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First set of Leading EDGE diplomas to be awarded Sunday

On Sunday afternoon at Lakeland High School, the district will hand out its first set of Leading EDGE diplomas, being awarded to students who are the first to complete four years of the school’s New Tech curriculum.

Like everything new, there have been rough spots along the road to graduation. The Class of 2013 views themselves as the “guinea pigs,” as they were the first ones to tackle the new classes, group projects, and more as they wound their way through high school.

The consensus at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year was “Everyone hates it.” “It was rough at the start,” recalled senior Bret Balka.

“We didn’t know what we were walking into,” Hope Case added.

The first introduction came in the form of a required course – media communications. In it, groups produced various finished projects, ranging from print to audio and video.

 “They didn’t know how to get everyone involved,” added Abbi Arseneau about the first series of group projects. Students would be put into groups of three or four to work jointly on assignments based on that class’ curriculum. Students would write up “contracts” among the group, denoting which student would take care of which part of the project. A student could just as easily find himself or herself working with another partner who just didn’t do the work required.

Project Based Learning (PBL) was one of the pillars of the New Tech system, where students work in groups or individually on projects that tie into the curriculum. It was the group projects that were the first hurdle to clear as freshmen. Depending on classmates in getting work done was a challenge and, if a project partner wasn’t doing what he or she should, they could find themselves getting “fired.” “Firing someone was different,” Balka said. Firing involved “multiple repeat offenses to the contract,” he added, and included a process set by the teacher. It could also bring out some serious emotions, he said.

Some projects worked. Some didn’t. “It depended on the group you had,” Arseneau said. “But there was more freedom. More creative things to learn. You used more of your own ideas.”

It also mattered which trimester you took it. “In trimester one, they could see all of the problems. So in two and three, it got better,” senior Hope Case said. “They (teachers) might change things on the fly.”

Some classes worked better than others with PBL, the seniors agreed. “It didn’t work as well when other courses that weren’t in New Tech tried to do it,” senior Monica Stidham said.

Teachers also made a big difference. “Some teachers were more into it (PBL) than others,” Jana Plyley commented. “But the teachers here are serious about it. They’re more dedicated.”

But the seniors agree, it made the classes more fun.

By their sophomore year, some of the rough spots were smoothed over. But for Nancy Ramirez, who transferred in her sophomore year, it was still a big change. “It was difficult to adjust to,” she said of transferring from Angola into the New Tech program at Lakeland.

 The freshmen and sophomore years were, the seniors agreed, the hardest years, as so many classes were using the PBL method. By their junior year, the Leading EDGE had fewer classes overall that used PBL and allowed them to begin looking at their post-high school plans through community service, internships and senior projects.

The senior projects ranged from individual efforts to those that were big enough to require partners.

For Case, the internship helped her better define her long-term plans. She had been interested in nursing, but after an internship in the administration office at the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department, she is now looking to work in that field. “It opened doors. It (internship) had a huge influence on me,” Case stated. Case is also set to graduate with college credits, one of the main goals of Leading EDGE when it was introduced.

“It’s given me so many skills,” added Stidham. “In the classes I’m taking at Ivy Tech, I see I have skills that some of the adults don’t have.” She noted how easily she can now speak in front of a group, whereas some of the adults she’s seen at Ivy Tech have difficulty doing the same thing. “At the start of school, I couldn’t have done that.”

Has being the “guinea pigs” been worth it? This group of seniors thought so. They seemed confident in what they can do. They know that the hands-on work will serve them well as they move ahead. “I’m more prepared than students from traditional high schools,” noted Arseneau.

Advice for next year’s freshmen? Do the work. Especially in the group projects. Arseneau noted that the students complaining the most about the projects and New Tech “aren’t doing the work.”

“I know some parents are iffy about New Tech,” Plyley said. “Don’t judge it. Give it a chance. Lakeland is a really good school.”

“Try it out,” added Case. “Come into the building and look at it.”