In Tucson, students at the Mary Belle McCorkle Academy of Excellence PK-8 are part of a unique learning environment – one that empowers them and holds each individual to a higher standard of accomplishment and behavior.
As part of the New Tech Network (NTN) – and the only school of its kind in Arizona – McCorkle Academy is built upon the idea of collaborative communities. NTN, a national non-profit organization, engages with public school districts and charter school organizations to develop innovative schools. NTN schools are centered around a culture that empowers, teaching that engages, and technology that enables so that students graduate ready for college and career.
Classrooms are connected via break out rooms. Teaching and learning expand out from the classrooms into project labs and center communities, open learning spaces designed for project work, study, and presentations.
The more than 950 students at McCorkle Academy use online software to access resources and assignments. Through integration with Google Apps for Education, students and staff have more power to collaborate, and another platform to create and publish work.
The McCorkle Academy leadership team made the decision to join the NTN because of cultural challenges and a lack of community among students and staff. They understand that when a school is run well, learning improves. The change has been especially transformative since it’s a Title 1 school. They wanted to teach the children about life skills, agency and hard work.
Changes started with the 7th and 8th graders. But their newfound focus on trust, integrity, collaboration and communication has had impact well beyond those grades. In fact, disciplinary incidents have decreased by two-thirds in only one year.
The middle school students are each equipped with a laptop to use at school, as learning is now project-based, with subject matter built into every project assignment. This helps to keep the students engaged and aids in comprehensive, real world learning opportunities. The collaborative nature of the school is key – students keep each other accountable and learn to work successfully with their peers.
Once a week, students all join for “Connections,” an inquiry project designed to facilitate an exploration of school culture in order to deepen its relevancy and meaning for students. Concurrently, teachers and staff meet to run one to two “Critical Friends” protocols, which allow the opportunity to give, receive, and reflect on feedback concerning current and upcoming project ideas. It’s a time to examine assessment data and read research articles to inform and strengthen their practice.
Of course, these changes didn’t come without their challenges. Teachers needed to shift their mindset to become facilitators rather than lecturers. Technological resources at the school needed to be updated, both from an hardware and a software perspective. But the changes have all been made and the school is seeing great results.
In fact, it’s going so well that the district is considering creating another school that is part of the NTN. Students who have been learning in a New Tech Network Project Based Learning environment have outperformed district and state averages for AzMERIT in both English and math and scores have improved substantially year-over-year. What’s more, they’re showing additional skills, such as teamwork and critical thinking, that will be vital for life beyond academics.