North Carolina School’s Redesign to Highlight Tech, Personalized Learning

As the model is fleshed out over the next few months, administrators say they will try to avoid the problems that plagued support for the small-school model for the past decade.

by T. Keung Hui, The News & Observer / December 15, 2015

(TNS) — North Carolina's East Wake High School is expected to make the transition from being four small schools to a single school using a new academic model focused on technology and personalizing the way students are taught.

Wake County school administrators on Monday presented ideas for redesigning East Wake High, such as potentially offering an early college program where students would have extra access to take college courses and/or a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Other ideas being considered include offering flexible hours for taking classes and providing a mix of online and in-person courses for students at the Wendell school.

As the model is fleshed out over the next few months, administrators say they will try to avoid the problems that plagued support for the small-school model for the past decade.

“With the original East Wake small academies, there was some concern from the faculty and the staff that they didn’t have input into the small academies,” Ed McFarland, Wake’s Eastern Area Superintendent, told school board members. “They were told this is what you’re going to do and then they were expected to do that.

“We’ve been taking a really concerted effort to make sure there’s lots of transparency back and forth with the faculty.”

From 2005 to this past school year, East Wake operated as four separate schools with the themes of health science; arts, education and global studies; engineering systems; and integrated technology. The model was part of a education-reform effort championed previously by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

But the model was dropped after school administrators performed an analysis that indicated that test scores were worse than they would have been if East Wake hadn’t been split up.

Over the past several months, a team has been working on the new design to put into place starting in the 2016-17 school year.

McFarland said that no matter what design is used, there will be a focus on personalizing instruction to recognize how students now learn. He said this new focus includes daily use of technology with instruction focused on having students learning by doing things, also known as project-based learning.

“When kids walk in in August, they need to be hit in the face with ‘something is different about this’ and ‘I can’t wait to come back the next day,’ ” McFarland said.

McFarland and East Wake High Principal Stacey Alston said they also want to structure the school day differently. Ideas include extending the hours when classes can be taken, including potentially at night.

“We know that some students have unforeseen challenges, so coming during the school day isn’t right for them,” Alston said.

As part of the redesign, the staff at East Wake High will have to reapply if they want to continue working there next school year. Those who don’t want to stay will be able to transfer to other schools.

A similar process occurred this year when Knightdale High School’s staff had to reapply when the campus was redesigned to have a leadership institute for freshmen and four specialized institutes for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

On Monday, Knightdale High staff told the school board that the redesign has been successful so far. East Wake High plans to emulate Knightdale’s efforts to build closer relationships with students. For instance, Knightdale High teachers are now expected to stand at the classroom door and shake the hands of all their students as they enter.

“You have to have those significant relationships throughout the building in order for students to learn,” Knightdale High Principal Jim Argent said. “It doesn’t matter how strong your pedagogy is, how strong, how creative you are.

“If that student does not believe they are safe, loved and nurtured in the classroom and throughout the school environment, they’re not going to perform.”

©2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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