New project-based high school opens in the Park Hill district

Like most any teen, Angelo Peto, a student in the Park Hill district, is pretty excited about entering high school as classes start back this week.

The big difference is that the 14-year-old Angelo, along with 149 other Park Hill ninth graders, walked into a high school like no other in Kansas City.

In leased office space, Park Hill is opening the area’s first completely project-based learning high school, abandoning the traditional classroom setting where a teacher and a white board are in front of lecture-ready students seated in rows of desks.

A similar 21st Century open classroom and project-based education concept is being incorporated into the new Olathe West High School that opens Wednesday.

The LEAD Innovation Studio high school is temporarily located on the fifth and sixth floors of an office building in Tiffany Center in Kansas City.

At the school students will work most of their day in groups, collaborating on projects designed for them and by them to apply the core lessons, techniques and concepts they learn in math, language arts, history and science.

Students in an English class might take on writing and performing a play, from theme to production, using all the skills that go into such an endeavor. Projects may cross disciplines and require students to pull knowledge from more than one subject area.

Students could spend an hour or two working on projects in each subject every day.

The idea that students learn through creating a project has gained momentum across the country, with school administrators on the East and West coasts leading the way in flipping the switch on how 21st century high schools and middle schools might look in the future.

A report in U.S. News and World Report described the concept this way: “The project isn’t an afterthought at the end of a lesson, in other words, but rather the vehicle for learning.”

“LEAD Innovation Studio is just about offering our students a different option,” said Principal Ryan Stanley. “It is not about better or worse, but just about providing an option that fits some kids but may not fit others.”

Much of the work at the LEAD high school will require students to be self-motivated. In addition to group projects, they will have to work on their own taking core courses through an online platform.

Stanley said students would be assigned a block of time each day to work on subject content that’s aligned with the Missouri high school standards. While students will work at their own pace under the guidance of a teacher in the room, they would have to meet deadlines for completing online assignments.

Students would still be required to perform well on Missouri’s annual assessment tests.

“Students will take an active role in their learning, while teachers will provide the support and mentoring all students need,” Stanley said.

Another component is partnership with professionals, area businesses with authentic problems that need solving.

Consider students using math skills to develop a food budget for a district reception. Or chemistry and biology knowledge to help a local aquaponics operation.

Students identify the area of study they are most interested in and then get one-on-one guidance from teachers, mentors and school counselors to help them stay on task.

Angelo, who wants to be a U.S. Marine, is most interested in history. It’s his best subject. He’s pretty sure he will hit course work completion targets early in that subject. But may have to get a little extra help in other areas.

“I think this is going to be more like being in college,” said Angelo’s mother Kristy Peto, who added that when her son first heard about the project-driven high school, “he was so excited about it. I took my lead from him. I think it will be a good fit.”

Peto said she likes that the high school will allow students to move at their own pace and provide mentors and teacher guidance.

“The beauty of that is that if a child does fall behind they don’t just sit there feeling helpless with that feeling of I’m behind and I don’t know what to do.”

But what about Angelo’s music? He plays trombone and has been looking forward to playing with the Park Hill High School marching Trojans. Students attending the LEAD high school will be involved with music and sports at their home high school.

Angelo will leave LEAD every other afternoon to play at Park Hill.

“I will still be a Park Hill Trojan just in a different building,” Angelo said. “What I’m going to like is that there won’t be a lot of students in the halls and a lot of distractions. I can get to class and get my work.”

Every eighth-grade student was free to enroll for a full-day at the LEAD Innovation Studio. Students did not need to meet any particular criteria. Eleventh and 12th grade students were allowed to enroll in the LEAD program for a half day. They can also participate in internships to learn directly from professionals.

For now the new high school is operating in two studio classrooms, which will hold up to 60 students, and four standard size classrooms. Principal Stanley said there will be 11 teachers, four of them part time.

Over the next four years, the full-day program at LEAD will expand to include sophomores, then juniors and then seniors.

By then students may have a new high school to move into. The district recently purchased nearly 272 acres at 68th Street and Waukomis Drive, on the eastern edge of its boundaries, for $3 million.

The district intends to build a new LEAD high school there to open in 2020.

Stanley said talk about opening a project-based high school began when the district started discussing the need for another high school because of enrollment growth.

“We didn’t want to add on to what we have. We didn’t want our existing high schools to be too big,” he said. The LEAD studio was a a way to gain space and to take a step toward moving forward to how high school education is delivered.

The new high school building will come a year after the district’s new middle school goes up on 47.9 acres at 56th Street and Northwood Road — land purchased a year ago for $1.68 million.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc