Learning a new way

There are only two options at this technology-driven juncture in K-12 education: “Explore or be obsolete,” Altoona Area School District Superintendent Thomas Otto said.

A year after Wright Elementary School closed, Altoona Area School District administrators have plans to repurpose the building, which could place Altoona among school districts leading American public education away from an industrial-age model that hasn’t changed since 1892.

“Altoona is pushing a lot of interesting and important limits right now,” said Harris Sokoloff, director of Penn Graduate School’s Center For School Study Councils. He has a doctorate in foundations of education from Syracuse University and a master’s of education from Temple.

Other districts in Pennsylvania are working on pieces of the same change as Altoona. Some are building STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) academies, and others are breaking ground on personalizing instruction.

“But no one is doing what Altoona Area is doing,” Sokoloff said.

He’s been a resource for Altoona Area as the Pennsylvania state coordinator for Regional Education Laboratory, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Sokoloff works with state and local education agencies to promote the use of research and data to improve student outcomes.

The plan is to take STEM education, add the arts and twist it with a new instruction method that redefines everything about education, even what students (learners) and teachers (learning facilitators) would be called.

If Altoona Area administration’s short-term plans are realized, the former Wright building will open in the 2015-16 school year as the “Unlimited Learning Academy” for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM).

In addition to a curriculum geared to prepare students for future jobs, each student would receive personalized education.

Each student would receive a district-provided computer tablet, as well as instruction that adapts to each child’s interests, allowing them to learn at their own pace and adjust to their unique learning styles. In short, Mass Customized Learning – the educational equivalent of ordering a customized sandwich at Sheetz.

Mass Customized Learning is a movement that educators are well aware of because technology that children use outside of school demands it. Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 Director Tom Butler compares it to rock ‘n’ roll, because the “best things aren’t mandated by the government.”

The limits Altoona Area are pushing are both educational and political.

Pinched budgets and government mandates on schools, especially standardized tests, limit the lengths school boards and administrators can or are willing to go to change education.

“Fewer districts see potential for being innovative with how they offer instruction. Somehow or other, Altoona Area administrators feel they can make it happen,” Sokoloff said.

The ULA is the brainchild of Altoona Area Director of Curriculum and Assessment Luke Lansberry, who’s seen exam worksheets rob students of their passion to learn.

“High performing schools don’t sit around worrying about a state exam. They build a quality program, and then high test scores are a byproduct.”

The hoped result of the ULA is that children who are bored at school will be intrinsically motivated to learn. And everything that has made education resemble an assembly line of the industrial age would begin slowly grinding to a stop.

In years ahead, it could lead to a permanent turn away from graded organizational structure based on age, bell curve grading, class periods and simultaneously teaching 25 or more students.

The planned setting for the new instruction method, a repurposed Wright building, makes sense to Otto. The district’s lone magnet school, the McAuliffe Heights Program at Irving Elementary, has a yearslong waiting list.

If Wright isn’t reopened as a magnet school, Otto said the district will go on with smaller increments of change in classrooms. But the impetus for repurposing Wright is an immediate need for more classrooms, fallout from the board’s decision to close Wright and another elementary just prior to the arrival of Otto.

“We literally plan to have every room at Penn-Lincoln Elementary filled next year – computers taken out of what was a computer room and placed somewhere else so we can create a classroom, the same at Logan Elementary. At Juniata Gap, we will be using their large group room as a classroom. That’s not what we want,” Otto said.

“As we get some class sizes a little bit higher … we virtually have no flexibility to add another class. When you couple that need with the outstanding condition that the Wright Elementary School is in, it becomes important for us to examine and talk to the board about whether its practical to repurpose that building.”

Approval of the administration’s plan to repurpose Wright would be a 360- degree turn for the school board that last year closed the building largely to minimize unused building space, save on utility costs and adjust to the fact that student population in neighborhoods feeding the school is dwindling.

Wright has a capacity for 1,200 students. If renovated into a magnet school, it would enroll students from all over the district.

Lansberry, who joined the administrative team the fall after the board’s decision, has excited a majority of board members. Five contacted by the Mirror said they are supportive of repurposing Wright.

Cheryl Rupp said, at the time she and other members voted to close Wright, there was no talk of repurposing it in the future. And it’s been on the market to be sold and repurposed by someone else, perhaps as an apartment complex or children’s play zone.

“But it’s a little different now,” she said. “We have a curriculum director who sees a purpose for it.”

People living on the blocks around the former Wright building said it would be nice for a school, a good school, to exist in the neighborhood again.

The negative aspects of Wright’s last years of operation were mainly two-fold: the school’s poor education label by the state and its location on a street where numerous drug arrests have been made.

Rachel Black, who moved to 14th Street prior to Wright’s closing, said she was apprehensive to learn her twin daughters, not yet preschool age, would be assigned to attend Wright.

One man interviewed on 20th Avenue said his taxes were high, and he was unhappy about the education the children in his family had been receiving. He balked at the notion that America touts greatness. From where he was sitting, the education system is a failure.

But any negativity regarding the Wright building or the education system only reinforces Altoona Area administrators’ vision.

“We are perfectly set up right now to get the results that we are currently getting. And if everybody’s happy with that, then we don’t need to do anything different,” Lansberry said. “But I think we are constantly trying to become more innovative and seek better ways of doing things. We owe it to our learners; we owe it to their families; we owe it to this community.”

A repurposed Wright school could potentially revitalize the surrounding neighborhood and entire district, Lansberry said.

Otto has his own personal vision of what it might look like.

“It’s open until midnight every night. And there is a Starbucks in there, and kids that don’t have Internet at home – that’s OK they have their district-provided computer tablet, and Mom and Dad take them by the hand, and they have a sandwich, and they can get on Wi-Fi, and they can do their assignments,” Otto said.

“I can’t get that idea out of my head.”