Handy Middle School sixth graders are studying real-world issues to learn academic skills

Handy Middle School is changing the way students learn and teachers teach.

New Tech Network is a project-based learning system that gets kids involved in solving real world problems while they’re in middle school.

This school year, the district brought The New Tech Network to sixth graders at Handy, says Dr. Stephen Bigelow, Superintendent of Bay City Schools.

The learning model splits the sixth-grade students and teachers into cohort teams. Each cohort pairs about 100 students with four teachers. The goal is to teach the kids the skills they need to solve real world problems while building stronger relationships between students and teachers.

The cohorts are small enough to discuss issues such as water shortages, nutritional needs and what it takes to travel to a foreign country. The conversations about the issues and solutions cross every curriculum.

 “When you think about your traditional math class or an English class being separate entities – that’s not realistic in how we do our jobs, for example,” Bigelow says. “There’s a huge effort to take real world problems and teach students those academic areas by doing cross-curricular projects.”

For example, one cohort considered a proposal to solve a drought by channeling water from the Great Lakes to other states. They studied science as they figured out the permeability of different soil types and the logistics of building a pipeline across a mountain range. Along the way, they learned about math, social studies, geography, sociology, and government. They debated solutions, wrote reports, and prepared presentations about their ideas. Their project included the science of figuring out the permeability of different soil types and the logistics of building a pipeline across a mountain range.

“When students are graduating through the Handy/Central pipeline, they’re going to have skills that employers are looking for right now,” Bigelow says. These are students who can present, think critically, and also have the soft skills that employers need.

Patrick Malley, Chief Academic Officer for the district, says not only is it an exciting time for the students, but the teachers, too.

“We’ve turned HMS from a school where people have been concerned about in our community, to now a place where the exciting things are happening in education,” he says.

Malley, who was instrumental in bringing the New Tech Network to nearby Meridian School District, says he remembers his mother’s concern when he went to Handy back in the 1990s.

“It was just this massive beast, and the kids are going to get lost here. It’s really important for us to shrink the school as much as possible.”

Though they haven’t made it a smaller district, the team approach makes it feel more manageable for students, teachers, and parents. The teachers still push kids to meet benchmarks and have the knowledge to answer standardized test questions.

“We obviously hope to see it in our test scores, but that comes later,” Malley says.

Already, Malley says he sees improved interactions between students, teachers, and the wider community.

“Every time we host a tour where people come in – it’s been about once a month - we do a student panel, and there’s nothing better than seeing a group of sixth graders sitting on a panel in front of a group of professionals to answer questions for them and the language they’re using and the conversations they’re having and the stories they’re telling give me a lot of confidence that that what we’re doing is having impact.”

Malley says when the district was talking about bringing in New Tech Network he brought together a group of students, and “they were so timid. The culture of the school was so command and control and traditional.”

At the time, the atmosphere was textbook oriented.

“Now, sitting in a room full of strangers, students are willing and eager to tell you everything they love about school and everything that sucks about it as well. I think that speaks to the transparency of the teaching staff to be able to build a trust with kids; to make sure it’s a welcoming environment and all those things we know are present in high performing schools. We’re starting to see that in spades.”

New Tech Network has been around for several years, and was implemented in a handful of schools across Michigan. Handy Middle School is gaining statewide and national attention. Schools from across Michigan have asked questions about how to works at Handy, he says.

The district also is talking to teaching staff regularly, letting them know what’s coming. While this year, only sixth-grade teachers and students were affected, the goal is to add seventh graders this fall and eighth graders the next fall.

 “We are really intentional with this plan,” he says. “Our community really wants graduates that have a set of skills in addition to content knowledge and if we’re going to align ourselves better with what the community is asking for, we’re making sure students can communicate, collaborate with one another, and exercise some agency over their own learning.”

By the time this year’s sixth graders graduate from Central High School, they will be who business leaders want to hire, Malley says, “people that are self-starters who can solve problems, critically think, work well with other people in diverse settings, and so on.”

To follow the progress of the changes at Handy, follow the middle school’s Facebook page or Bay City Public Schools Facebook page.

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