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Natrona County schools move forward with integrated learning approach

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Natrona County School District (NCSD) in Casper launched an effort to employ project-based learning in high school education to more actively engage students and improve graduation rates. While also constructing a new building – called the Pathways Innovation Center (PIC), NCSD created four academies to facilitate the new programs.

“The hardest part of learning is unlearning,” said Karen Colling, Natrona County High School science teacher, during a presentation with stakeholders at the beginning of February. “We are learning a whole new system.”

The academies system strives to provide education to students using project-based learning while also capturing their interests. As a result, students have the opportunity to choose an academy to pursue their education within.

The four academies within PIC are Business Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR), Architecture, Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering (ACME), Health Science and Human Services (HSHS) and Creative Arts, Communication and Design (CACD).

Each academy covers the same standards and achieves the same goals, but does so in a way that educators and community members alike hope will be more engaging.

Inside BANR

For ag students, the Business, Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR) academy will be home. Teachers within the academy have worked together to create a curriculum that will provide ag students the opportunity to explore their field within the context of a greater world view.

“In BANR, we will be focusing on farm-to-table production,” said Wendy Pollock, agriculture education instructor at CY Middle School. “We can look at a number of different things under that umbrella.”

Colling and Pollock worked with Josh Thompson, a history educator, Calvin Colling, a culinary arts educator, Debra Park, English Language Arts teacher, and Jessie Schell, agriculture education instructor, to develop the curriculum under the BANR academy umbrella.

Focusing on farm-to-table production, three paths will be offered for students to follow – culinary arts, horticulture and vet science. Students will choose one of the three paths to focus on that best fits their interests and work through a series of common, focal and foundations projects.

“The common projects are the ones that all studies in the BANR academy will participate in,” Pollock explains. “They will require larger group collaboration.”

For 2016, students in BANR academy will be pursuing a farm-to-table project, global sustainability project, business plan and service learning and social issues projects, as well as an individual student project.

Focal projects break students down into smaller groups and allow student-interest-driven exploration of topics.

Finally, foundations projects delve into the academic core subject areas and provide the opportunity for students to learn English Language Arts, Social Studies and Science skills.

“These projects will help students develop the foundational skills needed in all paths,” she adds.

Value of academies

“Academies are valuable because students no longer ask, ‘Why do I need to know this?  How will I ever use it?’ and instead inherently understand how the content we teach is applicable to their specific career paths,” Thompson comments.  “Also, students will begin to see how history informs literature, how literature informs history, how science informs both and how English-language arts and communication skills are relevant to any career.  Further, they see how each of these content areas are important to their specific careers.  The biggest and best benefit is that students struggle less with motivation.”

Thompson adds that the system also provides the opportunity to explore potential future careers at a time in their lives that is less costly and safer to do so.

“Perhaps most importantly, there is no reason students cannot be prepared to do the work that industry and business needs them to do in high school without the need for further technical or vocational education,” he says. “Why shouldn’t a student graduate with their certifications to go right to work after high school?  Our economy has changed, and our schools ought to change in response.”

Folding in core subjects

Academies strive to engage students by connecting topics they are interested in with core subjects.

Thompson explains that, on the BANR curriculum team, they began by looking at the available staff and then looking at which core credits could be integrated.

“We needed to be mindful about students who may change academies after a semester, yet being confident that most would love what we’re doing so much they would not, or yet decide the academy/project-based learning style was not for them,” he says.  “We kept this in mind as we began to develop projects and driving questions for projects so that students could change academies at semesters or return to home schools without returning credit-deficient.”

Early in the semester, students within BANR academy will be responsible for setting up the greenhouse and a student-run coffee and snack shop at the school. They will explore global sustainability issues that allow students in all three paths to engage.

Students will also work on problems related to food production, ranging from controversial issues like genetically modified foods to production issues like labor and farm subsidies.

A wide range of projects leave students with a few loose ends educationally to tie up.

“We were left with all that pesky Shakespeare in the English-Language Arts standards, and right now, we envision capturing those components through a Shakespearean dinner theater where students will write a business plan, handle the marketing and prepare dinner based on the crops and animals they’d spent the entire fall growing,” he says. “And, yes, that does mean butchering the animals, as well as preparing them.”  

Looking forward

Thompson says he is both excited and optimistic about the future of education at the high school level in Casper, though the transition won’t be easy.

“Change is difficult and so requires slow, gradual and incremental change because as risk decreases, participation increases,” he says.  “Unfortunately, sometimes passionate leaders of change can be zealous and unwittingly or inadvertently alienate others whose work is vital, valuable and important. We need to take baby steps in this transformation for it to be successful and let everyone know we’re all on the same team working towards the same ends:  improving education for all of our students and doing what’s best for them.”

Thompson comments, “I’m really looking forward  to the opportunity to help students understand the intersection of economics with politics and culture and to see the power we all have as citizens in a democracy to shape our common future.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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