Basalt pioneers a school within a school
December 3, 2008
BASALT ” It’s Tuesday afternoon at Basalt Middle School, and the back lawn is filled with groups of students wrestling with sticks, tarps and string. Their assignment: to set up a tarp under which all the students can fit.
For the first 10 minutes of the activity, the students are focused purely on constructing their shelters. But soon a few notice that not all the groups have the same materials with which to work. One group has been able to string their tarp high between two trees. Another, assigned a treeless area, is trying to figure out how to hold up their tarp.
The lesson, originally developed by Peter Westcott at Aspen Middle School, is part of a unit on geography and the world’s unequal allocation of resources. But in its focus on project-based learning, it’s a typical class in the middle school’s new WIT Academy.
Started this fall, the academy is a school within a school. Like a charter school, it is a publicly funded entity that operates differently than a traditional school. But unlike a charter school, the academy doesn’t have its own campus; it is held in two rooms in the middle school.
All fall, 21 seventh-grade students and 13 eighth graders have worked with two teachers, Ashley Carruth and Jane Douglass, using curriculum that focuses on real-world learning.
“It’s different,” student Gus Anderson said. “I learn a lot more this way that the way I used to.”
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The idea for the school began in discussions among Basalt Middle School teachers about how to reach less-involved kids. What evolved was a project-based learning model that attracted applications from some of the school’s top students, as well as more challenged students ” and everyone in between. Basalt Middle School Principal Jeremy Voss said the demographic of the WIT Program mirrors the main school’s demographics almost exactly.
One of the first challenges involved in pulling kids out of their regular classes for a special program has been overcoming the stigma that the academy is for “the reject kids,” said Carruth.
Another challenge, Douglass said, has been balancing the district’s focus on closing the Colorado Student Achievement Program (CSAP) achievement gap with the academy’s focus on project-based learning.
“But it’s possible,” she said. “It just takes a lot of planning.”
But one of the benefits of keeping the program within the existing school has been the ability to continue collaborating with other teachers, both Carruth and Douglass said. Numerous teachers within and outside of their school have been helping them with curriculum ideas or teaching strategies.
Another benefit is the ability to start a new school at a low cost. According to Voss, the program doesn’t receive additional funding, though Carruth and Douglass have been fundraising extensively for programs like a rafting trip on the Colorado River. For example, they’ll host four school dances this year, he said.
The main differences between the WIT Academy and a traditional Basalt Middle School class are a smaller “school” size that enables the teachers to track individual students more closely, a tighter student community, greater opportunities for community service and outdoor education. There is also the flexibility to do longer projects. For example, this fall the students researched election issues, then taught the rest of the school what they knew. And this week, explained student Henry Maxwell, the students began a history project in which they have to establish their own civilization.
“We’re just hoping our civilization doesn’t die,” he said.
The students will start their most significant long-term project ” a job internship ” in January. All the students found their own community mentor, with whom they will be spending between three and five hours a week during the spring in a job internship. The chosen mentors are “totally across the board,” said Carruth, and include a structural engineer, a graphic designer, an orthodontist, an elementary school teacher, a physical therapist and a Plum TV employee.
Voss said he hopes the academy continues into the coming years and establish itself as a viable program at the school. At the end of this year, both CSAP scores and a survey that measures students’ attitudes toward learning will be used to gauge the program’s success, say those involved.
“You have to have the CSAP performance, but you also have to have the buy-in from the kids,” said Voss.
He also said that the program is contingent upon having two highly motivated people to run it, noting that Carruth and Douglass have spent hours creating the program, designing innovative curriculum and fundraising for special projects.
“If we can keep people like that staffing it, it will certainly be a go,” he said. “It’s really a credit to Ashley and Jane. I’m really impressed with those two teachers this year.”