Doddridge County Innovation Zone

Community members from all over Doddridge County work together alongside the teachers of Doddridge County High School to engage students in a different type of learning to make school more meaningful.

By Ardath Osborne and Aaron Bodkins | 05/29/2013

Every other Friday this year, Doddridge County High School students end class two hours early. The 374 students in the school divide into groups and spend the remainder of the day making their visions come to life. The school is filled with the sounds of power drills, sizzling grease and music composed by the students themselves.

These small groups work on projects that range from planting an herb garden to making a go-kart from scratch. Community volunteers offer their expertise to the students. A local stonemason helps one group make concrete crates for plants in front of the school. A County Commissioner teaches another group how to dress a deer and make jerky.

Learning at Doddridge County High School is expanding outside the classroom, but still meeting the requirements of the West Virginia education curriculum. The school has been designated as an Innovation Zone under a four-year-old, West Virginia Board of Education grant program.

In July of 2009, The West Virginia Legislature created The School Innovation Zones Act as a way to improve student learning through creative and innovative curricula. A Dropout Prevention program was added on in 2011 resulting in the current Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention Grant. The act provided 2.2 million dollars in grants, for which any school could apply. Schools that received Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention grants could receive waivers on education policies in order to engage student learning more.

Schools can apply for the Innovation Zone Grant and/or Dropout Prevention Grant for up to $300,000 over three years.

“One of the best examples of changing high schools and how they impact students is the New Tech Network model at Buffalo High School (in Putnam County),” said Michele Blatt, Executive Director of the West Virginia Department of Education Office of School Improvement.

She said the students were engaged in a real world learning experience. The New Tech Network is a national non-profit organization that applies a one-to-one student computer ratio to promote student success. Buffalo High School paid for the program through the Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention Grant.

“It’s like students are coming to work every day instead of just sitting at desk,” said Blatt.

Cindy Daniel, Assistant Superintendent in Putnam County, said the high school received $300,000 for its New Tech Model in 2011.

“It’s centered around three key pieces. It’s a one to one environment with students to technology. The second piece is that it’s all project-based learning. The third piece is that it’s really transforming the culture of the school,” said Daniel.

Last year nine schools and/or counties were awarded the grant including Greenbrier West High School, Lincoln County, McDowell County, Nicholas County, Cabell County, Pocahontas County, Upshur County, Doddridge County High School and Wheeling Park High School.

Seven thousand West Virginia students will dropout this year according to Shelly DeBerry, Student Success Advocate for the WVDE Office of School Improvement.

The WVDE identifies six barriers to student success in West Virginia, and they include the lack of resources in rural areas; lack of funding for support staff, i.e. counselors, etc; lack of focus on career development in the early and middle grades; lack of technology integration; lack of engaging instruction and late exposure to career tech programs (currently not until 11th grade in West Virginia).

Doddridge County High School took a student survey in 2012 and found over 80 percent of the students did not think what they learned in school was helpful or related to real life. Eighty-five percent did not think school was interesting or developed their talents, and 96 percent said they would care more about school if they could occasionally do activities they chose.

The faculty and administration at the school listened to the students. They received $50,000 in Innovation Zone grant money and launched the Learning to Make a Difference program. The community members in Doddridge County are participants in the program as well. Approximately 40 community volunteers come in to help the students with their projects every Innovation Zone day.

“They are willing to give their time freely and work with our students, share their skills with our students- working hand in hand.” said Doddridge County High School Principal, Greg Kuhns.

Ralph Sandora, Doddridge County Commissioner, volunteers as a culinary class teacher for the Innovation Zone. He says he already sees a big change in the students’ attitudes toward school.

“Schools can’t teach everything that a person needs to learn. That’s impossible. We don’t have enough time to teach children every basic necessity needed to encounter life,” said Sandora. “This is like a stepping stone for these children, and when they walk out of here today you will see the smiles on everybody’s faces and how they enjoyed their class and how they can’t wait to come to the next session.”

According to a 2006 Silent Epidemic Report by Civic Enterprises LLC funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 47 percent of high school dropouts said their reason for dropping out was uninteresting classes.

Schools that apply for the Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention Grant must come up with their own programs. Once a program has been approved, another school cannot duplicate it under the grant rules. According to Bob Calhoun, Executive Director of Elementary Education in Kanawha County Schools (2011 grant recipients), this is because each program serves as a step towards finding solutions to improve student learning and decrease the drop out rates in the state.

The Doddridge County Innovation Zone program is a logistical challenge because all 374 students participate in the various projects, some at the school and some at other sites. Students themselves voted on the kinds of projects that are offered. Some of these are: photography, wood working, fly tying, recording oral history and pasty making.

Organizing the groups, arranging transportation and getting community volunteers has been a challenge, but one of the teachers think it’s worthwhile.

LauraLee Modesitt, a social studies teacher at Doddridge County High School said it’s not an easy task to get all of the student projects to run smoothly. She was one of the key teachers in writing and applying for the grant.

“This isn’t easy, this is a lot of hard work,” said Modesitt. “We’re not moving mountains yet, but I’m hoping.”

Doddridge County High School will have a showcase on May 21, where each group will show what they’ve done.

An additional $2.2 million was recently designated for the grant program for the 2013-2014 school year.

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