How to Build a Theme-Based Curriculum

Whether you want to develop your own theme-based school, or just a theme-based curriculum within your school, here are a few issues to keep high on your radar.

Whether you want to develop your own theme-based school, or just a theme-based curriculum within your school, here are a few issues to keep high on your radar.

This how-to article is accompanied by the feature "Going Sky High: Students Take Learning to New Levels."

Starting up your own public school, built around a core theme such as aviation, is not easy. In fact, it can be a lot harder than many would imagine. Much like flying a plane, it requires a lot of multitasking: developing a rigorous yet focused curriculum, finding knowledgeable staff, engaging outside support, getting funding. Following are a few tips for creating a theme-based school.

1. Seek out new streams of financial support.

Sometimes, state and federal funding is not enough -- especially when you're going to offer more specialized educational offerings. Teachers or administrators may want to consider seeking out grants -- and not just from traditional school funding sources but also from community and regional foundations with an interest in education or in the theme or focus the school is nurturing. For example, if you're trying to launch a curriculum focused on developing budding computer engineers, seek financial support from local high-tech companies, which have a vested interest in cultivating new talent.

As a public school, Aviation High School receives basic state education funding, but, because the school is so small, that funding does not adequately cover all the necessary operating costs and capital improvements. In addition to a four-year, $600,000 grant allocated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003, the Port of Seattle will contribute $6.5 million over the next ten years. Those funds will allow the school to make improvements to its leased facility on the campus of South Seattle Community College for the first two years of operation, primarily upgrades to support the school's technology infrastructure.

2. Find teachers with both real-world and classroom experience.

When combining traditional academics with a technical or practical education, it helps to be guided by people who can walk the walk. Teachers with at least some real-world knowledge and experience in a subject area -- whether it's aviation, computer science, or medicine -- can offer students insights into where their studies can lead them and can give them a better grasp of practical applications of their subjects. Retired experts who have chosen to pursue teaching as a second career, current professionals interested in teaching part time, and even teachers with hobbies that correspond to the school's theme can be fonts of useful knowledge. Although it's ideal to find teachers with solid instructional skills, too, it's important, when developing a curriculum around a theme, to seek out educators who, at the very minimum, also have experience and/or an interest in that arena.

3. Engage community and business leaders to contribute time and money.

It's worthwhile to enlist community members for support, especially if the theme of your school or curriculum relates to, or may contribute to, that community. For example, Aviation High School sought the advice of people in the Seattle aviation and aerospace industries from the time of its concept design. The school's founding board of directors includes representatives from Alaska Airlines (based in Seattle), the Port of Seattle, an independent local flight school, and the Washington State Department of Transportation's Aviation Division.

Attend professional conferences and governmental meetings in your city or region, or seek out meetings with individuals you think may bolster your cause. (Consider that officials or professionals are likely to welcome the opportunity to gain some good public exposure by offering their help.) But make sure you have a reasonable expectation for how much time these busy and/or high-profile volunteers can offer -- and make the most effective use of their involvement.

4. Tap mentors and parents for support.

Just as with finding teachers with a relevant background, developing mentor programs that partner students with experienced professionals can provide another inroad to better learning and greater insight into a field. Most Aviation High School students have been placed with one of the more than sixty active mentors the school has engaged -- men and women who work, or have worked, as pilots or engineers or in other areas of the industry. The mentors volunteer their time, typically meeting once a week with each student they mentor (some of them work with two or three students) to help advise them academically, provide tutoring, or just offer some inspiration about their potential career paths. Potential mentors can be found among professionals who work at companies focused on the same endeavors as the curricular theme.

Similarly, if administrators want to launch a computer science-themed course of study in the same region, they might go knocking on Microsoft's doors. Also, college-level professors might be willing to offer students their insights into where a particular course of study might take them academically. In addition, getting parents involved is vital, especially if a theme-based school or program is just getting off the ground or working from a shoestring budget. Aviation High School asks each parent to volunteer at least ten hours each semester. Not surprisingly, several of these parents have a background, or an interest, in aviation.

This article originally published on 9/26/2005

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