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THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2014   
Vol 7.44   

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Time For Smaller Learning Communities?
Pine Bush's Academies Experiment Bears Fruit

PINE BUSH – Pine Bush High School's principal, Aaron Hopmayer, is a man on a mission. And considering the energy and enthusiasm he brings to everything the combination can be mildly alarming.

Backed up by assistant principal Brian Lynn and the dean of the STARS Academy, Andre Spinelli, Hopmayer provided a fascinating overview of the district's decade long experiment with enrichment academies, turning the high school, and latterly the STARS Academy into something just a bit more like a college than a school.

As Lynn explained, it began humbly enough with seventeen students recruited for a summer course in Leadership and Law back in July 2003. But then it grew quickly by word of mouth... This was a fun way to learn, everyone was saying, and the program was able to expand students' horizons, bringing them into contact with police, with the military, with judges and lawyers.

This past summer, the Leadership & Law Academy graduated 165 students, who along with all that learning, showed up early in the morning to do pushups and practice army drill.

Hopmayer ran through the other academies that the district has created with the help of outside partners, including Science, Aviation, Literacy and Education, Performing Arts, and Medical. There are several key aspects to this style of learning, he pointed out. One, a lot of it is outside the classroom, on field trips which may be to a lake in the Adirondacks to study environmental biology or to a big hospital in New York City to watch, up close, as surgeons operate on patients. Students may learn to fly a glider, and earn a math credit, or put on a summer stock theatrical production for the Performing Arts Academy. That latter one meant studying every angle by doing it, from casting to acting and singing down to designing and printing the tickets; and that academy, run by the PBSD music department's Brian Flynn, also offers students an opportunity to earn college credit for Voice in Theatre.

As an example of how Hopmayer and his colleagues are running this, Flynn pointed out how next year, the music department will offer Voice in Theatre as a full year elective to all students in the high school.

The migration of these programs from summertime specialties into the full academic year as electives really brought out both Hopmayer's enthusiasm and the genius of the concept.

But, wait... there's more. Some years back, the district began another kind of academy, an "alternative" high school project for that group of students who just don't seem to prosper in the normal school environment. Rather than see them drop out or fail to graduate, thus affecting graduation rates, the district set up the STARS Academy for them, to offer alternative ways to reach these young people and open their minds to learning.

STARS was redesigned three years ago to include academies and project based learning. To that end a Leadership & Law Academy was started, and guest speakers from the local police to the DEA and entrepreneurs from surrounding communities have come in to engage the students in real world conversations. STARS English Academies offer a half credit of English in hands-on teaching with the Common Core standards in mind. Projects include the creation of a newsletter, and things like organizing a middle school dance in the spring. And then there's the Horsepower Academy, working in conjunction with Lloydz Motorworks, in which students are engaged in hands-on engineering, putting together a machine designed to test for land speed records at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. The big goal? To make the first Victory motorcycle to break the 200 m.p.h. mark.

Last year, Hopmayer and Lynn began to complete their long term mission. The district set up the Excelsior Academies, which effectively bring the summer academy experience into the school year and allows high school seniors to experience fieldwork in education, law, government, medical and engineering. This effort even completes a virtuous circle by having Excelsior students in education teach classes at the STARS Academy, learning how to work with an "at risk" population of their peers.

Coming up... a new tenth grade exploratory set of classes, beginning with STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but also including visual arts, environmental awareness and modern issues, where courses are being developed to align to the Common Core standards in literacy, history, science and technical subjects, while providing a bridge to the required and elective courses in the final two years of high school. Hopmayer repeatedly noted that this effort was coming from the department chairs in the school, and from many individual teachers who were putting in extra time to bring this to fruition.

The visual arts course, for example, will be a half year course introducing students to the spectrum of modern arts including digital photography, computer graphics, sculptural work with metal, and the understanding that today, many artists make a good living while pursuing creative, interesting avenues of artistic expression.

The overall goal is to use the "Smaller Learning Communities" to ignite students' interest in learning, and then to guide them to the pathways to graduation, combining four Regents' exams with a fifth assessment which can derive from this extra learning experience. In the end, the idea is to better prepare entrance into the hyper-competitive world our young people will face by showing them a wide variety of interesting ways to learn.

"Aaron, you wear me out, just watching you," remarked board president Lloyd Greer when the presentation was over. "Congratulations!"



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