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June 11, 2014

THIS IS NEW TECH: Columbus visit gives glimpse into what Renaissance Academy wants to achieve in Clarksville

New Tech concept, Renaissance Academy, to open in August in former Value City building

COLUMBUS, Ind. — At lunchroom tables, restaurant-style booths and couches at the end of the hall, groups of students sit with their laptops, discussing their projects with one another.

They are in class, just not in classrooms.

The Columbus Signature Academy is the closest standalone New Tech high school to Clarksville — which opens its own New Tech concept, Renaissance Academy, in a former Value City store in August. CSA opened in 2008 in a repurposed partially burned down auto parts warehouse.

Rhetoric surrounding New Tech and what it means in Clarksville has swirled from administrators and board members for more than two years, but the concept remains lost on families, students and some of the community.

Mike Reed, principal at CSA, said that same confusion persists in Columbus, 65 miles north up Interstate 65. But while the idea of students working wherever and however they see best on projects seems alien to New Tech newbies, he said it all gets back to a central pillar behind the model’s philosophy — trust.

“A lot of visitors come to our building and ask how I know they’re [students] not screwing around,” Reed said. “The answer is because I don’t expect them to screw around, we trust them to do the right thing.”

He said trust permeates everything in the school, from an instructor’s freedom on how they teach, to the students’ confidence in themselves and each other, even down to the design of the building itself.

Reed said the focus on getting students to work together and with the teachers — or facilitators as they’re called in New Tech schools — comes into play with how the building, its academics and philosophy prepare students for life after high school, even all the way down to its architecture.

“I didn’t want it to feel like a school. I didn’t want it to look like a school when you walked in,” Reed said. “I wanted it be like a 21st century workplace.”

CSA has lived New Tech since 2008. After several visits in the last two years, district officials in Clarksville Community Schools have said what’s going on there is exactly what they want going on here.

Brian Allred, director of the Renaissance Academy, said showing real-life applications of schoolwork in a group setting — something New Tech emphasizes — is going to be a shock for parents and students, but in a good way.

“It’s not going to be the posterboard, gluestick presentation that we’re all used to,” Allred said. “That’s not how this works, it’s about how you really work. In the 21st century, in today’s workplace, you have so much of that collegial problem-solving going on — how you work when you’re in an office building in Louisville or Southern Indiana.”

 

A TYPICAL DAY

The hall was filled with students moving from one class to the next, but a bell didn’t sound to let them know to pack up their stuff. At CSA, it’s on the kids to keep track of time.

Lockers don’t line the arterial hallway, but students still have them available in little rooms to store their belongings.

The spaces were used, but largely, the lockers weren’t.

Reed’s son, Nathaniel, is a sophomore who led a tour through the school with two freshman, Gabby Young-Ortiz and Rawan Abu-Zaineh. He said students trust each other enough to leave their bags and coats out in those tiny cubbies, even with expensive personal electronics stowed away within.

Once they get into the classroom, Mike Reed said the instruction gets back to why the New Tech Network started in the Napa Valley of California in 1996: to give students the skills they’d need to succeed in business, industry and higher education.

“They’ve got to be able to communicate in the written form and orally,” Reed said. “They’ve got to be able to present and work in a collaborative environment. They’ve got to be able to critically think, solve problems and work in a technology-rich environment.”

From there, project-based learning kicks in.

Facilitators take a hands-off approach to student learning. Classes are assigned a project that typically lasts two to four weeks, sometimes longer, and groups of three or four students work on them collaboratively.

After identifying what they already know about the project’s subject, they work on what they need to know and learn each group member’s strengths and weaknesses. They enter into a group contract stating who’s basically responsible for what. If anyone breaches the agreement, they can face ejection from the group and work on their own project alone.

Benchmark deadlines are set for research and other phases of the project, and work associated with those benchmarks is pushed down through a web-based course management system called Echo. If there’s a hitch in the process, students get in touch with facilitators whether they’re in class or not.

Echo works like similar systems used at universities. Students can keep track of all their assignments, deadlines and benchmarks, while also communicating with their group and facilitators.

After the project is finished, the whole group presents its findings, not just one member.

But the idea behind the projects, Reed said, is to show how what students are learning actually applies to the real world. He said with so many students in traditional models asking teachers why they’re studying something, New Tech shows the advantage of learning something like how to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

“It also brings authentic application to geometry,” Reed said. “Why do you have to calculate the hypotenuse of a triangle? Well, because you’re building a truss member that has to have that measurement. They see the application of the math content.”

 

 

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Jamie Collins, Scottsburg, works on lesson plans in her classroom at Scribner Middle School on Monday afternoon. Collins was the recipient of a $100 gift card to the Your Educational Supply Store from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. Education Foundation. All first-time teachers in the school system received a gift card to help them set up their classrooms.

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