In a distant room the “controlled chaos” ensues. Two chairs behind the anchor desk are taken as the lights cast a glare off perspiring foreheads. Meanwhile, a set of large headphones cover the ears of an engineer peering occasionally down to her fingers to get the opening credits rolling.
A collective deep breath consumes the room... “Good afternoon Cougars!”
In an instant, the closing slideshow and musical accompaniment fade as the news-producing students begin to exit the production room and head to their next class. A few stragglers stay behind, critiquing minute details that need adjustment, reflecting on the day’s performance before flashing a smile to their instructor and exiting.
“I overheard one of my students say I had no idea high school could be this much fun,” video production teacher Mike Bowers said. “This definitely offers students the non-traditional class setting and is far from lecture.”
Bowers is one of several teachers inside the C3 Media Academy at Spanish Springs, an elite course study for students seeking professional development in the fields of web design, video production, journalism and photography. The academy is in its first year at the school, hosting mostly freshmen and sophomores in its classes, and has undergone major development since opening in the general schedule.
“We have been working like crazy for the last year just to get it open and now we are starting to see results,” media teacher Brett Weible said. “The kids are buying in and are excited about it and really asking questions about graduation and asking what to expect in their senior year (of high school) and they are only freshmen.”
Spanish Springs High School is one of many Washoe County School District schools containing a Signature Academy, an initiative of the school district to prepare students for college and careers through narrowly focused programs. Bowers said his students, many of whom help produce the Cougar News Network, are able to apply skills they learn in the classroom to real-life situations.
“There is sort of an impasse in education right now where kids are learning theoretical things and they are not really applying the knowledge that they are gaining,” Bowers said. “I see the academy as an application to their learning. What they do is very project-based and putting the tasks they learn on the computer into action immediately.”
Nita Losoponkul, director of the Signature Academies for WCSD, said the district works directly with employers in the fields being targeted within the academies, ensuring students are learning job-qualifying material. She said of the nine Signature Academies currently open in the district, seven of them are in their first year and have great opportunities for expansion.
“The business leaders and partners give us guidance and tell students and teachers what new hires lack and a teacher can look to incorporating that into their curriculum,” she said. “Students can make themselves more marketable to potential businesses and employers, we have guests speakers to offer more perspective and they also mentor students to see if it is the right career for them.”
Losoponkul said a unique feature of the Signature Academies is allowing students the option to attend a non-designated school if an academy offers them a subject of interest. She said any high school student in Washoe County, including home schooling, has the opportunity to apply for and attend a Signature Academy.
“A lot of students have the perception that these programs are only for the best and brightest, but we want to serve as many Washoe County students as we can. If they’re not a great student but they’re interested, we encourage them to apply,” Losoponkul said. “What we are looking at most is a student’s interest and it’s demonstrated in the paragraph for the applications and recommendations they receive from their teachers. If they are working hard and on time in their requirements for graduation, they will have good recommendations.”
Currently Reed High School hosts two Signature Academies, including the Health Occupation Preparatory Education (H.O.P.E.) and the Success Through Applied Relevant Studies (S.T.A.R.S) career academies. Sparks High School is home to the Microsoft IT Academy.
In a presentation delivered to the Sparks City Council in December, WCSD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the Signature Academies will be making major strides in curriculum.
“Starting next fall, every single one of our high schools will have a Signature Academy and at the end of this year, every one of our high schools will have an agreement with UNR and TMCC to have the curriculum mapped out,” he said, “And they will know what their classes are from 9th grade through 12th grade. In 12th grade they will be taking classes on campus at UNR or TMCC.”
The accomplishment of putting a Signature Academy in every high school comes as Galena and North Valleys high schools open the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) academy and the Research Academy, respectively. Ron Geyer, chair of the Science Department at North Valleys, said getting students in the Research Academy will be receiving a far different education from a traditional classroom.
“I think what we want is to give those students the ability to be independent learners at some level. We are going to be supporting them in every way we can and they are going to have to be goal-oriented students. The potential is remarkable,” Geyer said.
North Valleys tested the Research Academy program this year in order to prepare for its opening in 2013. The program used small class sizes of motivated students who were able to research any topic of their choosing. Geyer said the topics ranged from history to art to English and there was no limit to what students could do.
“It is nice to have time out of my day to use for my own purposes and research something that really interests me,” said Baleigh McCuskey, a sophomore in the Research Academy. “I think there is a lot of students who would like to research something they are interested in and it makes the classes that much more enjoyable.”
McCuskey, an avid softball player, said her final project will be comprised of a bionic knee used to demonstrate the strain put on a catcher’s knee while playing.
Information about the Signature Academies can be found at the WCSD website or individual school websites. Martinez said the district is pushing to spread the word about the numerous options offered around the district and the value of attending any one of the academies.
“I am a big believer that today’s children are learning very differently than they have in the past. Children will be able to apply to these academies from wherever they live and so for me, in order to keep costs low, we have to have them everywhere,” Martinez said. “We want the parents of these children to know that when they enter some of these programs, they have a ticket into the higher education program they choose.”