Wednesday, sadly, was my last day of school – sort of.
I’m writing a case study of an early college STEM school located on the campus of North Carolina State University. For the past month or so, I’ve spent many hours of many days getting to know the teachers, the staff, the kids, and in general seeing firsthand how this emerging reform effort in education really works.
This particular school has a very long name – Wake NC State University STEM Early College High School. It’s a mouthful and no one ever says the whole thing, but it sums up what the school is all about.
It’s an early college, meaning the kids there will have two years of college credit by the time they graduate. It’s also a STEM school, meaning it focuses intently on science, technology, engineering and math. It’s part of the Wake County Public School System, yet it’s located on the NC State campus. And it’s a high school, one that currently has a ninth and a 10th grade class, and over the course of the next two years, will have an 11th and a 12th grade as well.
Another important feature, one they did not squeeze into the formal name, is that it’s a five-year school, so the students take five, not four years, to get their degree, which includes the high school diploma, the two years of college credit, and the experience of sitting in classrooms with real college kids, doing their homework at NC State libraries, and taking the Wolf Line to get around campus.
The most important feature, however, is the size. The school is small. With no more than 60 kids at each grade level, it truly is a place “where everybody knows your name.” It’s virtually impossible to go unnoticed. If you fail, you have to work very hard at it.
Not only that, but classroom instruction is fun and engaging, and not because, a la “Cheers,” the kids are sitting on bar stools and throwing back beers. It’s fun and engaging because of a bunch of newfangled buzzwords like project based learning, flipped classrooms, and inquiry based learning.
What that means is that teachers dispense with the stand-up-and-lecture approach to teaching. Instead, they rely on teaching strategies that foster critical thinking skills. One that’s pervasive throughout the school is to give students individual and group projects to complete. Through the course of working on the projects, the students learn the lesson, whether it’s about solar energy, fusion vs. fission, or World War I. They also learn how to work as a team and present their findings to the class, both of which are highly prized workforce skills.
While most of the students have a penchant for math, science and technology, they’re not the ones who were at the top of their class, on track for AP or honors classes, and destined for Harvard or MIT. By design, the school caters to those who would be the first in their families to go to college and could very well fall through the cracks in a large, comprehensive high school.
The Wake NC State STEM school takes those kids with potential but little support and shepherds them through an education process that avoids many pitfalls of the large, one-size-fits-all, test-crazed options that have become the norm.
I walked away from the school on Wednesday truly impressed by what I’d seen. I’d looked hard for flaws, for reasons to feed the cynical journalist that dwells within and roll my eyes at yet another education reform likely to become a passing fad. I found none of those things.
I found a school that made me wish I could go back in time and start the ninth grade all over again. I found a school that could serve the 20 to 40 percent of kids who struggle and often fail in large comprehensive high schools.
This type of school takes a lot of time, resources, and planning to put together and to run. It’s not an easy task, but with all the education dollars of one kind or another floating around in this country, replicating this kind of school would be a good investment.