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Success by Design

by Deborah Moffit

Current educational brain research points the way toward the best teaching practices. But are we taking advantage of that exciting science to create schools that result in successful outcomes for all students? Research shows that instruction which takes place in small, caring, learning communities, and which integrates passion and purpose while addressing a variety of teaching and learning modalities, is more likely to be embedded, retained and transferred to other learning environments and opportunities. When students become partners in creating their own educational plan through expression of their interests and creativity and in an atmosphere of fun, they become motivated and engage in deeper learning, dramatically reducing off-task behaviors and concerns. The following is a description of a school that is attempting to use current educational brain research to design programs that are beginning to bridge the achievement gap for many previously unmotivated, unengaged student populations.

Interagency Academy (IA) , a public alternative school in the Seattle School District, was created to address the varied needs of a middle and high school population inadequately served by traditional programs. It is a group of 18 sites throughout the Seattle metropolitan area, offering educational services in partnership with community learning centers, service agencies and institutions responding to a common client. Among the sites are programs for the disenfranchised, homeless, adjudicated and incarcerated. For some, the Academy is in many respects the last stop in the public education system, and its mission is to graduate all students, building bridges to careers through small, caring, specialized and personalized learning communities.

Interagency Academy students are predominantly multicultural and have non-traditional learning styles (the majority are not visual word learners). Most students who enroll at this school have had difficulty or lack of success at former comprehensive middle and high schools. Many are two or more years behind grade level and need multiple services to become effective learners. They have grown up in urban poverty, burdened by the resultant dysfunction and violence accompanying it, and with most students it is necessary to address issues of 'readiness-to-learn' before academic success can be achieved. Purposeful education of this population requires that attention be focused on their lives in the community as well as in school. Community partners associated with each school site assist in this holistic approach, and provide many of the responses needed for successful learning. Services such as housing, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, medical care, parenting, childcare, and employment skills are available through these partnerships and collaborations providing support to both students and their families.

IA approaches the education of each student individually and assesses and places them in site programs based on their interests, needs, and abilities. Students are encouraged to participate in the creation of their educational plan based on these assessed interests and career goals. Sites provide small learning communities and a variety of choices for students to complete their personalized learning plans. Each student is viewed as unique, with strengths, gifts and dreams that only need to be purposefully recognized and set free to be realized. Some sites emphasize credit retrieval through independent study or an on-line computer technology called Advanced Academics, while others offer direct instruction for diploma and GED completion. Another site partners with a county work-training program to offer paid construction-trade skill development as students get their GED. One-to-one direct instruction with teachers and computer technology is also available to special needs students. All programs recognize that that each student learns in their own way at their own rate.

Perhaps the most important factor in the success of the Academy is the nature of the teaching staff and their commitment to their students' success. IA has found that previously unmotivated and disruptive students become focused and pursue learning actively when supported and encouraged by truly caring adults. Repeatedly, students declare that the Academy works for them because the teachers/staff authentically care that they succeed. With that confidence, students make an emotional connection to the learning process through the development of trust and relationship with the staff, enhancing their learning generally.

Opportunities are regularly created or made available through partnerships to assist students in realizing success academically and in the community by building stronger self-esteem. They participate in school projects and extra-curricular activities that promote community service and culminate in public recognition for successful completion. "Teach Change" and "Powerful Voices" are two such programs which honor the experiences of the youth, instruct them in the skills necessary to overcome their hardships, then provide a forum for them to teach the learned behaviors to their peers in similar circumstances. When credit is attached to activities such as these, motivation is increased, self-confidence is enhanced, and greater risks are taken to achieve academically and in work-study in the future.

Project-based teaching, integrated arts, and the use of technology are tools used to assist students in the achievement of their academic goals. Interagency Academy recognizes that learning is more effective when it is linked to purpose and student interest, so projects are becoming a standard for teaching and learning at school sites. Because students are interested in technology and will need to be technically literate for successful futures, requisite fluency is integrated into the curriculum and employed, often required, in project development and presentation. PowerPoint skills are taught at most sites as an effective way for students to communicate ideas and learning to the teacher and publicly in presentations to peers and the community. Website navigation and construction are also taught for purposes of research and to publicize successes and recruit students.

Since most IA students with this stimulus and focus soon become creative and energetic learners, they respond very favorably to active/creative learning opportunities. The arts are therefore integrated into the curriculum as a vehicle for learning, increasing motivation and productivity. Local artists and professionals are contracted to assist teachers and students in the development of integrated projects, which include personal and site websites, newsletters, dramatic presentations and video/audio productions creating applications for purposeful learning while providing portfolio products.

Instruction at school sites is designed to address varied learning styles so that all learners' needs are met. Many IA students are kinesthetic and auditory learners and were not successful in previous educational settings because the teaching style simply did not match the students' learning styles. This school addresses different learning styles through programs and projects. One example of this method of program development is the IA Environmental Science Program, created through a grant partnership with the Seattle City Parks Department Youth Development Fund. It is an integrated, experiential credit program that partners the school with numerous city and county agencies and institutions (Seattle Aquarium, the Woodland Park Zoological Society, King County 4H Extension Program, Seattle Parks and Recreation parks and community centers, King County Department of Natural Resources, and others) to provide collaborative instruction and hands-on learning opportunities. Students study the environment and associated scientific concepts and issues, and are exposed to and learn about local career opportunities in the sciences, while they work as stewards of the environment in their local community parks and other institutions. This integrated programming combines purposeful learning, service and fun, and provides a connection between education, the community, and careers.

All Interagency Academy programs combine academic study with career exploration and planning. Students are assessed for career interest and encouraged to research and experience those interests through opportunities such as career speaker presentations and field trips, on-line study, job shadowing and career internship in the community. Students are taught that secondary school is an incremental goal in their career plan. Projects are created by staff and students that assist students in researching interest areas and developing career-related skills, which will prepare them for their future.

The most effective projects provide interactive learning opportunities for students to share their experiences and teach others what they have learned. One such project involved interviewing skills for employment. Students were taught the elements of a successful interview while they developed the training video interviews to teach others these skills. Classroom instruction was integrated into a dramatic humorous screenplay production, which was taped for video and television consumption. The process addressed all learning styles within an active, experiential format that was thoroughly enjoyable as well as academically and vocationally purposeful. It utilized the creative abilities and skills of the students and honored their efforts with public exposure. All Interagency Academy sites and the Seattle School district's School to Work program use the training tape. The sale of the videotape pays for the cost of their reproductions for consumption. It is hoped that entrepreneurial projects such as this one may someday support the cost of project productions.

See the IA student-produced Interviews, Interviews, Interviews training video (this link will take you directly to the video, which requires Windows Media Player in order to view).

In conclusion, Interagency Academy is actively proving, one student at a time, that the achievement gap can be bridged. Previously unmotivated, discouraged and failing students are becoming successful learners through the application of current research suggesting that all students can attain academic success in small, caring, creative, individualized learning environments.

About the author

Deborah Moffit, a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara who has also studied at the University of Washington and served nearly two decades in public education, is the School-to-Career and Projects Coordinator for the Seattle Schools' Interagency Academy, working in career and technical education and work-based learning programs, and creating arts and communication projects. She has extensive background working with multicultural youth in various challenging settings, from homelessness to incarceration. The founder and president of Chrysalis, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to fostering creative new learning strategies, she is also a visual artist who serves on the board of the Washington Alliance for Arts Education as well as New Horizons for Learning.

© May 2003

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