By Whitney Vickers
YELLOW SPRINGS – The hallways within the Yellow Springs School District currently sit empty and are quiet throughout.
However, this will change Friday as students of Mills Lawn Elementary School, McKinney Middle School and Yellow Springs High School will head back to school.
“We’re very excited and can’t wait to see the students in here,” Mills Lawn Elementary School Principal Matt Housch said. “There needs to be students in the schools. It’s too empty and echo-y without them.”
Superintendent Mario Basora of the Yellow Springs School District feels positive about the year to come. Each school offers project-based learning (PBL), allowing students to identify an issue and work together to solve it, while having curriculum tied-in throughout the completion of the project.
“Project based learning is the idea that students learn by doing real-world projects,” Basora said. “The notion is that they are solving real-world problems as their curriculum. The idea is to take the standards, identify a community need and once you figure out what that community need is, you create a project to solve that problem essentially. Students have the opportunity for authentic, real-world change in the classroom.”
Last year’s kindergartners tracked the amount of trash found on the school’s playground, wrote a letter to the editor at the Yellow Springs News in response to what they had found and created signs accordingly. As first graders this year, teachers are in talks of having them come speak with the current kindergartners in regards to the project.
“What we’ve found is that when we do this, student engagement is through the roof,” Basora said. “Kids feel like they’re doing real-world work and feel like they’re making a difference. That ultimately leads to high-quality work and our kids feel prepared for the world after high school and for their careers.”
Housch said teachers within Mills Lawn already had their projects picked out and nailed down, but would be finalized within the week preceding the first day of school.
Principal Tim Krier of McKinney Middle School and Yellow Springs High School said middle school students will have projects focusing on crisis management and natural disaster responses.
“How can you get more exciting than that?” he said. “I don’t know how.”
Students at the ninth grade level will focus on food choices and how it informs the culture and community.
“That’s tying together world history, world literature, biology and design elements in our [art] classes,” he said.
Tenth graders will be asked whether or not it is too late to save the world.
“They’re going to explore through social and government policy, literature and the sciences – how they can tackle things in real, authentic ways,” he said.
Krier added that the first semester for these students will be “really down and dirty,” while middle schoolers may feel the same way throughout the second semester.
Juniors at Yellow Springs High School will have access to an AP seminar course, in which they will study themes on a quarterly basis and will work within teams to present information. As the year progresses, they will begin to work individually for an exam, which will require studying various texts and writing. It is the first school in the Miami Valley to be invited by the college board to offer it, and only one of eight other schools within the state. The high school additionally offers eight AP courses.
“We’re really excited because for the first time we have enough students and enough common classes that these project based learning units will be interdisciplinary across lots of content areas,” Krier said. “That’s really something special for a middle and high school to be able to do because it’s not just one teacher, one classroom and the same kids all day long.”
PBL began within the district three-to-four years ago, and now district leaders are feeling confident in where it is going. The district has additionally experienced a 14 percent change in staff this year, and Basora feels confident in their abilities.
“The folks we hired are incredibly great, experienced teachers who put kids first, have a strong interest in project-based learning and creative, innovative educational ideas,” Basora said. “All of our new-hires have sought us out. They want to be here, they know what they’re doing. When we bring new people on board, they’re very knowledgeable about where we’re going and they actually want to be on that train with us.”
It offers open-enrollment beginning Jan. 1 of each year for all of its grade levels. It currently has open seats for second, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, 11 and 12 grades. It graduates an average of 55 individuals each year.
“What we see, problematically, is we currently have a culture of test-takers,” Basora said. “What we’re seeing happen as a result of that is we have kids in schools that are so focused on getting the right and wrong answer, we’re losing the creative, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit that our kids need to be successful. A lot of traditional schools are missing that, so we want to offer a better option.”
“Through automation and radical technological changes, our kids are going into a world where learning basic factual recall and traditional schooling is no longer going to work for them to be successful,” Basora said. “We believe that what needs to happen is schools need to focus just as much on some of the success skills kids need for life after high school and after college. These include all of the traditional skills you can think of like communication, the ability to think critically, problem-solve and collaborate with other people.
We think, increasingly, the ability to be a creative thinker and be able to come up with innovative, original ideas.