Students here never ask ‘Why am I learning this?’
SIOUX CITY – Sioux City Community Schools is taking the conventional classroom model and turning it on its head.
Yes, students receive math, history, English and other classes. But unlike traditional classrooms, this Sioux City Career Academy program puts all academic disciplines under a health-care lens.
Successful? You be the judge. The academy’s graduation rate is 100 percent, as compared to the district’s rate which is just shy of 90 percent. About 80 percent of academy students continue into postsecondary education after graduation. Disciplinary or attendance problems? Forget about it.
“In this interdisciplinary approach, the same standards are taught in the same sequence as in a traditional class, but they are delivered differently,” said Jim Vanderloo, director of secondary education for the district. “Iowa Core standards are infused through a health-care lens.”
What sets the wall-to-wall pathway apart is the collaboration between teachers who work together to determine how to incorporate standards across different curricular disciplines. Based on the Project-Based Learning model, the team meets daily, before and after the school day, to plan, design and incorporate stakeholders from the community into the curriculum.
Take, for example, the students’ current project – developing a documentary on war and medicine. Students are challenged to use their knowledge to create an organized, research-based documentary promoting community awareness of war-related medical advancements and how they impact health and society. Students demonstrate mastery of core academic content in English, history, and health science as well as 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and self-management.
“Our health science program incorporates core academics in ways that make the subject matter relevant to students’ interests,” said Mary Dermit, health sciences teacher at the academy. “I taught for several years in a traditional classroom, but when subject matter is focused around the students’ interests, they are much more engaged.”
Students often work in teams where the teachers release ownership and put students in charge of their own learning.
“It’s really challenging; you can’t coast,” said Zoie Ohrtman, a junior from East High School who aspires to be an optometrist. “We work in teams and you can’t let your teammates down. I am learning so much more than if I was just writing a report.”
One look around the classroom of students huddled around tables, debating key topics and editing techniques, it is clear that they are invested in what they are being taught and take ownership in their learning of it.
“Our learning doesn’t take place in rows,” Vanderloo said. “Students are up moving around doing their thing all the time. They are collaborating, it is so far beyond a traditional classroom.”
Sioux City Schools Superintendent Paul Gausman says it is all about promoting deeper-level learning that allows students to really dig into a subject and understand it in a way that relates to the career fields they are interested in.
“We start exposing students early to different opportunities,” Gausman said. “It is just as valuable for students to find out that they don’t want to do something as it is to find their passion.”
Starting in the sixth grade, all students are introduced to exploratory career and technical education (CTE) offerings in business marketing, art, family and consumer sciences, computer technology, digital music production, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Each of these CTE exploratories aligns with the 30 different pathways within the academy. They are exposed to pathways at a deeper level in ninth grade which prepares them for the opportunity to take pathway courses at the academy in grades 10-12 and earn dual credit through Western Iowa Tech (WIT) Community College.
“All Sioux City students are engaged in a pathway at some point in their education career,” Vanderloo said. “By the time they get to the academy, between 90 to 100 percent of the juniors and seniors stay the course.”
The health-care pathway students select a capstone, either advanced Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), pharmacy technology, or surgical technology, during their senior year. Upon completion, they earn a nationally recognized certification which many students use to secure an entry-level job in the field while they continue to further their education.
Marshall Maeng, a junior from East High School, plans to earn his advanced CNA certificate before graduating from high school so that he can work in the field while he works toward a nursing degree. His teammate, Allison Niz-Lopez from West High School, plans to study veterinary medicine at Iowa State University after she graduates.
“It’s both fun and stressful,” Allison said. “It really helps us to see how this is all connecting.”
Students spend half of their time at the academy and half of their time at their home high school where they take electives such as foreign languages, physical education, music and band. The end goal is for students to leave with a diploma and a plan in a profession that is of interest to them.
On any given day, between 1,100 and 1,300 students go through the academy’s doors, making it larger than any of Sioux City’s three public high schools (East, West and North). This growth, as well as a need to more actively engage community stakeholders, has led to the hiring of Katie Towler, currently the principal at West Middle School, as the academy’s first on-site administrator. She will take the helm this fall.
“As a former high school counselor, the college and career component is near and dear to my heart,” Towler said. “I look forward to building strong relationships with our community partners. It is important that our pathways align with student interests and industry demands.”
Currently, the concept is available in two pathways: health care and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Some additional programs are being considered, but because the wall-to-wall concept requires a team of four teachers, there needs to be a lot of student interest to make it sustainable. Education, automotive technology, and welding are three growing programs that could expand in the future as demand dictates.
There are other benefits to a more engaged student body. The academy hasn’t had any discipline or tardiness issues since it opened in its downtown location four years ago. The collaborative approach to learning has also helped students become more assertive and forced them to work through differences as a team.
“Students want to be here because it is relevant to what they want to do,” Vanderloo said. “They see the purpose of their education.”
Riley Foster, a junior from West High School, hopes to someday be a teacher herself.
“It is a college environment down here,” Riley said. “You get a great experience and a lot of responsibility. As a future teacher, this experience will help me to create hands-on experiences for my own students.”
For Cassidy Olson, a junior from East High School, being part of the academy helped her with her social skills.
“I was very shy when I first started at the academy,” Cassidy said. “This program helped me break out of my shell, which will help me as I go into nursing.”
Working so closely in teams is something that students say takes some getting used to, but the experience will help them in any future work environment. Brandon Mojica, a junior from North High School, says his team has had its ups and downs.
“This is more hands on than a regular class,” Brandon said. “We had some communications problems, and didn’t always understand each other’s point of view. But we are taught 21st century skills, so we came together and worked it out.”
Through it all, the district has not received a single negative communication from parents or students.
“Parents say ‘this is not the schooling I remember,’” Gausman said. “And I have never had a single students ask ‘why am I learning this?’”
The success of the program is ultimately in the hands of the students, and they are voting with their registration sheets. Enrollment has grown each year, with over 1,700 students taking part in academy programming this school year.
Even with these successes, Gausman is quick to point out their work isn’t complete.
“To those who ask how we got here, my answer is we haven’t arrived,” Gausman said. “It’s a journey.”
Going forward, the administration plans to follow the students after they leave the academy to see what field they ultimately go to into after graduation and postsecondary education. But one thing is for certain: Students in the program are better prepared for college and careers.
“When academy students leave our doors, they aren’t trying to find themselves,” Vanderloo said. “They already know."