When English teacher Joe Frankfurth gets to his classroom at Albemarle High School each morning, more often than not, there is a line of students waiting for him to unlock the door.
The students are part of Team 19, a pilot program in project-based learning for ninth-graders who previously struggled in traditional classroom settings.
“They eat their breakfast in here and get ready for the day,” he said. “And then they spend all day in here and all three hours in the program … this is where they then like to spend another hour of their time during long lunch.”
With almost an entire school year to look back on, the teachers, students and administrators involved with Team 19 have two basic takeaways: Students who previously did not gel with school are excited and engaged in the classroom, and there is still a lot to learn.
“A lot of the kids have really opened up and blossomed,” Frankfurth said. “A lot of kids who were not too active in the classroom, who were maybe a bit shy … we have seen a lot of kids just kind of come alive.”
Team 19 students spend the first three hours of their day being team-taught by teachers in history, math, science and English in a class that rolls all four subjects into interdisciplinary projects.
The work of Team 19, said Albemarle High School’s principal, Jay Thomas, is simple.
“Our hope with this group of freshmen, by the time they get to senior year, we have opened doors for them,” he said. “Whether it is going to the workforce or going to college, they have choices, whereas before they would have had very limited choices.”
Students in the program — named for the cohort’s graduation year — said their grades have improved and that they are better able to relate school to everyday life.
“You are able to learn so much more working hands-on, and you form close relationships with the teachers and the other students and get really involved, and I think that is a better way to learn,” student Charlotte Austin said.
After a tough time in middle school, Austin said, she has seen her grades and opinion of school improve. Using what she learns in class on a real-world project is the key.
“I have trouble sitting still, and most kids don’t want to sit in a classroom,” she said. “Being able to get up, get hands-on, work with different people all the time, it’s easier to get involved and want to know the information. Wanting to know the information helps you keep the information.”
The program is still working on smoothly integrating project-based learning with state Standards of Learning tests.
The issue is not that Team 19 lessons do not cover SOL topics, teachers said, but that the information is presented in a vastly different format than it is on SOLs.
“We are reviewing the information that they had already seen and showing how it might be seen on an SOL test, because it is a little different than if you are working on it in a project,” algebra teacher Sarah Lilly said. “As far as the concepts, I think they have a much better general grasp and a deeper understanding of how we would actually use it in the real world.”
Pausing project-based learning to study for the tests is not ideal, teachers said, but in a traditional classroom setting, most of the lessons and class time would be spent on preparing for the SOLs, the opposite of the Team 19 approach.
History teacher Andy Ulrich sees something more valuable in Team 19 than specific, rote facts required for success on the SOLs.
“They have increased confidence, and that is going to boost every aspect of them being a student,” he said. “Now, they are starting to realize the intrinsic value of what we are doing, and they are jumping on board.”
Though there are still challenges, Thomas said the program is not going anywhere.
“This team concept, it’s not leaving,” he said. “It has been a beautiful pilot year, we have had a lot of success with it, and it needs to continue to grow and evolve.”