Innovative Instruction | Feature

Technology Front and Center

A new high school in Texas will combine technology with project-based learning.

Armed with a $3 million Texas Title I Priority Schools grant, Belton Independent School District in Texas will open the doors to an innovative high school concept this fall.

Currently in the development phase, Belton New Tech High School at Waskow will combine technology and project-based learning to create a learning environment that Principal Stan Whittle hopes will entice students to "take ownership of their educations and their futures."

The new school is part of the New Tech Network, which was founded in Napa, CA., in 1996 after local businesses became disenchanted with the supposedly "skilled" graduates in the area. Today, the network includes 62 public high schools in 14 states.

Whittle said the district has been researching the idea of project-based learning for several years. "We got serious about it in the fall of 2010, and were fortunate enough to receive the $3 million grant," said Whittle. "We used that money to fund the partnership with New Tech Network and start developing this innovative high school concept."

The new school will start with 125 ninth graders and "small class sizes," according to Whittle. The institution will occupy the current Waskow High School--a school of choice where students work on credit recovery in order to graduate on time. "All of the students will either graduate or transfer back to the district's comprehensive high school," explained Whittle, "where they will receive the necessary intervention."

Overhauling Technology
This summer, Waskow High School will undergo renovations and have its technology infrastructure overhauled to accommodate a one-to-one computing program and project-based teaching methods. "All students will have a computer, and we're pretty sure the devices will be Macs," said Whittle, "and possibly iPads as well."

Before the fall semester starts, the institution will be outfitted with a new wireless Internet infrastructure, a digital media lab, and "stronger classroom computing devices," which students can use to complete their digital portfolios and multimedia projects, according to Whittle.

Collaborative, Project-Based Learning
The high school will also incorporate a collaborative learning platform known as Echo. Developed by New Tech Network, the system will allow teachers, administrators, students, and parents to communicate in a Web-based environment. "It'll be a great way for everyone to collaborate and share best practices," said Whittle.

When Belton New Tech High School's initial class of 125 freshmen are graduated to the next grade, another batch of pupils will enter the school. That number will cap out at 500 in 2014, once all four grades are filled. Students will be able to take math, English, science, social studies, and other core classes, as well as foreign languages and technical courses.

"We'll have the same core classes as Belton High School," said Whittle, "but they'll be taught differently through a project-based learning process that finds students working collaboratively as teams to tackle real-life projects and solve conflicts together."

As part of that project-based learning approach, Whittle said, students can break out of the "traditional sit-and-get information mold" and serve as active participants in the educational experience. They'll also be able to take non-traditional coursework, such as a "global issues" class that will combine both English and world geography into a single course.

Whittle said the school's foundation is built on three key principles: instruction, innovative technology, and culture, all of which come together to create the project-based learning atmosphere. "This won't be like a traditional school, where a teacher explains everything and then that instruction culminates into a project," he said. "Instead, they'll carry out a project from concept to completion and deal with real problems and challenges."

So far, Belton ISD's newest addition has been well received by its students, teachers, and parents. At a recent recruiting session with eighth grade students, Whittle collected comment cards from 590 pupils, 433 of whom expressed interest in attending Belton New Tech High School, and 211 of whom "definitely want to attend," he said. "We can only take 150, so we have no doubt that every seat will be filled come fall."

Ultimately, Whittle said, he hopes that the innovative learning environment he's helping to cultivate becomes a proof point for future educational strategies across the district and not just at a single school. "We'd like to expand the concept and open it up to more students," said Whittle, "because it really does help students learn the 21st century skills that they'll need to be successful in the workforce."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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