Creative teaching getting results in Whitehall schools

 
In Whitehall, about a mile from where major companies are settling and redevelopment is imminent, another business venture is taking root.

Whitehall Yearling High School just opened its first student store in years, and it was conceived from top to bottom by 11th- and 12th-graders. The teens picked the name — The Hall — the decor, the point-of-sale system that accepts credit cards, the security cameras, the school sweatshirts and the snacks they sell. They run it in shifts, mostly during lunch periods.

The store is the brainchild of the Entrepreneurship class, part of a new career pathway dedicated to business and marketing that earns students both high school and college credit. It’s led by Lisa Schwieterman, who brings more than seven years of experience from Abercrombie & Fitch.

“She’s a very unorthodox teacher,” said 17-year-old Brianna McKinney. “She lets us work through our trials and tribulations. ... We had beautiful ideas, we just had to make them realistic.”

Whitehall schools are changing and growing right along with the city.

The most obvious change is the students’ surroundings. Every single school has been rebuilt within the past five years, using $47.5 million in state money and a local $30.5 million bond issue.

Even so, the school district had to get creative with space. Over five years, Whitehall schools experienced a 20 percent enrollment jump, from 2,828 in 2011-12 to 3,400 students in 2016-17.

The exodus of Whitehall students to charter schools appears to be slowing, if not reversing. About 331 Whitehall children attend charters, according to state funding data, down from the high of 436 students in 2014.

To deal with crowding in the early grades, all students in preschool through first grade moved into Kae Avenue Elementary School, creating a campus dedicated to early literacy. Education students from Capital University give the kids individualized reading help.

Whitehall’s state report card has a lot of room for improvement, with F’s and D’s in key measures for 2016-17. Several factors work against the schools, including that 76 percent of students come from low-income households and almost 20 percent of students come and go in any given year.

But Superintendent Brian Hamler has said the numbers are headed the right way, with test scores in many subject areas rising from the year before. The district earned an A for overall “value added,” which means students are learning significantly more than a year’s worth of material during the school year.

As the youngest kids focus on reading, the second- through fifth-graders just started a new curriculum called “Engineering is Elementary.”

For example, second-graders at Beechwood Elementary School didn’t just memorize science facts about wind, said teacher Lindsey Apel. They built tiny windmills, discovering through trial and error that flat blades don’t catch the breeze.

“My students who were struggling ... they thrived with this. They loved it,” Apel said. “My book-smart students, they failed. That’s part of the process, teaching them it’s OK to fail.”

At Rosemore Middle School, Chris Linhart and Monica Austin have been team-teaching an engineering and design class to eighth-graders. Groups in Linhart’s class constructed a pull toy using chain drives and motors. Austin had her kids design paper skimmers.

“I don’t do a lot of ‘Put this piece into this piece,’” Linhart said. “And they go at it.”

About 90 percent of Whitehall’s students would be the first in their families to attend college. Yearling High School has been expanding Advanced Placement and College Credit Plus classes and making sure parents get financial aid information.

“It’s helpful for our kids to complete our college coursework,” Hamler said. “If we can get these kids tested (for college) and get them applied, then they know it is possible.”

sgilchrist@dispatch.com

@shangilchrist
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