New Tech high school determined to improve
Sep 19, 2011 (Menafn - Herald-Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --A constantly shifting array of teachers. A lengthy, project-based approach that didn't lend itself well to mathematics. A fledgling school that's still settling its culture and rules.
All of those things contributed to New Tech High School's dismal letter grade -- the lone F among 20 schools in the Monroe County Community School Corp. -- when the Indiana Department of Education announced rankings late last month, according to principal Alan Veach.
But that's no excuse, he said, vowing to remedy the issues as the school works toward graduating its first senior class.
Veach said New Tech 10th-graders did well on their English end-of-course assessments, one of the measures the state used to calculate the letter grades that represent tiers of progress under Public Law 221. The target pass rate for the English ECA is 66 percent, he said, and New Tech students achieved a 72 percent pass rate.
But for a similar end-of-course assessment for Algebra I, he said, students mustered only a 39 percent pass rate against a 65 percent target rate.
New Tech has adjusted the way it teaches math as part of the response to the low grade, he said, moving from focusing on weeks-long projects where actual math skills got lost in the process to a shorter "problem-based" approach that focuses more clearly on such skills.
Bloomington's newest high school isn't alone in changing its math approach, New Tech Network senior director of school design and implementation Rick Lear said. The organization, which works with New Tech high schools throughout the country, spent months studying the issue and is now advocating for the "problem-based" approach.
"We've always worked hard in teaching kids how to solve specific problems, but then they couldn't apply them in specific situations because they didn't understand the concepts," Lear said. "What you need is a blend of both. A lot of it is abstract, but it lives in the real world and you have to be able to apply it."
The "problem-based" approach uses two-, three- or four-day projects that pay attention to both conceptual and specific details, he said.
Math in action
On a recent day in Phil Knierieman's math class, students flipped their laptops closed as he walked them through an exercise intended to help them identify and solve algebraic equations. They'd just wrapped up a project requiring they use their math skills to create a fence for a garden, taking material costs and specifications for a gate -- among other things -- into account.
"Last year we used these grand scale projects, and this year we're trying to keep a short-term vision week to week," Knierieman explained. "The problem with full-on projects, it was hard to keep the kids balanced and making connections and sticking with that."
Now, he said, he's being careful not to swing too far the other way, and is still working to ensure students receive the critical thinking skills they'll need in the future.
Veach described the new approach as a hybrid of project-based learning and how traditional math is taught.
"There's a greater focus on standards and math skills, but our kids are still working in groups, still making presentations," he said. "There's a bigger piece of that skill-building and math knowledge, but still that collaborative piece."
Veach said he believes there's already a different feel in math classes this year, and at least one student agreed.
"Last year, our math was incredibly complicated, and nobody understood what we were doing," sophomore Andrew Genrich said via email. "But with problem-based learning, it makes math a lot more simple."
Veach said school officials are also realizing just how strongly staffing changes affected students, which in turn affected student performance.
Last year -- due to state budget cuts that shuffled staff throughout the Monroe County Community School Corp. -- five of nine staffers were new, he said. This year, partly because the still-growing school added a senior class, eight of 12 staffers are new.
"I think we probably knew in January we were going to have a difficult year," Veach said. "It was a tough start to the school year with all the issues. And our staff worked really hard, but the kids really rebelled against the new staff, and you could see it in their learning. Maybe rebelled is the wrong word. I think students were grieving the loss of teachers they'd cared about, and they responded with behaviors that didn't support learning."
Junior Gina Marie DiCristo said via email the school's new staffers takes "getting used to," adding, "I don't mind it all too much, but I am not crazy about having to build all new relations with these teachers."
In contrast, Veach said, he believes the beginning of this school year was the best in the school's four years.
He said staffers have clearly spelled out acceptable student behavior, are holding students accountable and have clearly communicated individual responsibilities. And students are responding, he said.
"We're finally becoming confident in who we are," Veach said. "We understand what it takes for a student to be successful here now."
By the numbers
New Tech High School's student body numbers 198 this year -- 34 freshmen, 55 sophomores, 46 juniors and 63 seniors. Last year, according to principal Alan Veach, the student population was about 165.
The school at 444 S. Patterson Drive is public and is open to anyone in the Monroe County Community School Corp. district. It opened its doors in August 2008, starting with only a freshman class. The school has added a new class each year, and will graduate its first seniors in 2012.
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