(Editor's note: Here's another blog entry about Winterboro School.)
By Cathy Gassenheimer
Many educators dream of a school environment where the curriculum is driven by projects and problem-based activities that challenge all students to learn more deeply and apply what they learn to the real world.
Some educators believe this kind of schooling simply isn’t possible in today’s high-stakes accountability environment. Winterboro School in rural Talladega County is out to prove them wrong.
Winterboro serves students in grades 5-12, about 85 percent of whom are on free or reduced lunch. As far as state testing benchmarks, the school has consistently met those, but it didn't take a fortune teller to see problems lying ahead. Fewer than 40% of the junior class of 2009 passed reading or math on the graduation exam. Because of its slumping graduation rate, Winterboro landed in the first level of state intervention for the 2009-10 school year. A depressing development, you might think. But Talladega district, school and teacher leaders took it in stride. They already had a powerful change process underway.
Talladega Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey describes herself as a “home-grown product.” She began her teaching career at Childersburg Middle School, moving to assistant principal and then principal at CMS. In 2008, after several years as deputy superintendent, Suzanne was selected by the Talladega County Board of Education to succeed Dr. Cindy Elsberry as the system’s CEO.
During her years as deputy superintendent, Suzanne closely followed the progress of a group of Talladega educators engaged in our Microsoft-sponsored 21st Century Learners project, and she became convinced of the need to redesign schools to meet the demands of the 21st century workplace. Not long after becoming superintendent, Suzanne pulled together a leadership team to transform Winterboro High School around several key concepts, including:
cross-disciplinary team teaching,
project-based learning, and
student evaluations focused on the skills most valued by employers: professionalism, work ethic, teamwork, collaboration, oral and written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.
At Winterboro, new principal Craig Bates tapped Jennifer Barnett, a technology-savvy teacher leader at Talladega’s Fayetteville High, to become the school’s technology integration coach. She was an excellent choice. During our ABPC-Microsoftproject, Jennifer served as the Talladega County team leader, and the team’s excellent work earned them an invitation to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA, where they met with other teachers from around the U.S. to explore the curriculum needs of students who will live and work in a digital age.
The superintendent also contracted with the Buck Institute for Education to provide professional development on project-based learning for a newly-configured faculty which included many younger teachers. Using school construction funds, the district also added four “learning suites” to the Winterboro campus that facilitate interdisciplinary, technology-enhanced instruction, including a Moodle-based learning network.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to learn more about Winterboro’s first-year progress when I joined about 100 educators (many from other school districts) for one of the school’s 21st Century Showcase outreach events. Craig said before this school year, kids would not look adults in the eye. Dropout rates were unacceptably high, and it was clear that many students were not reaching their potential.
As I walked up the front steps, a student came outside to open the door for me. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to our wonderful school!” Within a minute of my arrival four other students greeted me in similar ways.
As we entered the auditorium, we found students manning stations where they explained their cross-curricular projects articulately and in detail. One student showed a conical clown, developed in her geometry/art class. Lexxy told me that she not only understood how to determine the perimeter and area of a 3-D shape, but that she would never forget how to do it, as a result of her hands-on project experience.
Another student shared a scrapbook she made to demonstrate her knowledge of early 20th Century America. She built her portfolio around the stories of four fictional brothers – characters she created based upon her research into historical events such as the Industrial Revolution and the prohibition movement. The scrapbook contained letters “they” had written as well as mementos from the era. One brother had fought in the Spanish-American War. Another was a yellow journalist who wrote about the substandard conditions in meat plants in Chicago. Yet another was helping construct the Panama Canal. The final brother was “a drunk.” She talked passionately and knowledgably about her project.
As we continued our Showcase tour, we also learned of students who are designing homes in math class. In another classroom, the Business Technology students are working on fundraising projects for their favorite charity (ranging from the March of Dimes to Haiti earthquake disaster relief) using sound business principles.
In a makeshift television studio housed in the school’s original structure (built in the 1930s), I met a student who proudly demonstrated his sophisticated production equipment. He told me that a video he created to document the school’s new learning concepts has earned him a part-time job at an area television station.
If you’re a visual learner, take a look at this report on the Showcase event by FOX6-TV in Birmingham, which highlights the positive changes for one student and includes comments from Craig Bates and Suzanne Lacey.
“We needed to make some changes in how we were delivering instruction,” Suzanne tells the Fox6 reporter. “Many of our former teachers had gotten complacent with instruction, and we really needed to look outside the box.”
In my estimation, Talladega County is not only looking outside the box, they’re moving outside the box and truly blazing a trail that others may follow.
Learn more details about Talladega County’s move toward project-based learning by exploring this wiki, which presents a district-wide vision as well as a focus on Winterboro High School.