Project Based Learning Engages High School Students

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Local districts are finding that project based learning engages high school students and  keeps them interested, enrolled, and successful. In Natrona County Wyoming, officials are preparing to roll out their biggest effort yet to combat the district’s below-average high school graduation rates and mediocre test scores.

 
The program, which will be partially implemented in the fall, will shift focus in the district’s middle and high schools to project based learning and allow students to enroll in one of four academies based on their interests. The district’s goal is to engage more students, increase graduation rates, close achievement gaps throughout the district and better prepare students for a transition to college, the workforce, or other training programs.

It’s called Pathways to 2025, and the ideas at its core are not new, said Mark Mathern, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at NCSD.

The idea surfaced as each of the district’s high schools rose on the state’s list of schools needing improvement around 2008, Mathern said. Funds would likely be available to either significantly upgrade or rebuild the district’s high schools, and the board took the opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

“We had never really looked seriously at the high school system as a whole,” he said. “So this conversation was about, well, what do we want [our graduates] to look like?”

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The result of a year-long community planning process was a list of soft skills the district began calling the “portrait” of a graduate. On the list are skills like analytical thinking, adaptability and self-direction. Not on the list are sets of requirements for the number of math courses a student should complete, or how many credits of a foreign language a student should master.

That’s intentional, Mathern said. While credit and course requirements are not changing in the district, the way classes are taught will change, he said, based on those soft skills that members of the Natrona County business community said any employable graduate needs.

The transition in teaching will require buy-in from teachers, who will do most of the work to increase the district’s emphasis on project based learning.

For the roll-out of the district’s Pathways system to be successful, professional development of teachers and staff will be key, Doreen McGlade, President of the Natrona County Education Association, said. McGlade’s organization represents all certified education staff who are not administrators in Natrona County.

“This is a tremendous investment of time and resources that could have wonderful opportunities for our students to be engaged in meaningful learning, to increase their engagement,” McGlade said. The CAPS facility has potential to reach students who have felt disconnected to their education and to connect high-performing students with areas where they may be interested in going beyond high school, she said.

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