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Special Report: The education evolution

El Paso, Ysleta school districts turn to new teaching and learning to renovate the classroom environment

SPECIAL REPORT: Education evolution

EL PASO, Texas - The freshmen in Jennifer Simmons' biology class at Irvin High School are conducting an experiment involving celery and food coloring.

At the same time, they're part of an experiment in learning and teaching. Simmons is using a method called "flipping the classroom."

"It is a lot different," Simmons told ABC-7. "I don't think it was quite as hands-on when I was in the science room."

In a flipped classroom, the teacher's lecture is made available digitally. Students listen to it at home and learn to apply the lesson as a group in the classroom the following day.

"It gives you more one-on-one interaction with the students, and I can see if they're understanding the material, assess them better than just lecturing," she explained to ABC-7 during a recent visit to Irvin High School.

It also means that Simmons spends less time at her desk and at the chalkboard.

When asked how often she uses the chalkboard, Simmons smiled. "Just to write my email," she said. "I don't really use it at all!"

Simmons will likely not use her chalkboard very much in the fall semester, either. The science teacher is one of several teachers that will be participating in the New Tech program at Irvin.

"I'm very excited," said Simmons.

The El Paso Independent School District board of managers recently approved incorporating the "school within a school" concept at the Irvin and Franklin High School campuses.

New Tech is labeled as 21st century-style, project-based learning.

"Folks are going to have to realize that in this 21st century learning, kids aren't going to be sitting in rows all day," EPISD superintendent Juan Cabrera told ABC-7 when asked about why he pushed for the district to adopt the method at some of its campuses.

To learn more about New Tech, ABC-7 reached out to Lydia Dobyns, the CEO of the New Tech Network, which is based out of California.

"A lot of the New Tech design elements includes creating a culture among the faculty, administration and staff to really foster work around common outcomes," said Dobyns during a phone interview from her office in Napa, CA.

Dobyns said the New Tech layout teaches students and teachers how to work and learn as a team, which more closely models the workplace than the traditional classroom setting.

"It's taken a number of years for people to realize that how we're teaching is out of step with how employers expect to have their ideal employee arrive, ready to do work for jobs that are grounded in a global economy in 2015 and beyond," Dobyns said.

Students work in groups, and sign contracts and are assigned roles within the group.

Dobyns said they often encounter skepticism because of people's past experiences with group work in school.

"We tend to assign people to a team and expect that they know how to work together," said Dobyns. "When you incorporate collaboration into those group projects, as well as individual efforts into a school design, you're giving students a chance to learn ... how to make a highly functional group work."

Since it was created almost 20 years ago, the New Tech model has been adopted in more than a hundred schools in 25 states and the nation's capital.

Irvin and Franklin will be the first schools in El Paso to use the New Tech model.

Cabrera said adopting New Tech is one way the El Paso school district is combating shrinking populations, keeping up with the education evolution, and appealing to today's technologically advanced student.

"Our 9th and 10th graders today were born in 2000," Cabrera pointed out. "They've never lived without a device or email, or technology. We're trying to get kids ready for jobs that do not exist today and for a future that I will not be here to see."

Ysleta Independent School District is also looking to adopt New Tech methods in at least one school in the coming years. Superintendent Dr. Xavier de la Torre cites the New Tech model as a basis of his vision for the proposed, reconstructed Eastwood High School.

"They've grown up as digital natives in a world that's far different from the world we've experienced," De la Torre told ABC-7. "We have to think about educating students beyond the walls of the schools. (They) need to have access and opportunity to continue learning beyond operating hours of school."

The flipped classroom method is also in place in YISD, at Eastwood Middle School. Rubina Flores-Jurado, a 15-year teaching veteran, is in her second year conducting a "flipped" math class.

"It was very intimidating to do all the videos online," said Flores-Jurado. "It does take time to get everything prepared. But if it gets the kids engaged, and the kids embrace it, then we need to change our methods."

"If we continue to be shackled to our conventional wisdom, we run the risk of becoming obsolete," said de la Torre.

But obsolescence is a reality as both districts battle for survival and compete for students against other educational endeavors.

"No bones about it. I want all the Ysleta and Canutillo kids, and the Anthony kids," said Cabrera. "I want all the home-schooled kids, the private school kids, and the charter school kids. We believe our district and schools will offer tremendous opportunities."

"If you want to diffuse or neutralize the charter school movement, put together a better public school," said de la Torre. "Give parents a better option, and I think that's what we're on the verge of doing."

YISD taxpayers must decide whether to pass the $450 million bond issue, which includes $75 million to rebuild Eastwood High School.

Early voting is underway.

New Tech campuses will open with freshmen this coming school year at Irvin and Franklin high schools.

Cabrera says they plan to open ten New Tech campuses at five high schools and one of the middle schools in each feeder pattern over the next five years.


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