Heights High small school has big ideas

Each of the small schools at Cleveland Heights High School has its own distinct mission and learning style. Legacy School claimed project-based learning (PBL) as its focus, but had not been entirely successful in its implementation. That changed this school year with Legacy’s adoption of the New Tech model and the unveiling of its new name, Legacy New Tech.

Founded in 1996, New Tech is a national program comprising more than 115 schools in 18 states. New Tech focuses on PBL with an integration of technology into the classroom.

Wanting to implement a strong program that fulfilled the school’s mission, Legacy teachers and administrators researched several programs and concluded that New Tech was the one they wanted to pursue.

They began observing other functioning New Tech schools and attended training sessions and conferences. Because money within the district was limited, they wrote a grant proposal for Race to the Top funding. Legacy won the funding, and preparations for incorporating New Tech into the small school began.

“We were not doing [PBL] well and we were not doing it as often as we should. We were just doing it in pockets, so we wanted a structure that would force us to do it across the board all the time, and New Tech has that,” said teacher Karen Kastor. PBL is an approach in which students collaborate to solve a problem or answer a question by using critical thinking to find creative solutions. “It’s not projects in the way that people usually think of projects. In the past, the project has been the dessert. You learned about the content and the project is what you do at the end of the unit. For us, the project is the main course. It’s what you get right up front and you learn all of the content while working through the project. The project is the curriculum,” said Kastor.

Another aspect of teaching through projects is the real-world experiences available to students. Teachers bring in community members who work in relevant fields to the projects. Sometimes a professional will be involved in the introduction phase of a project. Other times community members will visit in the middle of a project to offer feedback or view the final presentation of the project to provide an assessment. Students see the real-world application of their studies, which helps eliminate the common questions of “why am I doing this?” or “when am I ever going to use this?”

“We want a two-way partnership between the community and us,” said Crystal Maclin, principal of Legacy New Tech. “We are always looking for authentic experiences and people who can come in and provide expert advice. Our doors are open and we want this school to be as much a part of the city community as it is the school district community.”

The central tenet of Legacy New Tech’s approach is the focus on culture. “The three words we use are Trust, Respect and Responsibility, and we’re trying to instill those three values in our students. As we do that, we build a culture that New Tech is different. We show the kids that the way they’re learning is not your desks-in-rows type of school and the things that they’re doing aren’t the same things that their friends in Renaissance and Mosaic and R.E.A.L. are doing, but they’re getting more real-world experience through the way that they’re learning,” said teacher Megan Lutz.

One way that students exemplify their culture of Trust, Respect and Responsibility is through their group contract. Each member of a project collaboration signs a contract that outlines his or her role in the group, as well as strategies for how to hold one another accountable.

Science teacher Rob Nitzsche added, “The biggest thing about what we do is that it shifts the onus to the student. It gives them the opportunity and the desire to take ownership of what they’re doing. It’s not teacher-centered, it’s student-centered. So we are not standing in the front of the room lecturing them all the time like a traditional college setting. The students are presented with a problem to solve and we provide them resources to solve that problem and we put them in a position where they come to us with questions. We drive them in the right direction.”

Grant funding facilitated a renovation of a large portion of what was Legacy’s area within the high school building. Students in Legacy New Tech now learn in high-tech labs and have access to science equipment, touch-screens, Smart Boards and laptops. An open area called the Think Tank was built as a professional workspace for the students. If individuals or groups are struggling with a topic or an aspect of a project, they can attend a spontaneous workshop with the focused attention of the teacher. A faculty Think Tank was also built as part of the renovation.

“We have given up our classrooms and we share a space for collaboration. We have common planning time so all of our lessons and project ideas are bounced off of one another, with the goal to improve what we originally planned,” said Kastor. In addition, the new furniture was specially selected to enable the students to work collaboratively, and it is all mobile for quick and easy arrangements for groups of any size.

Students use Echo, an online learning management system, to aid their collaboration. Echo houses all course and project materials and can be accessed by the students at any time. Echo also links New Tech students across the country, providing access to shared resources and larger collaborations. “Everything that we do is digitally based. They’re being prepared to learn how to collaborate and communicate in a digital environment,” Nitzsche explained. A student might be absent from school but is still able to work with teammates.

Legacy New Tech also features combined courses, such as Impact of Science on World History. Science concepts are taught in relation to events that happened in world history, thereby giving the subject matter more relevance to the students.

Legacy New Tech currently includes only students in 9th and 10th grades, but will expand by a grade level each of the next two years. Coaches from New Tech come to Heights once a month to observe the teachers and offer help in implementing the program. All of the Legacy New Tech teachers had to go through extensive training in order to teach in the program. Furthermore, they must attend continuing education sessions and many will eventually become New Tech certified.

“We are what [President Obama] talks about in terms of what needs to happen in education. We are the concept personified—addressing learning from a 21st-century perspective,” said Maclin. “We have a very dedicated, hardworking staff that really believes in the model and believes that all kids can achieve at high levels using this model. As a team, that is our common focus and thread that runs throughout.”

Maclin added, “We have some underexposed kids who are hidden gems. What I hope that Legacy will do is attract them and then show their glory.”

The teachers emphasize that although the word tech is in the school’s name, the increased technology in the classroom is merely a tool for learning and not the primary focus of the educational plan. Rather, the driving forces behind Legacy New Tech are the PBL method and the culture of Trust, Respect and Responsibility.

Daniel Budin

Daniel Budin is a lifelong resident of Cleveland Heights and a member of the FutureHeights Board of Directors. His wife teaches at Heights High.

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Volume 6, Issue 3, Posted 1:13 PM, 02.28.2013