Project-based Learning at Cleveland High School, Seattle.

Last Tuesday, eight Abbotsford educators went to visit the STEM academies at Cleveland High School in Seattle.  The school is the home to two academies:  School of Life Sciences and School of Engineering and Design.  We were looking for ideas to bring back to our work in Abbotsford with STEM.

Assistant-principal, Marjorie Milligan, was our host for the day.  Marjorie is responsible for the School of Life Sciences – staffing, administration, staff development, school operations and more.  She and her staff are working hard to build a culture of trust, responsibility, relationships and respect.  The school is in its second year of operation as a STEM academy.

Cleveland High School is located in south Seattle.  The school was slated for closure with declining enrolment, poor results and social problems.  A group of educators convinced the Board to give Cleveland new life by re-opening it as a STEM academy.  Deemed a school at risk, Cleveland qualified for grant money to improve.  As well, it was able to move disinterested teachers out and bring in teachers who would align with the new vision.  In the Seattle school system, it is an alternative school.  Students choose to attend Cleveland and those who do are selecting a school focused on sciences and mathematics.  Students are on a college/university entrance program.  Interestingly, the majority of students come from the local area feeder schools choosing a rigourous, science-oriented option.

The school has partnered with New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that helps create schools for the new century. The curruiculum is project-based with integrated technology and collaborative classrooms.  Each student has a personal laptop.  Staff have received training as well as on-going coaching from New Tech in PBL.  Teachers are 100% committed to the delivery model.  Those who aren’t are moved.  Teachers receive collaboration time twice a month to review curriculum and to vet projects together.  Marjorie said proudly that all projects receive the approval of the department prior to starting.

We all visited classrooms throughout the school in both academies.  We were instructed to ask teachers for the ‘entry document’ used in each project.  An entry document is given to students to introduce a project and to promote inquiry in the form of a video, invitation, game, podcast or any creative means.

Project-based learning engages students in rigourous, extended processes of inquiry that are focused on complex and authentic questions and problems.  Students demonstrate an in-depth understanding of academic knowledge and skills.  Projects build on 21st century skill such as collaboration, critical thinking and communications. 

A brilliant example of PBL was found in a 9th grade science class – Biomed Science 9.  By way of introducing a unit on body systems, the students entered the class one day to find a body on the floor surrounded by yellow tape.  The teacher gave the students a chance to examine the body (not a real one!) and some information related to the death.  The student’s job was to discover the cause(s) of death by studying various body systems (cardiovascular, nervous, pulmonory, digestive, etc) which they did over the next few weeks in class using lessons, research and collaborative inquiry.

We saw similar examples of project-based learning in Engineering Design classes, drama, mathematics and socials.  The Algebra 9 class used a problem-based approach rather than project-based, but an inquiry model nonetheless.  As we toured classes, it struck us that we did not see overhead projectors on with teachers behind them, nor teachers standing and delivering.  The classes I attended had teachers circulating and responding with corrrection and advice.  Teachers told us that they taught concepts embedded in the flow of the projects in response to student need.  There were clusters of students throughout the school in hallways and elsewhere taping segments for their projects. 

Staff and students are proud of their school and of their learning.  The academies have lifted the spirits and hopes of a new generation of learners who see school completion, college and university as realistic goals.  I was priviledged to meet Marjorie and her staff who have undertaken a bold venture into the future.  I would recommend a visit to Cleveland High School to anyone who wants to see student engagement and personalization in action.

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