(TB file photo)
(TB file photo)
VAN WERT - Van Wert City Schools Superintendent Ken Amstutz announced on Wednesday the district had been awarded $750,000 as a part of the Obama administration's Race to the Top education funding program. The three-year grant was administered as part of the Ohio Department of Education's Education Technology program which was designed to embrace new techniques and technology for professional development and student learning. Van Wert was one of only five districts from the entire state to receive this particular grant.

"We are very excited," said Superintendent Amstutz. "This will tie directly into what we are doing with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) over the past several years with Project Lead the Way. With the pre-engineering, we are starting the bio-medical part this year and then moving to a new tech high school - we believe that what the state and what the federal government is asking us to do with STEM is right what we want to do."

The funding breaks down to essentially $250,000 for each of three years with approximately half being spent on training and the other half on equipment and technology. 

But the new tech school will not just be about more computers for students. According to Amstutz, the project will essentially be a school-within-a-school. He said that students today are just different than they were in past decades - they live differently, they think differently and they learn differently. That has led many educators to believe they are missing opportunities with many students.

"I think every school district, including us, we miss a large segment of kids," said Amstutz. "That is who we want to begin to capture. I think we do a great job with special education with our programs here. I think we do a great job with the traditional learner. But there is a group of kids that I believe we miss and that is what we are going to try to do with this new tech grant."

Planning and training will begin during the 2011-2012 school year with implementation taking place next year. It will take that long to ramp up the program because the new tech school will be whole new way of teaching. It will utilize project-based systems which allow students to learn subjects and systems by completing projects instead of by sitting in rows of desks from books or by rote. It will also use team teaching techniques and all of the work will be done through technological means. 

Amstutz said that visiting another school that was already using the new tech school concept was unlike anything he had ever seen in a classroom before. He and six other representatives visited a school near Cleveland and were amazed by what they saw.

"The kids were very engaged," he said. "They weren't sitting in rows of chairs. As an example, one section was working on American History and they were all working off the computers. They were using web sites and then (compiling) the information."

VWCS teach Chuck Rollins, who will be taking part in the bio-medical STEM program that begins this fall, confessed that for the first part of the initial meeting when a new tech school was discussed, he did not believe it would work at VWCS. However, after listening to subsequent discussions about the program and going on the visit, he also became very enthused.

"I have not been this excited about something new in education in a while," Rollins said. "I have seen a lot of trends come through in education but this is more than a trend, this is a completely new way of looking at educating kids. And the cool thing about new tech and project-based learning is that it is based upon developing real world skills. It is not about how well you can answer multiple choice questions on a test. The biggest focus in project-based learning is that you have to do a project, working with other students - and those students probably change from project to project - so learning to work with people, learning how to meet deadlines and you are learning how to produce something that is real and viable. The school we visited is teaching all of the state standards but teaching them in a different way." 

Rollins gave the example of how one class he observed was being team taught by a biology teacher and a digital arts teacher - two subjects that would not at first glance appear to blend together easily. However, the students were so engaged with what they were doing, they never even looked up from the project when the VWCS group entered the room.

"Those are the skills that translate into the workforce," he said. "Working with people, communication skills, dividing up chores, working through problems, meeting those deadlines - which, of course, as adults we all know is a critical part of everyday life - so seeing this in action it was totally different."

Amstutz said many of the plans are just beginning and will not be worked out for quite some time but he believes there will be an application process for students to be a part of the new tech school because some students may prefer to learn under current techniques. He anticipates about 25 percent of the high school - and eventually the middle school as Project Lead the Way is implemented in lower grades - will be involved in the new tech school.