Profile of Academy High School – Plano ISD’s First School of Choice
The room buzzes with energy.
Students cluster around tables, heads bent close together, talking animatedly.
One group threads yarn between images on a conspiracy board. Another group reviews a case file. On their table rest a mortar and pestle – evidence the team replicated using the school’s 3D printer.
In another wing of the building, the students-turned-private investigators analyze “blood samples,” made from tomato juice, at the crime scene.
The 10th graders at Plano ISD Academy High School have been assigned to solve the murder of a famous historical figure. During this project, students will recreate the crime scene, gather DNA evidence, build a case, and present their findings before law enforcement personnel from the community. The students must demonstrate a mastery of various disciplines, from biology to history to art and design.
This interdisciplinary mindset is woven into the fabric of Academy High School.
“We teach the standards that every other learner in Texas has to know. We are accountable for that,” says Lynn Ojeda, principal of Academy High School. “But we are doing it in such a way that students are moving through world history in an authentic and engaging manner.”
There is nothing ordinary about Academy High School.
The school building, a renovated AT&T call center, sports a trendy, corporate look. Instead of traditional classrooms, large open areas with moveable furniture serve as “learning spaces” or “project areas.” Special enclosed learning areas — such as the physics lab, maker’s space, fabrication lab, idea rooms, and presentation spaces — are scattered throughout the building.
Instead of individual courses, each grade level focuses on one single, all-encompassing project at a time. The projects — which last up to half a semester — are interdisciplinary, collaborative, and STEAM– (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) focused.
STEAM enhances the open-ended, inquiry-based approach associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) by adding the arts back into the equation.
The arts inform math and science, and vice-versa. In recent years, the education system has seen a distinct separation of these disciplines. But a new movement seeks to restore this holistic — some say critical — partnership.
“What STEAM affords us is the opportunity for students to be very hands-on in their learning,” says Principal Ojeda. “When we value creativity, innovation, and ideation, STEAM allows you to live in those places in your brain. STEAM allows you to think outside of the box. STEAM is a framework for how to move through a project.”
At Academy High School — Plano ISD’s first school of choice — each grade level focuses on a single, all-encompassing project at a time. The projects are interdisciplinary, collaborative, and STEAM-focused.
For decades, the United States has emphasized STEM education as a means of ensuring U.S. competitiveness and future economic prosperity.
While scientific and technological literacy represent critical skills for 21st century learners, the STEAM movement equally values mastery of design, storytelling, and relatability. And proponents are working diligently to ensure art reclaims its position in the national dialogue about STEM education and research.
The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) stands as a leader in furthering that effort, with the school’s mantra proclaiming: “The disciplines are stronger together than they are apart.”
“In the past, the arts and sciences have been very closely linked and in more recent times there has been a bifurcation, particularly in the education system, which we hope STEAM will address,” says Babette Allina, Director of Government Relations at RISD. “What we often say is that if you couple art and technology you’re getting the human factor.”
That human factor, Allina says, makes a product or service desirable. She summons up the classic example of the iPod. The technology for music players existed long before, but only through artistry of design, elegant human interface, and a masterful user experience did Apple popularize the product.
To further the case for STEAM, Allina points to several national studies on the positive impacts of art education on student learning.
A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts study identified a correlation between arts activity among at-risk youth and positive outcomes in a variety of areas, such as high grades and test scores, high school graduation, college enrollment and achievement, and overall civic engagement.
The following year, a report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities found that an art-rich classroom environment can help re-engage and motivate students at risk of dropping out.
Additionally, a 2013 study by Michigan State University links childhood participation in the arts to the number of patents granted and businesses launched as adults.
For Plano ISD, STEAM became a unifying vision for the district’s first school of choice.
In 2011, the Plano community decided it was time to lay a foundation for schools of choice. A visioning committee of business, district, faith, and educational leaders, as well as students, teachers, and parents convened to create a unified vision of school choice in Plano ISD. After a year of ideation, strategic planning, and exploration of best practices, the committee published a report providing direction for the resulting academies of choice. The first priority was to build a STEAM school: Academy High School.
Texas Instruments partnered with Plano ISD to make this vision a reality, pledging $5 million to Academy High School in 2012.
“We continually seek diverse and innovative thinkers to join our team – people who are inspired to create game-changing technologies that better our world,” TI says about their commitment. “STEM skills are critical, but so is creativity. Abilities to communicate, be collaborative, and to work in teams are also important.”
The rise of the information age called for logical, sequential, computer-like reasoning. Today, employers increasingly seek candidates who also demonstrate intuition and nonlinear reasoning — people who are emotionally intelligent, persuasive, and imaginative.
In his 2006 bestseller, A Whole New Mind, author and former White House speechwriter, Daniel Pink, wrote that in our increasingly outsourced and automated world, the future belongs to those who can master high-concept and high-touch skills.
He defines “high-concept” as “the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.” “High-touch” he defines as “the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”
The “A” in STEAM emphasizes these critical skills as contributing to a holistic, interdisciplinary approach providing students with proficiencies that will give them an edge in college and in the workforce.
“STEAM is for any field, for any career, for any college major,” Principal Ojeda explains, “For any next step that any graduate from this campus will take, STEAM will fit into their next pursuit.”