It started as a way to inform the community about the successes and challenges of a school — but it has ended up doing even more: engaging students in their education.
Two years ago, Principal Jackie Schleicher of Oshkosh North High School saw the need to help the community understand what life was like inside school walls. The idea of bringing the community in soon evolved to creating a "community school" program within the walls of the school.
Today, more than a hundred students spend half of their school days in the Communities Program at Oshkosh North. This interdisciplinary program identifies community needs, then sets students the task of addressing them while simultaneously gaining required knowledge and skills in English, Science, and Social Studies. Over the past two years, the learning projects have involved:
- - running a campaign to grow a fund that covers activity fees for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds,
- - interviewing local veterans and providing the videos to their families,
- - launching a project to build a hoop style greenhouse after studying urban agriculture,
- - and many other projects.
The approach follows national models, including philosophy from the Coalition for Community Schools.
"What if we could limit the time spent in classrooms, being bored by lectures, and take the learning environment out into the community?" asks a student-produced video explaining the Communities Program. The video is featured on the program's website, which is built by students.
Having real-world goals is incredibly powerful for many students, says one of the program's founders, English Teacher Brad Weber. "If you walk into our classroom, there is a constant buzz, there is an energy level, a focus that our students have of engaging with the content because they know there's a purpose."
"Everything we do has an authentic audience," explains Director of Instruction Julie Dumke, another founder. "When it becomes authentic we find the kids try and sharpen their skills because it's going to be a real person giving them feedback, so they want to do their best."
"It's a game-changer, really, when you start truly involving the community with the curriculum and the whole learning experience. It's been exciting to see it happen," Principal Schleicher adds.
Dumke says 37 of the 38 freshman in the program this year have decided to come back.
"These kids are with us in the beginning of the day, and in the afternoon they go about and they have their math and they have their band and their language classes," notes Social Studies Teacher Rick Leib, another founder. "They get project-based but also traditional learning — we offer the best of both worlds."
Schleicher and Leib also praise the benefits of introducing students to community partners — over 100 partners in this year alone. Learning soft skills of community interaction is valuable, and, Leib says, "we have exposed kids to careers that they never even thought of." Meanwhile, the list of potential partners gets longer and longer (So far, curricular needs have made it "logical and easy" to decide which projects to pursue, Weber says.).
Students applying to enter the Communities Program are selected by lottery; every year some have had to be turned away.
Schleicher says the staff are open to sharing any insights they can; she encourages other schools to reach out to learn more.