District seeks input on reshaping Wright Elementary

If Altoona Area School District repurposes the former Wright Elementary building into a magnet school for science, technology, engineering, arts and math, it’s going to need help – help with funding and help with designing exactly what it will be.

Administrators are seeking to build a steering committee including business partners interested in reshaping education there.

One of the first things Luke Lansberry noticed when he arrived in Altoona as the school district’s curriculum and assessment director was how the business community came together to establish Penn State Altoona.

“Right away, I saw the future could very well be repurposing the Wright school with support from local businesses that would be interested in reshaping and redesigning the work that we do,” Lansberry said.

The district’s administrators in technology, business, special education and community relations are enthusiastic about the project.

“We are not doing this alone. I think that is a refreshing approach to this,” said district Community Relations Director Paula Foreman.

Too many times, educators don’t seek feedback from stakeholders like future employers, she said.

Altoona Area Business Manager Camilla Houy said engineering, biomedical and other STEM-related industries in regions, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, don’t have enough qualified employees. Conversely, local administrators have learned – from their own experience as parents – that Altoona needs more jobs to attract college graduates.

“Here we are in central Pennsylvania. And we have an opportunity. We have our industry, and I think it (repurposing Wright) is going to bring more industry to the whole city of Altoona.”

But equally important to preparing students for the workforce is stoking their passion to learn. The administration plans to implement a new instruction method, Mass Customized Learning, that personalizes students’ education.

“If Mass Customized Learning can enhance the educational experience of some of our children, then the teachers of Altoona will join with the administration in making the program a success,” Altoona Area Education Association President Doug Rosenberry said.

Whether the Wright building can be repurposed for that mission, and how, is to be determined by the steering committee.

“I’d love to have engineering students at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center, Penn State Altoona and our own Altoona Area students do it. It would be a great project,” AASD Superintendent Thomas Otto said.

“In its best sense, long range (the repurposed Wright school) becomes a professional development incubator that could transform the entire school district. It would be the heart of what we want the future of teaching and learning to become … 21st century thinking, whether it’s hybrid learning, flipped classroom, STEAM-created lesson planning, inquiry-based, hands-on type work.”

“I believe in this project with my whole heart,” Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said. “Education looks too much like it did a hundred years ago. I think that we need to continue growing America through public education that is innovative and makes kids want to come to learn.”

This summer, Altoona Area teachers will receive STEM professional development training from ASSET Inc., a national STEM education improvement nonprofit. Leaders of corporations sit on ASSET’s board and provide insight as to what they want from employees. They say they are receiving perspective employees who are lacking skills that they need, said ASSET Director of Professional Development John Radzilowicz.

“What we hear from most of them is that it’s not content that’s the problem, it’s about transferring skills so that they may see a problem in an area they’ve never worked in before and apply skills from others they’ve used elsewhere to solve it and working in teams,” he said.

Altoona’s Lansberry agrees.

“We’ve robbed them of their passion and creativity,” Lansberry said.

That’s why including the arts in STEM, to make it STEAM, is crucial.

It’s proper, then, that a painting inspired Lansberry to suggest repurposing the Wright school.

When Lansberry visited the closed Wright school building for the first time, he saw a painting left there.

“It was like it was there for a reason. Speaking,” he said.

It was a painting of a dark gray town, but what draws attention is the light of a lamppost at the center of the picture, a work by local artist Joe Somerville.

What the planned Unlimited Learning Academy might look like will be determined by the steering committee. But whatever it might become, to Lansberry, “Wright is the light.”