by Jason Dunovant
Franklin County Public Schools’ New Tech program began its second year this month. The innovative learning academy has expanded to reach even more students this year as early evidence shows that the program is working for those enrolled.
The county school board voted unanimously in 2016 to bring New Tech to select eighth graders at the Gereau Center for the 2017-18 school year. The program boasts a nontraditional approach to instruction that allows students to think creatively and solve complex problems through project-based and problem-based learning.
New Tech was open to 100 incoming eighth graders in the fall of 2017. Any student could sign up for the program, regardless of academic performance.
Students in the New Tech program do not have the typical classroom setting. While there is some instruction, many of the classes encourage students to work together to solve problems.
Mark Church, superintendent of Franklin County Public Schools, said the program requires students to find the answers to a problem themselves rather than have a teacher tell them.
“In this approach, they have to be active learners,” he said.
The New Tech program also forces students to work collaboratively on projects. Church said that people in the business community have told him that they need employees who can communicate well and work as a team. Students in the New Tech learn those skills daily, he said.
Last week, the Virginia Department of Education released results of the state’s Standards of Learning test.
Statewide, 79 percent of students passed in reading, 78 percent passed in writing, 77 percent passed in math, 81 percent passed in science and 84 percent passed in history and social studies.
Church said that other schools implementing a New Tech program had noticed a dip in SOL scores in the first year before coming back up in the second year. After the first year of the program in Franklin County, however, SOL scores for students in the New Tech program are at the same level or above those students in traditional classrooms.
Several of the eighth graders who took the New Tech program at the Gereau Center last year have continued the program this year at Franklin County High School. A portion of the school’s West Campus was renovated to make space for the incoming freshman. Quinn said the program will be expanded an additional grade each year until the program is available for students from eighth grade to their senior year at high school.
As the first year of students move up to high school, a new group of students is now taking the New Tech program at the Gereau Center. More than 150 students signed up for the program this year – far higher than the 89 students who participated last year. With space for the program limited to 100 students, those admitted were chosen by lottery based on ZIP code.
“That was a really good sign of success,” Quinn said of the increased enrollment.
Church said he has heard positive comments from parents in the community in New Tech’s first year. In some instances he has heard that students are coming out of their shell as they learn to communicate more to get work done. He said students are excited to tell parents about solving a problem at school when they come home.
“Our students are thriving in this environment,” Church said.