Rogers, Van Buren finding success with ‘New Tech’ schools

by The City Wire staff ( 88 views 

"New" high schools are popping up in communities in the region, filling a district's capacity needs while potentially changing the way students learn.

The alternative, known as "New Tech" high schools, have been implemented in the Rogers and Van Buren school districts and according to Ashley Siwiec, communications director for Rogers Public Schools, the high school alternative is about finding a different approach to learning.

"It's part of a national organization called the New Tech Network," she said. "They have a different approach to learning that uses project-based learning. It's heavily infused with technology. Every student at the school has a laptop that they use for learning."

The New Tech Network supports 135 schools in 23 states and Australia. (See a short video at the end of this story from New Tech Network.)

Siwiec said the tech high school campus came about as district officials searched for a way "to offer our students something different than traditional high school."

"The overall idea is that students kind of get assigned a project at the beginning, like a unit. They'll analyze what they already know, where they have gaps, and what research (the students should) do to solve it. Teachers may present mini-lectures if they need help in a given area," she said. "But a small team of students will work collaboratively to research on the project and often times, it ends in an oral presentation to the rest of the class."

It's not only students who work collaboratively, but also instructors, Siwiec said.

"Some of the classes are taught collaboratively. Like they might combine English and social studies into one class that is team taught, where teachers facilitate learning both of the subjects at the same time."

In Van Buren, the school's "New Tech" campus grades students on five school-wide learning outcomes (SWLOs):
• Critical Thinking (10% of their overall score);
• Collaboration (10% of their overall score);
• Oral Communication (10% of their overall score);
• Written Communication (10% of their overall score);
• Work Ethic (10% of their overall score); and
• Content Knowledge (50% of their overall score).

Not only is the new approach a way to think outside the box academically while providing students a cutting-edge learning environment, but Rogers Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Kathy Hamlon said it was far cheaper to create the Rogers New Tech High School, which is a charter school, than to construct a third high school in the district.

"We went out shopping for ideas," she said. "We wanted to find a creative solution to do a third high school before we needed to build a traditional new high school. That's where we were when we were brainstorming ideas and 'New Tech' filled that (need). We could get our third high school without a major capital investment and that was appealing."

She said the district was able to retrofit an existing building within the district for a cost of only $4 million in two different phases, versus building a brand new campus for the school's eventual 600 students (150 students for each grade once the district is able to fill the school in the next two years). The cost of the Rogers High School campus, built in 2001, was $43 million while additions to Rogers Heritage High School (the site of the former Rogers High) totaled around $32.5 million.

"For $4 million, that's a mighty cheap high school. It's a much less expensive option. We had space we could use and remodeled part of the building versus if we built a full-fledged high school with athletic facilities, those sorts of things, it would have been much more expensive," likely to the tune of more than $90 million for a school built from scratch, according to Hamlon.

Not only did the district save on construction costs, but Hamlon said the school also received more than $600,000 in grants to get it off the ground operationally, with those funds supporting programs such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and CTE (career and technical education) education.

For students wanting to take part in extracurricular activities, such as band and athletics, Siwiec said the lack of a football field or band room would not leave them out in the cold.

"At Rogers New Tech, students in their first or seventh period can participate in music or athletics at their boundary high school (the school they would traditionally attend had they not been participating in the 'New Tech' program). So students from the Rogers High feeder pattern can go back to play football or be part of the band or orchestra. The same goes for Rogers Heritage."

As for how students become a part of the new school, Siwiec said it was based solely on students who want to attend the school. Each entering freshman class is limited to 150 students, meaning if there are more students wanting to attend each year, a lottery system will determine who gains entrance.

While officials with Rogers Public Schools have praised the program, one area school district exploring the construction of a third high school has said the program would not work for its students.

Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden of Fort Smith Public Schools said the district did investigate the learning model.

"FSPS investigated the model 2-3 years ago and determined that it would not significantly expand opportunities," he wrote in an e-mail. "Some of the programs being used duplicate learning opportunities which FSPS students have at the Western Arkansas Technical Center (WATC) at UAFS (University of Arkansas at Fort Smith). The ongoing digital conversion of the total curriculum in FSPS is achieving many of the purported 'new tech' goals at a considerably lower cost."

Gooden added that while Rogers was able to convert an existing building for use as a new campus, he said doing so in Fort Smith would not change the need for a new school campus or campuses in the district.

"All such options are are a possibility, but do not address the space issues currently experienced and anticipated in the future at both elementary and secondary levels. There are no buildings that the school district owns which would meet this need."

While Gooden said there were no buildings available to meet the need in the Fort Smith district, Siwiec said Rogers was able to fill an immediate need by thinking creatively.

"We looked at it as an alternative to building a third high school," she said. "We know that we will eventually grow to that point, but we knew we wanted something different to offer to high school students. Each type of school has advantages, but certain characteristics or courses or the approach to learning may appeal to students. We just wanted to offer options for them to consider."