Principal David Wheeler had an epiphany about two years ago, and it came from of all places, an emergency room. Just a few years into his newjob at Southeastern Regional Vocational-Technical High School, in South Easton, Massachusetts, he took his mother to a local hospital and could not believe the attention she received. All the medical specialists seemed to swoop in and work flawlessly together. It was almost as if they were working as one person, anticipating each other's steps. "It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen, and it got me to thinking if I could get teachers to do that," he said.
An Idea Is Born
Though he quickly criticized his own reaction, fearing he was thinking too much like a technocrat, in the end he decided to follow his heart. He called together his faculty of 160 teachers and told them about his mother's experience at the hospital. He then challenged them to find a way to work together during the students' vocational hours - a period when students and teachers work in their separate shops.
What resulted was vastly different than what he had expected. Instead of attracting teachers from the same vocational cluster - such as construction, plumbing and electricity - he had teachers from across-the-board sectors volunteer. They proposed that they combine their shops into one program separate from the rest of the school to be called Innovation Academy or LE3AD - a combination of five majors, which would include legal and protective services, computer technology, environmental engineering, electronics and architectural drafting.
The program started in the spring of 2011, and it is innovative in many ways. The students' main project was to build a town from scratch by forming a town government, designing roads and infrastructure, providing the necessary services, adopting laws, and attracting and approving businesses. The students also participated in town meetings that are modeled after the traditional version still practiced in most New England towns.
One dilemma they faced was how to make all the components of the program work and still teach the specific vocational skills necessary to graduate from a technical high school. Wheeler realized it was possible due to new technology and integrated learning. Students can learn faster using the Internet, videos and online learning. Vocational high schools have also lessened the number of hours needed for vocational time in a program from 2,000 to 1,500 before graduation. Extra time not spent learning the rote skills of a vocational major are then put toward problem solving.
The LE^sup 3^AD model encourages students to tackle problems in teams with guidance from teachers. "The academy builds professionalism," said Pam Foster, a LE^sup 3^AD teacher who specializes in legal and protective services. "The goal is to get them ready to go out in the workforce or to go on to college and be successful in whatever skills they're learning," she said.
The curriculum of the Academy has changed since its inception, and will continue to change, according to Foster. But the model has consistently called for students to work on group projects in the morning, then focus on their shops in the afternoon. The students will also work on different aspects of the town's development throughout their four -year curriculum.
Students began the program with science experiments in spring 2011, then they gradually started tackling the challenges of creating a town. The science projects were aimed at encouraging students to think creatively and work together as a team. The students developed these skills early, so they could then work more efficiently on their main project - creating the town. The experiments also taught the students to work with trial and error, which prepared them to deal with real-life issues.
The freshmen's first project was to build containers for an egg drop using 30 straws and three feet of masking tape. …