Teaching Opinion

Project-Based Schools Close Silicon Valley Gaps

By Tom Vander Ark — November 26, 2018 4 min read
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By Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag

Seven miles south of downtown San Jose, Calif., are some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Three schools serving this diverse area of the Evergreen School District (@EvergreenESD) combine personalized and project-based learning to help students succeed in high school, college, and work.

Members of the New Tech Network, Bulldog Tech, Lobo School of Innovation, and Katherine Smith Elementary School are bright spots for families and students in San Jose that may not otherwise have access to technology, integrated challenges, and strong supports.

After a visit to Napa New Tech High School in Napa, CA, Evergreen Superintendent Kathy Gomez knew the school model was a fit for the K-8 district. While the integrated projects were impressive, it was the New Tech culture that really sold Gomez.

Bulldog Tech

The purpose-built school on the LeyVa Middle School campus is “wall-to-wall project-based” according to school head Randy Hollenkamp, featuring team-taught projects in big double classrooms (below) with two teachers and about 50 students per classroom.

Bulldog serves 300 middle-grade students with a high percentage of English-language learners. Almost a third are Hispanic, a third Vietnamese, and the remaining third is diverse.

Art teacher Jim Conway kicks off an Art of Science project on the California wildfires.

Educators at Bulldog recognize that in order for students to be prepared for their futures, they can’t wait to give them meaningful, authentic, and real-world experiences—teachers have to do it in their classrooms today.

Three 74-minute instructional blocks in the first half of the day facilitate integrated project-based learning. A group of 50 students moves together through these big blocks. Our student ambassador said, “We’re all like a big family.”

Art teacher Jim Conway (@jim_conway) explained that project-based learning helps “teachers to integrate technology into the classroom curriculum, allows students to create meaningful and engaging work through collaboration.”

He added, “The students become skilled at communicating through presentations and exhibitions. The projects demand that the students effectively use critical thinking and creativity.”

Jim Conway, veteran art teacher.

In his Art of Science class, students investigated the biology of cancer. Students researched its cause and effects on lives. “The students had to find out the risk factors, symptoms, and mortality rates for the particular cancer they were studying. The students had to understand the science of cells and how cancer causes cells to grow out of control,” explained Conway.

Students used art and design skills to create brochures and displays presented at a Cancer Awareness Exhibition Night. They presented the information hoping to influence someone to get a checkup.

Eighth-grader Swapneel programs robots in a Maker Science class.

Two doors away, 8th graders in a Maker Science class program mBot robots to follow a student-created track on another planet.

Project assignments are about half group and half individual. “Team projects must be set up for collaboration,” said Hollenkamp. “We don’t just assume that it happens.”

Math is not part of an integrated blog and is more problem-based with 1-2 day tasks rather than 3-4 week challenges.

At Bulldog, “Culture is the secret sauce,” said Hollenkamp. “We’re changing mindset, it’s transformative,” he added.

Katherine Smith

Less than two miles away is one of the feeder elementary schools, Katherine R. Smith Elementary (see recent case study). Despite being in a collection of 60-year-old modular buildings with boarded windows, the school is a beacon of joy and hope in the community for students and families.

Co-principals Rachel Trowbridge (@rachtrow) and Kevin Armstrong (@karmstrongPBL) have been integral in the evolution of the school but are new to leadership roles this year. Both advocates of project-based learning, they find that the proof of the school model is in talking to students and hearing the outcomes after they move on to middle and high school.

Eight of 10 of the more than 500 students live in or near poverty. Many are new to English. The school offers a clothing bank, a food pantry, and employment assistance.

Smith has the best school and class ambassador program we’ve seen to date. From the moment you step onto the campus, you are greeted by and led by expert ambassadors.

Every classroom at Smith has a project board that lists the driving question, related questions, and vocabulary words and deliverables (Ashley, a new 6th grade class ambassador explains one below).

Building on the transformational leadership of Aaron Brengard, the new co-principals have improved academic growth by focusing on the quality of small -roup instruction.

Sergio Hernandez is a 4-6 Special Day Class (what the school calls their self-contained special education program) teacher at Smith. He’s also a campus leader on social and emotional learning. He introduced the SEL Toolbox to the campus, and the posters and tools are evident in every classroom.

Lobo School of Innovation

LSI (@Quimby_LSI) is the third New Tech Network member in the Evergreen school district. LSI offers a learning alternative on the Quimby Middle School campus.

Like Bulldog and Smith, LSI engages students in extended, integrated, real-world challenges in team-taught blocks.

Visit Bulldog, Smith, and LSI to see how high-challenge communities are responding with personalized and project-based learning.

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The photos above were taken by Tom Vander Ark.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.