By Lauren Caggiano
What if school inspired and engaged students? What if classes offered relevant learning experiences? What if students could develop the skills most valued by employers?
These are the questions Fort Wayne Community Schools’ New Tech Academy is trying to answer for students, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.
If there’s a single phrase that captures the essence of New Tech, it might be “hands on.”
“Students process knowledge in a variety of ways,” says David Flesch, a New Tech Academy teacher who’s been with the school since its inception, in 2009. “There are still (traditional means of assessing comprehension and learning like) quizzes, but a lot of assessment is (done through) conferencing with students.”
Over the past decade, the academy housed inside Wayne High School, has challenged the status quo in secondary education.
The high school employs a New Tech Network (NTN) model used in more than 200 school districts in the U.S. and Australia. The network is committed to producing graduates who are both problem solvers and creators through the incorporation of techniques like project-based learning. In this district, New Tech and its feeder school, Towles New Tech, are part of this network.
While the new Tech Network schools vary in size, they are all designed to meet the needs of the community. Locally, this translates to an intimate setting. New Tech has fewer than 400 students by design.
“Small is part of it,” Flesch says. “The ideal model is to keep the number small to ensure relationships with the students.”
Elizabeth Meneely, a fellow teacher, says trust, respect, and responsibility are the core principles the academy instills within its students, and it seems to be working. As teachers, she and Flesch have seen how this model produces graduates ready to enter the next phase of life, be it higher education, the workforce, or the military.
According to Meneely, academic subjects are not taught in a vacuum, and that’s the secret sauce when it comes to this way of teaching and learning. For example, a biology and literature class might be taught alongside each other, so both science and writing are incorporated into group projects, just like they would be in a career.
After the project is complete, students are tasked with self-reflection. Meneely and her colleagues ask questions, like: What did you take away? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? And what would you do differently?
By asking these questions, teachers are encouraging students to take calculated, smart risks and to keep working on their ideas instead of giving up.
Flesch explains “failure’s not a wall,” adding that the New Tech environment is conducive to empowerment instead of isolation. To that end, students are encouraged to collaborate with businesses and community groups, too.
For some students, this approach to education has served as a launchpad into entrepreneurship. For example, 2016 graduate Andy Roth is a serial entrepreneur who shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
“I am currently working full-time building escape rooms with my brother,” he says. “In 2015, we started the Fort Wayne Escape Room, which continued to grow into a very successful business. Since then, we have branched out and opened locations both in the Dominican Republic and Raleigh North Carolina.”
But it doesn’t end there. Roth and his brother organized the Fort Wayne Adventure Games, a citywide race filled with wild and adventurous challenges.
“We ran that event for two years before taking this year off to focus on our current venture: a full-scale climbing gym,” he says.
While Roth admits that he is a natural self-starter, he also credits his education for his success.
“I think what I enjoyed most about my education was the freedom to learn how I wanted,” he says. “The staff at New Tech seemed like they cared a whole lot more than the average person cares.”
Support New Tech Academy
New Tech values support from the general public in the form of volunteers. Needs range from reviewing projects to speaking to classes. Anyone interested may inquire by calling (260) 467-6500. Visit the school’s website here.