Fort Smith’s Belle Point New Tech school empowering students

September 6, 2016
Times Record

Belle Point Center

Teachers at Belle Point Center in Fort Smith are engaging their students in new and interesting ways designed to better prepare them for the future.

As schools in the Fort Smith School District opened their doors Aug. 15 for a new year of education, the Belle Point Alternative Center began its first year as a part of the New Tech Network (NTN), a design partner based in Napa, Calif., dedicated to changing how schools teach their students. Belle Point even started the year with a new name, Belle Point Center: A New Tech Academy.

Principal Maria Arnold said Belle Point New Tech is built around four learning outcomes: agency, knowledge and thinking, written and oral communication, and collaboration. It also utilizes project-based learning to teach students how to become effective problem-solvers.

“The teachers will design projects or create some sort of problem-based scenario that starts with some sort of complex and authentic challenge,” Arnold said. “It requires students to demonstrate their knowledge that they’ve learned through written and oral communication skills. We’re going a step further in our teaching and if kids learn something, great, but they need to have the skills to be able to talk about what knowledge they have in their brains.”

According to the NTN website, there are currently 190 New Tech schools across the country and in Australia.

Arnold said Belle Point New Tech’s origins began years ago, when an opportunity to apply for a school improvement grant from the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) came up. Arnold discussed what changes to make to the Belle Point academic program with her instructional facilitator, Susan Holder, with both wanting to educate their students differently. They spoke with Belle Point science teacher Melissa Trangmar, who then suggested New Tech.

“Ms. Trangmar had been teaching at a New Tech school in Texas,” Arnold said. “And so she had the experience, she had the groundwork, she had the knowledge, she had the proof that it worked. Susan and I did some research and we also involved the rest of the staff at that time. We had multiple grant-writing committees, multiple grant-writing meetings where we tweaked things and went back and forth, and to make a long story short, we submitted our grant to the ADE (in 2015).”

After discovering Belle Point won the grant in June 2015, Arnold said she and the school spent the following school year preparing for the transition to New Tech, with every teacher undergoing training for it. Trangmar became Belle Point’s New Tech director.

The New Tech Model 

One of the ways in which NTN facilitates its project-based learning is through the use of technology. Arnold said each student is given a Google Chromebook and access to the NTN online learning management system Echo, where they accomplish a variety of tasks such as writing assignments and quizzes, as well as watching videos that accompany class content.

“Yes, they’re in an online classroom, but how great, they have a face-to-face teacher too,” Arnold said. “They have the best of both worlds.”

Trangmar said the project-based learning at Belle Point started with a culture project that allowed students to understand who they are as learners and how they can help others learn. This was designed to get them to start thinking about collaboration. Now, the teachers are rolling out their individual curriculum projects, meaning the students will have seven different projects going on at all times in each class to allow them to dig deeper into what they are learning.

In addition, due to NTN’s requirement that the community be involved in New Tech projects, members of the Fort Smith community will come in as a professional panel to hear the students present their projects when they finish.

“The whole point, from start to finish, with project-based learning and/or problem-based learning is so that the kids, yes, they’re learning the standards, but let’s just say, in geometry, instead of learning and memorizing how to find angles on a triangle or something along those lines, why don’t they build a wheelchair ramp,” Arnold said. “That’s accurate, it’s real world, it’s authentic. They’re having to use and master content in order to do that, and then that can be used by someone else in the community.”

Trangmar said another facet of the New Tech schools is creating a safe learning culture that promotes New Tech learning outcomes for the students.

“You have to feel safe in your environment if you’re going to learn something,” Trangmar said. “A lot of kids won’t learn if they feel like somebody’s going to make fun of them and nobody’s going to stand up for them when that happens.”

These elements and others, Arnold said, will allow Belle Point New Tech students to become ready for both college and a career.

The Significance of New Tech 

Arnold said New Tech was a perfect fit both for Belle Point and their life skills curriculum, Boys Town. Boys Town is dedicated to teaching students valuable life skills to be successful in life, such as how to properly take “no” for an answer and how to disagree appropriately. Arnold said Belle Point is also the first alternative school in the country to become a part of NTN.

“Alternative education, in itself, is supposed to be nontraditional,” Arnold said. “We have students here at Belle Point from all walks of life. There is no one student here that looks the same, or who has been referred to Belle Point for the same reason. … I almost felt like New Tech was written for us because it’s so real world, it’s so authentic, and it’s merging us teaching those social skills with them now using those social skills to get through their projects.”

Arnold said her ultimate goal is for the lessons Belle Point New Tech students learn to eventually make their way into the community at large.

“On (a New Tech) rubric, it says, ‘The desired outcome is that students feel empowered to contribute positively to the community, and to take on leadership roles,'” Arnold said. “‘They feel trust and they trust others, and they will be respectful and responsible, and they have positive relationships with adults and peers in the community and feel a sense of belonging.’ If they can take what we’re doing here in this building … if they can take what they’re learning here, and use it to better our community, I can leave, I can walk away. …”