An Equation for Success


By William Weber

People may not think of their public schools as a key part of the engine driving the local economy. However, schools are a vital part of the pipeline that produces a community’s future employees, taxpayers, civic leaders and entrepreneurs. In regions suffering from natural disasters and economic hardship, such as declining local industry and employment, local schools’ role in the community’s future becomes even more important.

This thinking played a large part in the creation of the Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Regional Academy in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana in 2004. This Gulf Coast community near New Orleans had seen its share of hurricanes and economic troubles in recent years. People were leaving the area—especially those with good educations—and something had to be done to reverse the tide.

“Our superintendent wanted to do a survey to find out what the community wanted. And one of the things the community wanted was a science-and-technology school,” recalls Kristy Philippi,
an experienced math and physics teacher who at the time was just starting her new job as district math supervisor.

“In addition, the local economic development council had a master plan for a high tech research park that they were going to build,” she adds. “They decided to have a tech school in the tech park.

 “We’re going to be one of the key features in the new technology park—it’s part of our economic development plan—where you come to work in the park and your kids can go to school in this facility. The two things kind of came together.”

What also came together was that the superintendent picked Philippi to be the founding principal of Taylor Academy. “I was young enough to be the tech nerd, so it was a perfect match,” she jokes.

The school began operation in the fall of 2004 as a part-day school, with 7th and 8th graders attending their neighborhood school for half the day and then moving to Taylor Academy for their math and technology classes, which were squeezed into space in another school. Five years, two major hurricanes, and several moves later, Taylor Academy is now a full-day school for grades 6-12 with 300 students and numerous awards for its innovative approach to STEM studies based on ample use of technology and a dedication to teaching 21st-century skills.

“We really believed—even when we were a part-day school—in active, hands-on engaging students in real-world situations,” says Philippi, who is the recipient of a 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Awards in General Excellence. That philosophy earned Taylor Academy designation and grant funding as a replication site of the New Technology Foundation, a major proponent of project-based learning. It also is the key to critical state and local business support that will culminate in Fall 2011 when Taylor Academy is slated to move into its new $34-million, 115,000-square-foot school building in the technology park. The showcase facility will have room for 600 students from throughout the region and will feature state-of-the-art classrooms, research facilities, and work space for visiting scholars.

Hands-On Learning

Enrollment in the Taylor Academy is based on students’ interest and aptitude in STEM fields, Philippi explains. And the teaching model takes full advantage of those interests, using project-based learning at every opportunity and engaging students with technology in all aspects of their work. One major component in that model is the school’s 1:1 laptop program, in which every student is issued a laptop to use in school and at home. For some families, Philippi notes, the laptop is the only computer in the house—a plus for some siblings as well as for parents who might otherwise have no access to or experience with technology or the Web.

In describing the success of her school’s hands-on, project-based approach, Philippi says, “We’re a model for the district. If you engage students in real-world projects that they’re interested in, they learn so much more than if they had listened to a lecture. And if they can use another method that they’re comfortable with to show how much they’ve learned, they’ll understand so much more than if they just have to spit back out answers on a test.”

As an example, she points to a major school-wide project from two years ago. With assistance from local cable provider and frequent partner Cox Communications, Taylor Academy students and teachers teamed up with coastal-erosion researchers and producers for the Discovery Channel’s series Project Earth to tackle the severe damage that Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005 to mangrove trees and other critical vegetation holding together Louisiana’s barrier islands.

“The theory was, if we can plant a bunch of trees, that can help with coastal erosion and protect the areas from flooding,” Philippi says. “Our kids do a lot of coastal work anyway, because we’re right on the bank of the Mississippi River, and they go out to some of the low coastal areas right on the Gulf. It’s part of their life, and they understand that if you don’t fix this, we’re going to have another Katrina. So it’s a real-world project that means something to them.

“So when Discovery came in, they needed groups to make seed pods. We converted our cafeteria and the whole kitchen into a seed pod manufacturing facility. We had potting soil, buckets of hot wax, and people cutting cheesecloth and scooping mud. We had members of the community, students, parents, just out there working. We made 20,000 seed pods in four days.

“And we called the University of New Orleans (UNO) environmental education department, and they came out. The man who was in charge of the entire project was here and that was a big opportunity for the UNO people and our students to talk with him.”

While the cameras rolled to film the episode Raining Forests, the Project Earth team dropped the seed pods from the air onto an island off the coast of Louisiana—and then none of them grew. A disappointment? Yes. “But the interesting thing is,” says Philippi, “when you talked to the students, they all came back with the same questions: ‘Did they test it? Did they know if it would grow in normal soil? What were the weather conditions?’ They were asking all the right questions. It was a huge learning experience.”

Parents as Partners in Learning

Parents are another important element of the Taylor Academy strategy, because for many of them Taylor’s technology-rich, project-based program is very different from the schools they attended. At “parent-training nights,” parents are shown how to access their children’s online calendars, which detail students’ assignments and class work along with important school-wide dates and notices.

 “We want parents to access that so they know what’s going on and to check that the students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, “says Philippi. “We also give parents a login so they can access the system from work. Grades are available 24/7, with real-time access to students’ grades during the course of the year.”

Parents are encouraged to be active participants in the learning process at school. Philippi’s staff maintains a database of parents’ occupations and interests, along with those of members of the local business community, so they can be called upon for assistance or mentoring when a class project coincides with an adult’s area of expertise.

And parents are asked to serve as evaluators when students give oral presentations. “We call them ‘external enemies’,” jokes Philippi. “When a student presents to their peers or to their teacher, that’s one thing. But when they present to someone from the outside—a business person or a parent—because that person is grading them, that changes the level of the presentation. That makes a huge difference.”

Tips for Innovators

Over the five years Kristy Philippi has led Taylor Academy, she’s learned what it takes to be an innovator. Here is her advice, whether you’re launching a school or a new program.

* Don’t begin without the support of district leadership, including the superintendent and his/her staff.

* Keep the stakeholders involved. Engage the business community and politicians in the decision-making process and encourage them to stay involved.

* Educate central-office employees at every level. An innovative program needs buy-in from many support staff—from helping the purchasing department understand why your school needs items not on the general purchasing list to showing curriculum leaders why district standards can’t be taught in the same way as at other schools.

*Surround yourself with good people. Teachers and staff need to be committed to innovation and willing to change. They must be leaders and team players who are dedicated to do whatever it takes to improve the educational experience for students.

* Don’t be afraid to let go. It is okay to say “I don’t know” and empower your staff to seek out best practices and to innovate.

* Never underestimate the politics of an innovative school or program. Believe in your position and be prepared to defend it often—and with data. 

Future Focus

In addition to this sort of real-world experience, students at Taylor Academy have their eyes set on the future. All students keep a digital portfolio of their work, demonstrating not only their completed projects but also the 21st-century skills they acquired along the way. In addition, all students are required to take two online courses and four college-level classes by the time they graduate.

“Research shows that students who take college-level courses when they’re in high school have a much higher success rate when they get to college,” says Philippi. This approach, which was pioneered at Taylor Academy, is now the cornerstone of the state’s Early Start Program, which provides tuition assistance for approved college courses so that 11th and 12th graders can receive dual credit toward their high school and college degrees.

Most Taylor students attend nearby UNO for these classes, travelling by district school bus between campuses. Which classes they take depends on a number of factors, says Philippi.

“We’ve had students take computer science or freshman physics, which is much more difficult than AP physics or general high school physics,” she notes. “It could be a course that we can’t offer. Or it could be just getting a prerequisite out of the way. For example, if a student knows they’ll be going to UNO in the fall, they may take the written composition course or try to test out and take the next level course. Or a student who’s already taken the calculus course that we offer could be looking at a higher-level math course. And it could just be an interest, like one student who took a performance jazz course.

“Either way, they’re on a college campus, and integrating with college students and working with a college professor,” she says. “And if they don’t do well, we can provide support so, if necessary, they learn what they need to succeed in college.”

As with its 1:1 laptop approach, Taylor Academy has led the way for other schools in Louisiana. “Being the first in the state to do this, it really took some work,” Philippi says. “Now the Early Start Program is becoming commonplace.”

The Business of Learning

An important piece of seniors’ digital portfolio is a required 20-hour internship, usually in a STEM-related field. Noting the cooperation this demands of the local business community, Philippi says students have gotten internships with a wide range of businesses, including medical, architecture, finance, environmental research, chemistry, and nanotechnology.

A key outcome of the internship is a required research project that seniors must enter into a competition, notes Philippi. “They use that not so much to get into college, because it won’t be complete by many early-admission deadlines, but it helps if they’re applying for a scholarship or job employment when they’re in college,” she says. “They can say, ‘Look what I’ve done. I have these skills.’”

Another unique feature of Taylor Academy’s approach is the way its students are assessed.

In addition to receiving standard letter grades on each subject, students are scored on their 21st-century skills.

“They get a work ethic grade, they get a collaboration grade, critical thinking, content, written communication, oral communications, and a technology grade,” Philippi explains. “A lot of times, schools say, ‘homework, class work, and class participation are 25 percent of your grade.’ Well, what does that tell you? It doesn’t fit. Work ethic is a much better picture of what’s happening.

“And it’s something students need in the business world,” she adds. “That’s one of the things that business people who take a school tour see. They say, ‘Wow. They get a collaboration grade on how well they work together, or a work ethic grade. This is the kind of thing I want in one of my employees!’

 “That’s how the digital portfolio helps,” Philippi notes. “Because if college is not for these students or they go out looking for a job, they can say, ‘Here’s my digital portfolio. Look at my work ethic.’ How many other high school seniors have that to show?”

And that’s where Taylor Academy fits into the region’s economic development plans.

“One of the largest employers in the area is Northrop Grumman Ship Systems. They have over 1,000 jobs they can’t fill because they don’t have a qualified workforce. So they see us as an economic development piece to help fill those high-tech jobs.

“For companies that want to locate in the region but say ‘you don’t have a qualified workforce,’ that’s one of the things that we’re there for. Especially after Katrina, there were a lot of educated people who left, because they had options or other employment opportunities. We have to work to replenish that workforce. So we’re automatically seen as an important piece of the equation to help the region remain successful,” says Philippi.

“In the long run, you can help them see that five, six, or seven years down the road, our graduates are going to be the ones that they’re hiring and they realize how important it is to support us.”

RELATED RESOURCES

Cable’s Leaders in Learning Awards – 2009 Winners

www.leadersinlearningawards.org/winners2009.html

Discovery Project Earth: Raining Forests

http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/project-earth/project-earth.html

New Technology Foundation

http://www.newtechfoundation.org

TaylorAcademy

http://jpsst.jppss.k12.l1.us

 


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