A new way of learning has made its debut within the Franklin County Public Schools system this year: a year-long academy called New Tech at Gereau and is made up of about 90 eighth-graders at the Gereau Center. Next year the program will expand to cover 100 ninth graders at Franklin County High School (FCHS).
“New Tech @ Gereau is an exciting new Project-Based Learning academy where students learn and develop the skills required for success by solving complex problems through critical thinking, collaboration, and communication with their peers,” according to online information about the program. Students are engaged and become masters of their own learning as they understand the relevance of the content and are successful at applying their knowledge to solve real problems.”
In the spring of 2016, school system employees viewed the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which featured Napa New Technology High School in Napa, California. It was the first New Tech high school and was founded in 1996. Napa New Tech’s success is nationally known for excellence and innovation in high school education.
The New Tech program was approved by the FCPS school board in September 2016 and in November, eighth-grade English teacher Heather Quinn was selected as the first director for New Tech at Gereau.
New Tech at Gereau is the third New Tech School in Virginia. The other two schools are just down the road in Henry County. Warrior Tech Academy at Magna Vista High School is in its fifth year while Bengal Tech is in its second year at Bassett High School.
Project-based learning is on the increase because of its real life applications. An online video about New Tech at Gereau reports, “Business leaders tell us they need engaged employees who are good at working in groups and solving problems.”
The video goes on to include comments from Bill Jacobsen, Vice President of Franklin Carilion Clinic. “This whole New Tech concept is right on target from my perspective. It’s teaching them how to work in teams towards a project, towards a given end, how to interface in those teams properly, how to do presentations, how to put together business plans, and work in a business environment, so to me it’s crucial training for the future of our county.”
There are four key component of New Tech at Gereau.
Teaching That Engages: Project–based learning. In project-based learning, students become problem solvers.
Culture That Empowers: Growth mindset. By making learning relevant and creating a collaborative learning culture, students become connected to, engaged with, and challenged by their school, their teachers and their peers.
Technology That Enables: Digital literacy. In a technology-rich environment, teachers and students create, communicate, access information, and experience self-directed learning. Each student is assigned a Chromebook. New Tech schools use an online learning platform called Echo to organize daily classroom instruction, complete classwork, track grades, share documents and resources, and communicate with others in their school community.
Outcomes That Matter: College and career readiness. New Tech Network learning outcomes measure collaboration, written and oral communication and the development of student responsibility for their own learning-called agency.
As with any new program, there are questions and answers.
An integrated course is one course in which two subjects are taught and assessed together by two teachers as one fluid learning experience. Grades for integrated courses are reported separately on student report cards. A student’s report card will show two grades-one for each respective course.
New Tech at Gereau has two integrated courses. One is called EDIT which stands for English and Digital Input Technologies. The other is Science and Forensics (making the invisible visible).
Can I participate in clubs, athletics, etc. if I attend New Tech at Gereau? Yes. New Tech at Gereau students are still FCPS students, so they have the same opportunities to participate in clubs and sports the BFMS students do.
Will New Tech at Gereau cover the same state standards as BFMS? Yes. New Tech at Gereau is part of BFMS and is therefore required to uphold the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL). New Tech at Gereau teachers who are called facilitators will spend considerable time developing relevant projects and problems that align with the standards. Students will be individually evaluated on their mastery of these standards as part of each project they complete or problem they solve.
New Tech facilitators use the Virginia SOLs to plan all of their projects. They have access to all of the same materials and textbooks that other eighth grade teachers at BFMS and the Gereau Center have. It is up to the facilitators how much they choose to use those materials in their projects.
A note on the facilitators-they were not assigned to work with New Tech but had to apply.
Gereau Center Principal, Jerome Johnson, has been quite pleased with what he sees through the New Tech program. “The more I saw it the more excited I got.” Johnson feels the Gereau Center and New Tech were made to go together. Both are 20 years old and designed for project based learning. New Tech is a means to “breathe new life back into the Gereau Center.” Johnson describes PBL as starting with a project and learning through it versus learning about a subject and then doing a project on it. “The project is the vehicle.”
The first project of the year dealt with identity. Students took a variety of self-tests, including Myers and Briggs Personality Test, Compass Point Test, and the Grit Test, to better understand themselves. With that information the students went on to get better acquainted with the other New Tech students with whom they will be working closely this year.
In the Science-Forensics course students collaborated with the Science Museum of Western Virginia to create atomic models. Museum personnel came to New Tech at Gereau recently to judge the groups’ models. Models from six groups were chosen to be displayed at the Museum.
Working on projects in groups teaches real world lessons. Student Nick Dales, Jr. reports that groups have contracts and that one can get fired from his group.
Facilitators ask, “Who does this in the real world?” and then work with the students to find the natural connections. In the EDIT course students took on the role of travel writers and presented their world travel research to a local travel agent.
The student makeup at New Tech at Gereau is quite diverse, from special education to the gifted. To achieve a sense of balance among the students, their zip codes were considered with their applications for admission to New Tech at Gereau. Director Heather Quinn has observed that, “In this environment students realize they all have strengths and can work together.”
In addition to the integrated classes, students also use PBL to study civics and math.
Classroom furniture at New Tech at Gereau has a different look to it compared to a traditional classroom. All furniture is mobile, making it more conducive to group learning. Teachers have autonomy with room setup as there is constant shifting within the room.
Here are some student comments about New Tech at Gereau. “It can be hard at times because there are a lot of things going on, but I’m learning to use my time more wisely,” Nick Dales Jr. said.
“It’s difficult, but I’m learning how to get the hang of it,” said Troy Sanchez. “Our teachers are more like facilitators than teachers.”
According to Montana Hoover, “Class is not like regular classes where you just sit in a chair.” She described the teacher-student relationship more like that of employer-employee and commented on kids being more involved and interactive with facilitators.
When asked what he does when things get hard in New Tech, Isaiah Hughes quickly responded with, “I figure it out! You learn to rely more on yourself. It’s what I thought it would be. The work is hard, but it’s helping me with my communication and collaboration skills.”
Kasey Prillaman says, “I really like it. I like the projects. It’s more hands on.”
Para Professional Dreama Stump excitedly shared, “New Tech is awesome! I love it! It’s a whole new world without being a whole new world.”
“So far it has been amazing!” exclaims math teacher Amanda Scott. She was also pleased to comment on how much students are participating in the program, something that had not been expected.
Civics teacher Adam Bennett said so far he’s really enjoying New Tech at Gereau. He is seeing his students improving in their oral communication skills and becoming self-motivated independent learners. They are learning “without my being their only access of knowledge.”
His biggest challenge? Time management, especially since civics is a semester only class. The challenge is a two-way street. Bennett needs to allot students the needed time and students must use their time wisely.
“I knew it would be a lot of work coming into the program, but it’s rewarding to see them (students) put in the work, too,” reports forensics teacher Denise Nolan. “We are already seeing growth in adapting to new ways of learning and more responsibility. New Tech provides ways they can find answers themselves and the students now are accustomed to doing so.”
One student wanting to get the most out of New Tech at Gereau this year is Slone Lang, director of Eagle Tech which will be available to 100 ninth-graders at FCHS next year. Lang has passionately been studying PBL since seeing the screening of the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” She has many praises and goals to voice, one of which is to have authentic learning experiences within our community.
Another voice offering feedback on New Tech at Gereau is that of a parent. This is what Reyhan Deskins has to say. “As a parent I love the fact that my child is working on real world problems and using the skills employers want in their workers. His collaboration and presentation skills have improved and I’ve seen my son become more adept at using technology. He also really enjoys his teachers. I think New Tech is a great addition to Franklin County Public Schools curriculum offerings.”
Community stakeholders can become involved as partners with New Tech at Gereau by: visiting a class as a guest speaker or leading a discussion, helping facilitators find resources for specific project requests, sponsoring a project, providing feedback for students to help them improve their work in progress, sitting on an expert panel for student presentations, collaborating on an authentic project from start to finish by working alongside New Tech facilitators and instructional coaches.
For more information about becoming a partner in this educational venture or to schedule a tour, contact Heather Quinn at 540-483-5446.
Gereau Center Principal Johnson heard a student make this comment about New Tech, “I would’ve never been able to talk with adults like I do now.”
Johnson’s take on the new academy: “New Tech people are transforming education.