Public charter Animas High School will move more deeply into its project-based learning model for the 2016-2017 school year by restructuring its schedule.
The school approved the new schedule last week. It will add an additional period to the school day and allow freshmen, sophomores and juniors to participate in more interdisciplinary projects, incorporate more applied math into projects and delve into an extended array of electives, which will replace the exploratories. Seniors already prepare major interdisciplinary projects as part of their graduation requirement.
“Our seniors are doing projects of their own design now, and the quality is really impressive because they are real-world projects about things that really matter to them,” said math teacher Kyle Edmondson. “Technically, the second semester of the senior year is worthless, but not here. We want to encourage students to start the process from their freshman year rather than waiting until their senior year.”
The change was inspired by the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which chronicles the successes of High Tech High in the San Diego area, said Edmondson and AHS humanities teacher Lori Fisher, both of whom taught at High Tech High before coming to Durango. AHS was modeled in large part on High Tech High.
“One reason we did this so we could have team schedules to share with more core classes,” Fisher said, “so we can share common prep time to discuss what’s working and what’s not.”
Interdisciplinary projects are already a key component at the school, including one involving social sciences and chemistry to study the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill and another that looks at genocide through the lenses of poetry, film and digital media projects. The ideas for new projects are just beginning, but teachers are already excited about the possibilities.
“We might design a stock market simulation and run it with the whole school,” Edmondson said, “create the algorithm, teach economics 101, probably ethics in the humanities side, maybe create a housing bubble using derivatives, model into the math why it’s important and the impact it has on the world.”
Math is the subject that may see the biggest changes.
“We’ve been doing fine on math, but we offered a more traditional math track,” Edmondson said, “algebra, geometry, algebra II, calculus. We’ll be adding to it by using math in context with real-world problems, so they learn how to present their findings in a clear way, like maybe how to predict election results from the data, perhaps how to use it as a campaign manager.”
South Korea and Finland are two examples of countries that are breaking the compartments of math apart and combining them more with other disciplines, he said. Both countries habitually finish higher than the U.S. on math scores, with South Korea coming in fourth and Finland 11th, while the U.S. came in at 35th, according to the average scores of 15-year-olds taking the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment.
“We’ll be adding electives in math to deepen our offerings,” Edmondson said. “Our students are already pretty competitive already, but this will make them more competitive for engineering tracks and colleges like the Colorado School of Mines.”
One student, Fisher said, noticed he would now be able to graduate high school with the equivalent of eight years of math, which he found “awesome.”
Changing from exploratories to electives will give the classes more academic weight, Fisher said. Additional electives may include advanced literature, the history of hip-hop, creative writing, psychology, astronomy, anatomy, advanced digital art, studio art and live music education. It will also allow the school to offer four years of Spanish, good because more universities are requiring three or four years of foreign language for admission.
“This new schedule also allows for increased concurrent enrollment,” AHS Head of School Sean Woytek said. Concurrent enrollment means students take classes at Southwest Colorado Community College or Fort Lewis College while still in high school. “Logistics have made that challenging and decreased the number of students who were able to do it.”
The proof of the change will be in the pudding, Woytek said.
“People like it after they see the film,” he said, “but show us you can actually do it. In theory, it sounds amazing, but what does it look like in practice?”