Brandy Sidebottom knew her daughter needed something different. As a student at Clarksville Middle School, she was struggling and even failing some classes. Sidebottom made her daughter a deal: Give Renaissance Academy two years. If she wanted to go to a traditional high school after that, she could. By the end of the first year, Sidebottom says her daughter wanted to stay exactly where she was.
“I believe it changed her life, really,” she said. “She’s engaged, the parts she was struggling with she was able to flourish … Each student, each kid has something different but they all know that they’re in charge of their education. I think that’s awesome.”
A NEW MODEL
The Renaissance Academy, Clarksville Community School Corp.’s second high school, is mistaken for a number of well-known school models: private, charter, Community Montessori, technical or strictly online.
In reality, it is none of those but rather a new take on education called “New Tech.”
The key, according to school director Brian Allred, is project-based learning and creating a culture where the students are given autonomy and work in groups, much like they would experience in any real-world situation.
“It’s about that student voice and listening and acknowledging and if you just step back and listen a little bit, they can come back with some great things,” Allred said. “It’s amazing what they can come up with when we as the adults don’t constrain them and say they all have to fit in one little box. We become very biased as adults. We’ve been around a while, we become very experienced this, we’ve experienced that. We like to kind of have these boundaries and parameters set. It can stifle the process because we become very beholden to what we know.”
Teachers, referred to as facilitators, allow students to work on projects that demonstrate the lesson. There is direct instruction, but more often students use hands-on experience to solve the problem, work as a group and learn the lesson along the way.
Working together and using resources are the types of soft skills modern day employers are looking for in new hires, Allred both said.
“This project-based, work-based, reality-based type education, that’s where the state’s going. It’s where everybody’s going because you’ve got to be able to work with people and be there on time, be in attendance and the biggest thing, I think, is working with other people,” Bill Wilson, Clarksville Community Schools’ board president, said.
Renaissance Academy is the only school in Clark or Floyd counties that follows this model. The next closest New Tech school is in Scottsburg.
Being the only school of its type in the area is exactly what Wilson had in mind. Wilson learned of the model during a school board meeting in Indianapolis and was impressed with the students that those schools were churning out. He and other community stakeholders visited a model school in Columbus several times before making the decision to bring one to his school corporation.
“Clarksville being centrally located the way we are, I think we have access to a lot of people down here and we wanted to bring that model here to benefit Clarksville and Southern Indiana,” Wilson said.
The school began with a just freshman class of 42 in 2014 and has added a grade level each year since. With the full gamut of grade levels, enrollment now sits at 142.
Allred is impressed by those numbers.
The students that have enrolled in the school come from all different backgrounds, according to Allred. Some come straight from Clarksville Middle School, others feed in from other corporations and there are some who come from a private school or home-school background.
Wilson is also happy with the enrollment, but at the same time believes there is work yet to be done.
“We are hoping to scale it up to that level [of Columbus]. We knew it would be a little more difficult because Columbus and Bloomington schools — they’re bigger. We are still trying to enlarge and expand our reach,” Wilson said.
The best way to do that is to produce the excellent students that exemplify those skills the model aims to instill.
Allred says the proof is in the pudding: The first graduating class walks this spring and each student is on track to graduate, many with honors diplomas, and/or technical honors and earned college credits.
Sidebottom’s daughter, a senior, will not be in that graduating class. She will graduate a semester early, this December, and plans to attend Indiana University Southeast to study photojournalism.
“If I had more kids I would say they’re going to Renaissance,” Sidebottom said.