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By John Hakes, MinnCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow

At I.J. Holton Intermediate School in Austin, Minnesota, the future is “how.” Not only are its educators hard at work sparking imagination among students, they’re leveraging the school’s recent opening to plant skills in its fifth and sixth graders that will serve them long into their workforce years.

Through the adoption of a “look what we’re doing here” learning approach that encompasses everything from the inner workings of school elevators to ‘mainstreeting’ the location of the industrial arts lab, the team at ISD 492 is stretching traditional classroom boundaries to engage students in collaborative, technological-based instruction–come what may in their distant work careers.

Central to the school’s instructional philosophy: application of effort takes priority over finding one right answer. Achieving this new kind of proficiency will require nothing short of a culture shift on the part of students and teachers, believes I.J. Holton Principal Jean McDermott.

“Lots of things we currently do [in conventional school settings] fly in the face of the particular skills employers are asking for,” says McDermott.

Made possible by a perfect storm of district space limitations and lagging economic indicators, the school is named for past Hormel Foods Company President I.J. Holton. Holton, in 1957, wrote a letter to a young student about the importance of curiosity–the principal trait the school fosters in its learners.

It’s the school’s multi-faceted strategy for feeding kids’ appetites for knowledge that’s impressive: starting with the building’s physical characteristics and spatial arrangement, followed by its digital and collaborative curricular approach, and clinched by a team concept that pairs teachers and community for stronger student learning.

Building and space promote academic exercise
One really needs to see the facility to comprehend it, but not for its sheer size. Rather, I.J. Holton’s character lies with its being an “un-building,” when compared to traditional schools with isolated learning groups and hallways intended largely for foot traffic. Instead, I.J. Holton fulfills students’ quest quotients with ever-changing workspaces and Minnesota-based learning tools placed throughout the building.

The most counterintuitive of the school’s un-building qualities is its high quantity of glass, which fills some very functional purposes. According to John Alberts, ISD 492’s director of educational services, the transparency afforded by the glass panes serves two important needs. The first is to spur student curiosity: “We really want to expose learning for kids to see what’s happening inside the classrooms, so they might say, ‘Hey, I wonder how what they’re doing is connected with me.’” The second: clear walls support collaborative learning and flexible learning spaces. In one section of the building, several rooms flow into an electronic workstation, where up to six students can do enrichment or remedial activities with their classmates—while being monitored by their regular instructor.

Curriculum and technology
Of course, quality flexible learning requires much more than adaptable spaces to thrive in a school. Mindful of this, administration installed a multidisciplinary “Elementary Engineering” (EE) curriculum meant to bring out the problem-solving, inquiry-based and innovative skills of students.

Despite the name, EE is more about learning approaches than simply science, although science is certainly a vital component. 

“The curriculum is actually introduced to the kids through a multicultural story, and in the story there is a problem,” explains McDermott. “The fish in the Ganges River are dying, and a gal in the story wants to know what to do about them. We learn a little about engineering in the process, but the curriculum helps us integrate math, social studies, science and language arts.”

“It’s not taught in isolation, but all together,” adds Alberts. “Students can look at different aspects of the problem [e.g., river clean up, fish health, religious beliefs, etc.] and are allowed to go off on different tangents.”

Add in the tubs of unit books, digital information access points, and collaboration with peers and teachers, and you have a perfect recipe for learning (and one the Minnesota Department of Education likely appreciates since Holton planners took care to select program units that align with state standards).

STEAM and the one-to-one computing initiative
Besides EE, two additional courses—Design & Modeling and Automation & Robotics–combine with other offerings to qualify I.J. Holton as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) school.

Also foundational to student development, Austin’s fifth and sixth graders are the new beneficiaries of a one-to-one computing initiative, which assigns each student a laptop as a tool for student planning, information and data analysis, and presentational purposes.

According to Alberts and McDermott, instructors have applied a master teacher/tutorial approach to helping large groups of students increase their electronic note taking proficiency at once, and plans include embedding other software applications in subject areas as they’re taught. I.J. Holton also employs a technological integrationist to keep its sophisticated system running and the digital literacy needs of its teachers met. Surprisingly, the district as a whole does not have a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, although administrators plan to reevaluate the issue by the time its current fifth-grade class reaches high school.

External and internal teams
The school’s path-breaking learning innovations are all the more significant considering the process administrators used to develop them. 

In a move that happens to sync up with Minnesota’s 2013 “World’s Best Workforce” initiative that grants school boards authority to create District Advisory Committees, District 492 “opened way up” to a group of business and medical professionals for their curriculum ideas early in the design process. For example, administrators invited Hormel’s research and development department in–a group Alberts asserts “was not concerned with increased test scores, but with the importance of the school making real-life connections to what students do.” 

In another instance of advisory group input regarding a “Water, Water Everywhere” theme staff reinforces with fifth graders, an area doctor spoke up and said, “You know, we do this all the time and it’s called dialysis,” which marked the beginning of the school’s engagement with community experts around student programming.

The heart and soul of the school’s team concept, however, resides in its teaching corps. After requesting district personnel to reflect on whether they wanted to share in the upstart school’s mission, administrators molded a creative, dedicated staff whose members enjoy hourly collaboration with their colleagues. Professional development opportunities have been–and are–conducted in partnership with the The Hormel Foundation and University of Minnesota for the teaching professionals at I.J. Holton. Ensuring its staff members have the time and space for interdisciplinary discussions remains an ongoing priority for district administration.

The I.J. Holton 'wrap'
Still looking for more to help get your mind around the educational innovations of I.J. Holton?

Think the “Jetsons go to Waldorf,” and you might begin to understand what they’ve got going on.

Anecdotal evidence says the kids and community are buzzing over the progressive ethos of this school. Student engagement is high, and the love of learning seems a tangible thing at the new hotspot for education in Austin.

Considering the primary goal of education is to adequately equip the next generation for the challenges ahead, there are many promising tomorrows for the I.J. Holton learning community.

Note: Information for this article was obtained from an onsite tour with Austin Public Schools Director of Educational Services John Alberts and I.J. Holton Principal Jean McDermott. Any matters of proportionality, errors or omissions associated with this content are the sole responsibility of the author.


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