CSCS plans for the future
Teacher Bryn Orum believes there are abundant myths about what teenagers can and cannot do.
As Middleton Alternative Senior High (MASH) prepares to close its doors and re-open in the fall as Clark Street Community School, students there are already doing things that fall well outside the traditional high school model, challenging the notion of how teens learn and what they can accomplish.
That’s precisely what Clark Street, the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District’s new charter school, is designed to encourage, according to Orum. With final approval from the state and the local board of education behind it, the Clark Street Community School philosophy is already emerging within the classrooms at MASH.
The transition is gradual, said educators, and it includes a variety of new approaches to learning. At its core, Clark Street’s goal will be to engage and educate students who learn best outside a traditional school setting.
While public perception of MASH was that the school catered exclusively to “at-risk” teens, Clark Street is intended to serve a diverse student population.
A central component of the charter is “project-based” learning, in which arbitrary, one-size-fits-all coursework is usurped by highly individualized undertakings that translate fluidly into the real world.
Heather Messer is a science and life skills teacher at the school. Students learning about energy from her would usually have to sit through uniform lectures and complete identical coursework.
But as MASH becomes Clark Street, Messer is already implementing the “project-based” model.
“In the past, everybody would have done the same thing in lockstep, with less student input,” Messer explained.
This semester, as educators begin trying out the new methodology, each student in Messer’s class formulates a unique hypothesis. Every question has its own answers, so the students work on projects almost totally their own.
One student decided to dismantle his truck, comparing its fuel efficiency with and without an array of performance additions. Others examined the economics and logistics of how power is produced, transported and sold.
“If something’s local, then it matters to them,” said Orum. “Context is vastly important for what we’re doing here.”
Messer said with individualized grading systems and compelling coursework, teachers foster “student ownership” in the material.
“Some kids do all their learning outside of school,” she explained. “But they traditionally can’t take their passions into school with them.”
In most schools, such students either perform poorly or drop out entirely. After all, those who don’t learn well in typical classrooms don’t benefit much from good attendance.
“We want to change that,” Messer said. “We want them to play, to find their passion, to serve their purpose.”
Travis Flannery and Jayme Beale are two living, breathing examples of this new approach. They are both students in Robyn Acker’s art and life skills class at MASH.
Like Messer, Acker is already employing project-based tactics.
Flannery and Beale are currently working on interior design within the school building. They are literally transforming the school’s physicality while their teachers change their approach to educating.
The correlation was not lost on students, who quickly realized the building’s “common area” was underutilized by teens, likely because it exuded all the cold, institutional charm of a prison cafeteria.
Beale’s classroom team drew up and created an area that looks and feels like a domestic living room, complete with a plush green couch, chairs, reading lamps and a vintage, non-operational television.
“We worked to make a more comfortable feel,” said Beale. “For it to work as a common space it has to feel like a common space.”
The antique TV, which comes from the period when sets were still built to look like old time radios, was inspired by a trip to a local museum where other retro technology was repurposed as décor. (The set was discovered in a storage room at the school.)
Students also toured coffee houses in Madison, picking up art and design ideas used by business owners who want customers to work and relax in a comfortable setting.
Elsewhere in the expansive common area, Flannery set up small round tables “to encourage more collaboration” among students. The room’s malleable components allow teens to work in large groups or break off into smaller ones.
Beale said the new design has increased reading and studying efficiency.
Orum, like many teachers, was instrumental in writing the new charter and coming up with a different way of imparting knowledge. She said educators at MASH are excited to see their plan leaving the page and becoming a daily reality as Clark Street Community School gets ready to officially open its doors.
Maggie Baum, a spokeswoman for Clark Street, said there are currently about a dozen spots open for students who wish to attend the school in the fall. (Due to the school district’s open enrollment policy, Clark Street is only accepting students living within the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.)
Visit www.clarkstreetcommunityschool.com for additional information.
Note: The above article was written by Matt Geiger and appeared in a recent edition of the Middleton Times Tribune. The MTT has agreed to let us run the story on the district website.