"The battle for education, as I saw today at Calumet High School, is being fought and won in America's classrooms," U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter told attendees at Thursday's Leadership Luncheon at the Radisson at Star Plaza.
Kanter was one of the guest speakers at the luncheon that was hosted by the One Region One Vision initiative and the Quality of Life Council.
"We have these islands of excellence," Kanter said after touring a revitalized Calumet High School with student guides and administrators.
The morning tour highlighted the New Tech curriculum the Lake Ridge system high school has implemented. Students work in small groups to complete projects that give them real-world problems to solve. Last year, one science class helped a local restaurant get rid of bacteria.
Block scheduling with 70-minute classes has changed the school day for students. Social studies and English classes meet together and combine curriculum.
"We work on collaborative projects with four to six people in a group. We may write an essay based on a social studies topic," said Jaylen Johnson, 16, a junior. "We have specific topics to address in each class, such as 'What do I need to know?'"
Computers have replaced standard textbooks, and teachers have become facilitators rather than lecturers.
"The rule is 'Ask three, then me,'" said Vaughn Lubarski, 17, a senior. "That means we ask three others students our question before we ask the teacher."
Guest speakers also bring different ideas into the classroom, he said.
Johnson said students are more invested in what they learn because they need to work to find the solutions to problems.
Practicing communication skills is another valuable lesson students learn, Lubarski said. "We work a lot with our peers, and we're graded on collaboration, citizenship and communication."
Those "3 C's" comprise 60 percent of a student's grade. Lubarksi said he especially likes the New Tech education model "because this is like a regular job. If you come to work and do a good job, you get paid. Grades are our payment."
As she walked with students and observed classrooms, Kanter said "there's exciting education taking place here. The kids are engaged. There such a high level of participation. I'm really impressed."
Calumet High School Principal Tim Pivarnik said the school has "come a long way in 2-1/2 years. We went from a school on probation for five years to a school that is off probation. We barely missed making AYP (adequate yearly progress) this last year."
The New Tech curriculum has helped, but Pivarnik said "the single biggest factor is that Calumet has a very dedicated, hardworking staff. They took to heart that change is here."