respect and teach them how to be responsible, it’s amazing how they perform,” Reed said. “I have the easiest job in the corporation. I have very, very little discipline [issues] in my building. The discipline [issues] that we have is generally handled by the students because they hold each other accountable for their behavior.”

All of those culture pieces are critical, Reed said. Without it, the rest just doesn’t add up to New Tech.

“If you can capture that in your school, if you can get the culture piece right, everything else will fall into place,” Reed said. “If you try to do a 1:1 technology environment and collaborative work environment without the culture, you’re going to struggle.”

As Allred looks to emulate some of those ideas in his own school at the beginning of next school year, he said culture is important to cultivate with staff and students.

“The culture piece cannot be misinterpreted as not important,” Allred said. “You cannot, in my opinion, run a New Tech model well and the way it should be run if you don’t have that in place. If you have to work as closely as those people have to together, if there’s not some basic honesty, trust and respect for each other, you just can’t have it.”

 THE COMING RENAISSANCE

Allred said about 45 students have enrolled at Renaissance Academy so far. He said they’ll be pleased with a turnout of 50, half of their enrollment cap, but he’ll continue campaigning for the school this summer with more advertisements and speaking engagements

He said a lot of those students come from Clarksville, but others have transferred from neighboring districts or come from homeschool environments.

While the community remains somewhat confused on what New Tech is or what it can do for them, Allred wants them to know two things — it’s not a vocational school, nor will it charge tuition.

But through hiring the right staff and setting the foundation for the school’s culture, Allred said he knows year one won’t be perfect and the community is watching. He thinks the way they handle issues will help them along.

“We’re absolutely going to make mistakes,” Allred said. “We’ve already been told to expect it. We’re not going to be perfect, no one’s perfect. And everyone who’s opened a school, whether it’s Signature Academy or something else, you’re going to make some mistakes and that’s OK. Just learn from them and do better next time.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to use your colleagues in the network. That can help.”

He also said he hopes to yield some of the same results CSA has seen.

Gabby Young-Ortiz, a CSA freshman, said she’s interested in the field of theoretical physics. She wants to graduate her junior year and is on-track to do so, with aspirations of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology or some other high-level university.

She said the instruction and methods she’s learned at CSA will serve her well, giving her the confidence to move on to such schools.

“I feel prepared for the workload, what it’s going to throw at me, all the classes and the new people I’m going to meet,” Young-Ortiz said. “I’m not going to be stuck with one group of people, I’ll be with all of these people I’ve never met in my entire life.”

Reed said his school is representative of the rest of his school district, from scores on End of Course Assessments to demographics. But he said while students learn the same way, but aren’t taught to the test, their assessment performance isn’t the reason for the school.

“We didn’t open this school in order to impact ECA results, we opened this school as a response to the community of what our students need,” Reed said. “I’m sitting at a 97 percent and 95 percent graduation rate for two years. That means I’ve got kids across the finish line that probably wouldn’t have finished.”

Young-Ortiz said CSA, which opened in 2008, has prepared her for leadership roles in extracurricular endeavors in the school district, but she thinks it’s also got her ready for anything else she wants to do.

“You need to have a lot of strength in being able to lead and have strength in confidence,” Young-Ortiz said. “You just need to be able to take your criticism well, because in the real world, you’re going to take a lot of criticism, whether it be constructive or otherwise. I feel prepared for that now because I went to CSA.”

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