4 High Schools That Use Projects to Promote Deeper Learning

For many students relevance improves motivation. When relevance comes in the form of applied and work-based learning, improved engagement comes with the potential for career awareness and workplace skills. The combination can improve persistence, degree attainment, and employability.

Last week, I summarized Best Practices in Work-Based Learning gleaned from a meeting with GPS Education Partners, a manufacturing apprenticeship program in Southeastern Wisconsin, Jobs for the Future, and Edvisions Schools.

Schools in the New Tech Network, Big Picture and Envisions network provide additional best practice examples of schools that incorporate relevant learning experiences often including work- and community-based learning.

Anson New Tech. Principal Chris Stinson said Anson’s project-based learning approach means “students begin by identifying an authentic, genuine issue of importance in the world, and then work to solve it.”

Anson County is about fifty miles east of Charlotte North Carolina. A member of the New Tech Network, Anson teachers often team teach, integrating related subjects such as world geography and earth science or American literature and American history. In addition, business and community members are so often part of the process that Stinson says, “they have been trained now so that when they have a problem, they come to us to solve it.”

Stinson said, “We sub out our kids to the community all the time.” Students have programmed a metal fabrication robot welder, created an entire light and sound system for the local arts council, culled through and updated old computers for a local pre-k program, and submitted seating capacity and layout suggestions for a potential agri-civic center currently under consideration by the county. By integrating real problems into the curriculum and having students work on solving it, Stinson says his team keeps their students headed toward the type of real working knowledge they can use in and after college.

“We have designed the curriculum so that every student who graduates will qualify for university,” said Stinson. “Whether they choose to go is up to them, but our expectation is that if they choose not to go, they still have the skills that will make them extremely marketable. They know how to collaborate with others and articulate their thoughts. They are globally aware, technically literate, and able to show up on time.”

MetEast. Goals at MetEast High School in Camden New Jersey are academic rigor, personalized learning, interest-driven internships and training, graduation with a diploma, a post-high school plan, and the skills necessary for college and career success.  These goals are attained by “giving students the opportunity to learn in a place where they are known and know each other well and people treat each other with respect.”

Like other schools in the Big Picture network, MetEast students have personalized learning plans and internships that connect their interest to their learning with the result being “self-directed thinkers and learners with the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond.”

Impact Academy.  In 11th and 12th grade Impact Academy students in Oakland participate in the Workplace Learning Experience (WLE). For three months, they work one day a week as an intern at a real business. In order to secure a WLE, they must write and send out a resume and cover letters, then interview with potential mentors.

Envisions superintendent Gia Truong said, “We encourage them to seek an internship in a field of interest, and the WLE helps many students identify their ideal career — or find out what they don’t want!” At the end of their internship, students present their experience in a public exhibition. “It’s a powerful experience that equips students with job search practice, self-confidence, and first-hand exposure to a career field,” said Truong.

Founding principal Jen Davis Wickens (now leading the Washington State Charter Association) said, “Impact is a magical place.”

Minnesota New Country. Dee Thomas said the biggest complaint from businesses is that kids are irresponsible. “They come in late, leave early, and don’t know how to manage their time. Not our kids. If you have learned to document all your time – which is an essential part of their projects – you have learned to be responsible with it. That increases their chances for success wherever they go after high school far more than any standard test score.”

MNCS was one of the first charter schools in the country. It anchors the project-based Edvisions Schools network that values interest-driven work and authentic assessment.

In proposing projects, students explain how the experience will make them a better person.

Students have opportunities to work with experts on their projects.  Students visit local and faraway places as part of their project-based inquiry. At least twice a year students defend their work product to a community audience.

Conclusions. These four purpose designed high schools engage students in authentic interdisciplinary work that is often community connected. They explore–and often solve–real problems faced by employers and community members.  They produce and present professional quality work product to community audiences. Their goals value employability and they track work skills as well as academic progress. These schools suggest that, rather than a string of disconnected courses, high school can be a sequence of supported projects that explore real questions, incorporate real work, and result in real products.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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I am intersted in learning more about working in projects like the ones you mentioned

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