Inside a Casper art gallery, a few dozen teachers are seated in a circle, listening to a presentation chock-full of teambuilding buzzwords.
This is a “design camp” for Natrona County’s new academy-based learning center. These educators get together weekly to plot a reinvention of the high school experience for kids in Casper.
“When we open our school, it’s going to be the first time for a whole new way of learning,” says Bryan Aivazian, a coach at one of four career academies that will be housed in the new center, which opens in one year.
This bold endeavor has been in the works for nearly a decade. It’s a shift to ‘academy-style learning,’ where students’ lesson plans and activities are designed around their career interests. Teachers here today are husting to create a system that will deliver results.
“We want to make a very, very big first impression—not only on the kids who enroll for that first year, but on the community as a whole, the larger educational field,” Aivazian says.
He’s with the Health Sciences and Human Services Academy. There’s an academy for architecture, construction, manufacturing and engineering called “ACME”, one for business, agriculture and natural resources (BANR), and another for the creative arts, communication and design (CACD). They’ll offer a range of professional certifications, but Aivazian says this won’t be a trade school.
“Yes, there are those opportunities, but really what we’re trying to do is—no matter where a kid is in terms of what they see as a possible career path, we’d like to be able to tie their day-to-day learning in school with an interest or a passion,” Aivazian says.
So if a student likes construction, many of her lessons at the academy—in math, English, history, etc.—will be construction projects.
The high school graduation rate in Natrona County is about 74 percent. Chad Sharpe is principal of the new academy-based school—which is a big part of the district’s plan to get more kids to graduate.
“I think that our Board of Directors has set a noble goal in saying 85 percent of our kids need to be graduating from our system by the year 2019,” says Sharpe. “I really hope that we get to 90, 95 percent. Heck, if I’m really crazy, I’m going to say 100 percent.”
Sharpe’s building isn’t a traditional high school. No mascot. No prom. It’s a program open to all juniors and seniors in Natrona County School District. Students who join a career academy will leave their home school to spend half the day doing hands-on learning activities with groups of students and teachers.
“ And then, the challenge to the educator is to frame it in such a way that history is there, and that English is there, and that math and science are there,” says Sharpe. “Then I think the experience for kids is magical. I think it will be a place that kids will thrive in.”
This model exists in Rock Springs and Gillette, but is new for Natrona County. The academy-based learning center will have a few things in common with an existing program, though, Casper’s Star Lane Center.
Like the new academies center, Star Lane is a half-day program that brings kids from their high schools across the county. Here, they practice what’s called “problem-based-learning.”
“The problem that we’re working on now is micro-farming,” says Austin King, a sophomore at Natrona County High School—and Star Lane. “And it’s dealing with world hunger. And we’re supposed to try and figure out how to take farming and put it into a smaller area to help people in cities who can’t do that. We are supposed to figure out how to apply what we’re learning to the real world.”Natrona County High School—and Star Lane. “And it’s dealing with world hunger. And we’re supposed to try and figure out how to take farming and put it into a smaller area to help people in cities who can’t do that. We are supposed to figure out how to apply what we’re learning to the real world.”
The academies program will use a range of similar interactive learning styles. And whether it’s “problem-based” or something else, these are all hands-on learning methods that go beyond traditional lectures and quizzes.
“You know, in a lot of your classes, you’re like, ‘Well, I’m not really going to use this information in real life,’” says Star Lane Freshman Kleo Vlastos. “But when you’re actually working on a project, it’s like, ‘Oh I can totally see myself using this information’ and—I don’t know. I just think it’s a lot more useful.”
Star Lane isn’t career focused, and that aspect of the new academies piques Vlastos’s interest, but she says she’s not sold yet.
“So I’d like to see, you know, what kids say about it next year before I decide if I want to do it,” says Vlastos. “I think it would be a good experience if you’re not sure what career you want to pursue, because then you can kind of experiment, try different things and narrow it down.”
Despite class visits and info-sessions, many students and parents still don’t know much about the academies. But back at the ‘design camp,’ academy coach Molly Voris says, like it or not, the program is going to transform the entire school district.
“So we would hope that we see this as an opportunity to unify our district, and make a bridge, as opposed to making an island,” Voris says.
Each Academy and career pathway was designed with input from local employers in the field. The roughly $26 million facility is being built in West Casper—and will welcome as many as 1,000 high school students each day. But it’s not going to look or feel like Casper’s other high schools.
“We’ve got a statement to make,” says Bryan Aivazian. “Not that we’re better than other teachers or other schools, but we have a different approach. And a lot of kids would be more successful if school ran a different way.”
This new building with something to prove is lacking at least one thing vital for maintaining a good impression—a name. Its old one, ‘Center for Advanced and Professional Studies’ or ‘CAPS’ was dropped this year over a trademark dispute. The district’s high schools are working together on a new one. The facility formerly known as CAPS opens next year.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.