Danville High’s new project-based learning doesn’t stop during intersession
By Wayne Dominick
Danville High School administrators realized if they wanted student-driven learning, they had to give the students the keys. So when administrators decided to have a one-week intersession offering special classes, it seemed only logical to let the students pick what those classes should be.
Among the results: Two students went to Cambridge, Mass., to shadow professors at Harvard University, one student went to Disney World to learn more about the entertainment business, and another shadowed a veterinarian and was able to witness a mare giving birth.
“All of the students that I’ve talked to have said they can’t believe how much they’ve learned being on the job,” Principal Ed McKinney said.
Photo: Sophomore Phoebe Kingsley, who built a lamp in the morning Furniture Design class and spent afternoons decorating cupcakes at a local bakery, said intersession gave her the opportunity to try something she always wanted to do. “I’ve always wanted to try building something and now I know I can. It’s been a great way to learn.”
The idea for the intersession week came about because of the school’s involvement with the Stupski Foundation’s Learning Lab Network. The California-based foundation selected Danville as one of five schools in the nation to participate in its Learning Lab Network. The schools will test various student-centered learning projects and share results with each other. The goal is to develop new models of student-centered learning that empower kids and ideally boost achievement.
While some staff members wanted to wait a year to plan the intersession, Danville school board members thought the program should start right away.
“We wanted to get things going,” said Board Chairwoman Jean Crowley. “We knew we had to do something to get our students more engaged and involved and intersession seemed like a great way to do it.”
Danville’s Intersession 2012 went from concept to reality in November 2011 when McKinney and members of his staff met with professors from the University of Kentucky, along with community and business leaders.
“We realized that we just weren’t equipped to offer courses in everything students were interested in, so we met with some community leaders to see if we could offer students the chance to go off campus for their intersession experience,” McKinney said. “We spent several hours brainstorming ways to get students more engaged and we kept coming back to letting them have more input into what courses were being offered.”
The response was more than he expected. Several local businesses and community leaders agreed to offer job shadowing and internships to students interested in various occupations.
To qualify for an off-campus course, students were required to fill out a contract outlining what they hoped to learn, how that learning would be evaluated and a suggested itinerary of what the student would be doing each day during intersession. In addition, the student’s parents had to agree to provide transportation to and from the student’s work site. About 140 of the school’s 550 students opted for the off-campus experience with another 40 or so splitting their time between off-campus and taking one or two of the courses offered at the school.
Those remaining on campus had a wide variety of course options. Students could take classes in furniture design and construction, bread baking, movie making, law enforcement and criminal investigations. One of the most popular offerings was Coach Vaughn Little’s Southern barbecue class, which involved food preparation and cooking. Class members not only earned food handlers certification, but they also learned a few of the coach’s “secret” recipes. As senior Dugan Reed, who plans to be a chef, put it, “What’s not to like? You learn how to cook and you get to eat it!”
Students also leaned toward courses that would help them in classes in which they were struggling. Biology teacher Patricia Calvert said the wide variety made taking “basic” courses more palatable. “Intersession gives them so many opportunities they don’t feel like they’re missing out by taking a course that will let them catch up,” said Calvert, who taught both basic and AP intersession classes.
Freshman James Weaver loves sports and wondered what he could do when his playing days are over. The Officiating Team Sports class gave him an answer. “I think it would be something I can get into,” he said.
Parent Yolantha Harrison-Pace, a teaching artist with the Kentucky Arts Council who taught a dance class during Intersession, said she would like to see more parents involved. “Who better to bring their skills and experiences than parents?” she asked. “I would like the administration to seek out some parents to come and share their knowledge with the students.”
Superintendent Carmen Coleman said the excitement she saw in the school on her frequent visits have convinced her of the program’s success. Students, she said, “can’t wait to tell me what they’re doing and what they’ve learned.”
Board Chairwoman Crowley kept tabs on intersession via the class that posted a video report each day on the school website. “Students are engaged, they’re participating and that’s exactly what we wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I don’t think you could call it anything but a tremendous success.”
For more information, and view video reports, visit the district website and click on the intersession link.
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort