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Reaching Higher in High School

Early every weekday morning, 76 11th and 12th grade students from ten high schools in Harrisonburg, and Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties, head to Mt. Jackson for a different kind of education.  WMRA’s Margee Greenfield went along for the ride to check it out.

It’s still dark.  It’s chilly.  A small group of students are waiting at Turner Ashby High School at 6:45am, for the bus they take every morning to Massanutten Regional Governor’s School, in Mt. Jackson.

[Bus arriving sound]

Massanutten Regional Governors School for Integrated Environmental Science and Technology, open since the fall of 2005, is one of 19 such schools in the Commonwealth.   A variety of Governors School programs – academic year and summer – provide some of Virginia’s most able students academically and artistically challenging programs, beyond those offered in their public schools. With programs from the arts to government and international studies and to mathematics, science and technology, the Governor’s Schools serve more than 7500 gifted students annually.

Students take English, math and science classes there and return to their public schools for lunch and the second half of the day.

Director Susan Fream describes the program this way:

SUSAN FREAM:  It’s based upon the principals of problem-based learning, so students are actively engaged in problem finding and problem solving.  They’re trying to solve real world problems.  Things are hands-on so they have projects and activities.  It’s not about doing seatwork and doing worksheets and using textbooks all the time.  It’s about them engaging with the curriculum and learning and doing things to help them learn and understand the content.

The Governor’s School philosophy is that learning should mimic the real world.  Teachers guide the students through a curriculum that simulates real world experiences and expectations.  Students engage in simulations, presentations, mentorships, investigations, extensive research and intensive use of technologies.

The most exciting part of the experience, for both students and faculty, is the collaborative – not competitive - nature of the curriculum. Kara Bates teaches Agro-ecology and Sustainable Agriculture.

KARA BATES:  What the students see in one classroom is transferred throughout the other classrooms.  So often, in education, they learn about things in isolation.  That seems to work well for standardized testing.  The downfall of that is that it’s not how the world works.  There’s nothing that exists in isolation in the real world.

Several years ago, Bates and Environmental Science teacher Rich Newcomer turned a one-day project on hydraulic fracturing into a weeks-long research project.  As students researched the pros and cons of fracking, it became apparent that they felt very passionately about the topic and wanted to share their knowledge in a different format.  The teachers organized the students to formally debate the topic – some pro, some con – and invited community members, local organizations, legislators and school officials.

Many Governor’s School students, including senior Nadia Armentrout, from Broadway High School have embraced their inner nerd.

NADIA ARMENTROUT:  Dealing with the nerd factor at my home school, at Broadway, I own it.  I’m proud to be a Governor’s School student.  If that makes me sound nerdy, then I don’t really care.

Governors School teachers come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

RICH NEWCOMER:  I was in the twilight of my career.  I had 29 years in and I was thinking about retirement.  I got the job here and I saw the way education should be, in my opinion.

Environmental science teacher Rich Newcomer stayed another 9 years and will retire this year.  Along the way, the topics and projects in his environmental science classes challenged him to include lessons in political science, economics, law and sociology and then, of course, to collaborate with his other colleagues to include statistics, writing and agro-ecology.  That last subject is taught by Kara Bates.

BATES:  It’s very student-centered here.  It’s not really the typical day where, as a teacher, I stand and lecture in front of a class.  They’re actually working on real world problems and they’re finding unique solutions to those problems.

Margee Greenfield was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.