Students say project-based program boosts confidence

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

After five years, the alternative Phoenix program at Juneau-Douglas High School still hasn't settled into a routine. But maybe a program named after a mythical bird that rises from its ashes has to expect to constantly renew itself.

Student numbers have gone up and down, teachers come and go, and there's an undercurrent of anxiety about the school district's support. But Phoenix parents and students are unabated in their enthusiasm.

They praise the freedom it gives students and the responsibility it asks of them. They say it prepares high school students for the real world, in which solving problems, managing time and working with others are valued.

``In later life, you'll be working with other people, to design a bridge or a product,'' said junior Toby Harbanuk, who transferred from home school to Phoenix this year.

Phoenix differs from the main high school in that more of its learning is project-based, with a strong dose of community involvement, public speaking and the use of computers and videotaping to present student work.

At the same time, it's in a framework of four years of English, social studies, science and math, with two years of technology, including industrial arts.

Phoenix, housed in the Marie Drake building next to JDHS, offers students a looser atmosphere than the regular high school, and they're expected to take responsibility for their own education.

``The students kind of run their own education, which is great,'' said freshman Megan Clough. Teachers tell students what they need to know, but sometimes it's up to the students to figure out how to get there and how to show it, she said.

``You can slack during class, but you do have to get it done,'' said freshman Alli Rosen, who was working in the computer lab during a recent lunch period. She has Web-site addresses written on her hand.

``In college, you're not going to have your parents sitting over your shoulder and saying you have to get it done. And I think Phoenix is a really good way to prepare for that,'' she said.

Students also like the community spirit of a small program, the trust between teachers and students, and the tolerance of people who would be, as parent Michael Ciri put it, ``on the edge of the herd.''

In high school, that tolerance can be a big comfort.

``It's you and there's no stereotypes,'' said Phoenix freshman Julia Roberts.

Phoenix is a supportive place for kids at a hard point in life, Ciri said.

``It was real important for my daughter when she went to the high school to feel safe. When she started going to Phoenix that was the message she came back with,'' he said.

Part of that community spirit comes from placing a small student body - about 107 students - and their five teachers apart from the rest of the 1,650-student high school.

``In Phoenix, it's all the same people all the time,'' Rosen said. ``You just run into them over and over. You're friends with them.''

At lunch, students flop down in the carpeted hallway in front of their perpetually unlocked lockers, drape themselves over a couch, or click away in the computer lab. In class they prod and applaud each other.

``Guys, let's focus on the presentations here,'' a girl said in social studies class recently when talk turned to what would be on the test.

But not every student in Phoenix is popular, said freshman Mike James, and some students leave the program for social reasons.

``It's high school,'' said Vince Allen, shrugging. He left Phoenix partway through his junior year. ``There are people that harass, people who don't like you.''

For those who feel it, the community spirit also stems from project-based learning, one of Phoenix's major characteristics. Projects bring people together.

Erik Lundquist, the Phoenix science teacher, has taught in the main high school. He said he could spend days there without sharing ideas with another teacher, because they didn't have the same students or preparation time.

In Phoenix, teachers regularly talk to each other, Lundquist said. ``We bring new ideas in and kick them around because we're in settings that aren't rigid.''

As Lundquist chatted after school recently, student Matt Wendel stopped by to ask about his science fair project. He's worried about leaks in the seal on a blender that holds vegetable oil, alcohol, methanol and lye, which he wants to turn into diesel fuel. Lundquist suggested an inexpensive way to seal the blender's lid.

Students will soon start a project on human population that will include science classes on population ecology. They'll need to know math equations to model variables. Social studies classes will examine political and religious issues.

Eventually, small groups of students will study individual nations, predict population growth and convene in a summit similar to the United Nations to talk about topics such as agriculture and health.

``In group projects you usually get a chance to put together a project that's useful and greater than what you can do yourself,'' said Theo Cushing, who graduated from Phoenix last year and until recently worked in the governor's office maintaining a computer network.

Project-based learning may create a different relationship between teachers and students.

``I'd like to think it's a more personal reaction with my teachers,'' said senior Rory Fletcher. ``It allows you to talk to your teachers and have a bigger hand in your education.''

Science teacher Lundquist said he spends his school day differently than he used to in the main high school. Time that used to be spent grading papers or disciplining students is now given to helping students with their research, he said.

Social studies teacher Kristin Garot echoed that. ``I spend a lot of my time as a facilitator and a helper rather than a giver of information.''

Les Morse, one of the founding teachers and now the principal at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, said it's a more exhausting way to teach.

``It's harder in terms of time and energy. I worked later hours. I was constantly reading student work at home at night and on weekends,'' Morse said.

``It does burn teachers out,'' said Patsy DeWitt, parent of two Phoenix graduates and one current student.

The program has never met its goal of having the same five teachers spend four years with the same students. There are three new teachers in Phoenix this year.

``It's almost like starting over,'' Lundquist said. ``It's almost like we're back to year one or two, because a team has to learn how to make this program run like a team.''

Student Allen left Phoenix partway through his third year. He thinks Phoenix has moved away from the more in-depth projects.

``The teachers change, and I understand that,'' Allen said. ``But they're changing the program a little too much.''

But other students said change is what Phoenix is about and the new, young teachers keep the program alive. After a few months, the students have whipped the teachers into shape.

``We have a lot of really neat teachers this year,'' said Leah Wilson, a junior.

Teacher turnover isn't necessarily fatal or bad, said senior Scott Moeller. ``The strength of the program is in the students, more than the faculty.''

The Phoenix program isn't all project work. There are still plenty of lectures, homework and tests. But for many students, the projects are the draw.

Freshman Mike James enjoyed a recent individual project rewriting fairy tales from the villain's perspective. In James' version of ``Rapunzel,'' the witch who steals the baby is actually a concerned neighbor who calls child-welfare officials about an abused child. The prince who takes Rapunzel away from her tower home is blinded when he tumbles onto a thorn bush.

``The prince got two glass eyes and was known on a first-name basis in several bars as `Shnuckles.' And everyone lived happily ever after,'' James wrote.

Nancy Fletcher's son, Nathan, built an electric guitar as his senior project.

Nathan learned patience and the math necessary to design an acoustically correct guitar, she said. He had to find the maple and the tools and the other parts.

``Some aren't necessarily academic skills, but skills in life,'' added parent Patsy DeWitt.

Carl Brodersen, a freshman, said he thought projects were stupid at first. But now he sees that students learn in different ways.

``If you want structure, you go to the high school. If you want freedom, you come here,'' he said.

``What are you going to do with people who learn better this way? If you throw them in the high school, you'll lose them,'' Brodersen said.

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