Friday, September 19, 2014

Project-based learning benefits students By Jessie Wagoner

“We had developed a pretty comfortable expectation that was going to be something that happened,” Kirk said. “To be perfectly honest, the district is committed to us for the educational piece, not for the financial piece. There is no argument; we are more expensive than a traditional school setting. So there has to be a conscious decision that the benefit outweighs the cost.”
The legislative post-audit looks solely at the financial matters of the district. The audit identifies ways to reduce expenditures. 
However, the district maintains it is important to look at the whole picture when making decisions related to education. The quality of learning and the different style of learning offered at Turning Point Academy is valuable to the students, parents and the district. The district is engaged in efforts to raise awareness about the services offered at Turning Point in an effort to increase enrollment.
“There will be a conscious effort to help parents be more aware of exactly what services their children can receive there,” Davidson said. “We want kids to know what their options are so they can make the right choice for them. Our district is committed to doing everything we can to continue having an option for those students because we think it is important for there to be a whole continuum of services for kids.”
Project-based learning is a staple at Turning Point. For students, project-based learning provides the opportunity to collaborate with others, research, be active learners and hone their public speaking skills. 
“Education is probably going more toward how we teach students here than how a traditional system does,” Kirk said. “The most significant difference is we are able to do it easier here because we don’t have such large numbers.”
In a project-based learning environment, the teacher will give a big picture or umbrella of what the class will be talking about, then give a target and timeline for where the class will be going. The teacher then asks the children an overarching question.
Teachers won’t tell the students how to answer the question, but will instead give them a rubric explaining how the students should demonstrate their knowledge. Most frequently this requires working in groups of two to three students and making a presentation to the class. There is collaboration, participation and research while the teacher takes on a role of facilitator.
The learning is hands-on. One group may design an invention, while another group may develop a computer program to demonstrate their learning. The rubric is the same for every student, but the student takes ownership of the learning.
“Our focus at Turning Point is creating learners that are capable of learning themselves,” Kirk said. “We don’t want to just give the kids knowledge — we want the kids to chase the knowledge and find it. We want to create thirsty learners.”
One feature at Turning Point is the way classes are combined. Kindergarten through fourth grade students are in a group, fifth through eighth are another group and high school students are placed together.
Shalla and Robert Bennett’s daughters have been attending Turning Point for several years. This year, Emeil is in third grade and Elleana is in fifth grade. The family said they have enjoyed the learning experiences offered at Turning Point. Small class sizes, project-based learning and the combined class grades are highlights for them.
“I like Turning Point because it is more individual,” Elleana Bennett said. “Last year I was in ninth grade math and seventh grade reading, so I didn’t have to just stay on fourth grade things.”
One benefit of the class setup Shalla Bennett has noticed is that it allows for consistency. Instead of changing teachers each year, her daughters have been able to have the same teacher for multiple years.
“I’m not very good with change,” said Emeil Bennett. “So I like having the same class and the same teacher each year.”
Having the same teacher has helped increase learning for Emeil Bennett by providing her with the stability that meets her needs.
“That stability allows her to immediately start learning,” Shalla Bennett said. “Otherwise it takes her a good couple months just to get settled into the environment.”
Learning at their own pace and working with other students is another plus for the family. Older students serve as mentors for younger students.
“There is an expectation that if you are a student that has mastered this skill, then you should help your peers,” said Shalla Bennett. “Sometimes kids learn better from other kids. So they can help one another.”
Students at Turning Point are eligible to participate in athletic activities offered through Emporia Middle School and Emporia High School. As the Bennett girls get older, they are looking forward to taking part in several different sports.
In light of the audit findings, Davidson and the USD 253 board will continue studying and evaluating recommendations of the audit. The district is committed to meeting student needs while also being fiscally responsible.
“We have already begun a study,” Davidson said. “And I think we will continue to look at it to make sure that we are doing the best that we can, being as effective as we possible can for those student services.”
For more information about Turning Point Academy or enrollment questions, call at 341-2455.