Why We Chose Whitfield County Schools
Our Schools That Work series explores what goes on at some of the most innovative, successful schools in the country. Here's a quick look at the qualities and strengths that made us choose North Whitfield Middle School and Whitfield Career Academy in Whitfield County, Georgia.
Modest resources have not blocked PBL innovation at North Whitfield Middle School, where seventh graders (left) wrote haiku poems, then burned them into wood slices they cut from a log outside the school. Science teacher Michelle Underwood (above), far left, observes her students making a Japanese-style gyotaku print from a real fish.
Credit: Grace Rubenstein (left); David Markus (right)
As we’ve showcased models of innovative, excellent education over the past two decades, our Edutopia community members have often raised concerns like this: “We’re inspired, but we can’t see how we can emulate those best practices in our own schools, where we face so many challenges.” This installment of Schools That Work is meant to help you deal with that concern. We chose as our model school one of the most impressive ones available, High Tech High, the San Diego nonprofit, public charter school that aims to build students’ collaboration, creativity, and critical-thinking skills through hands-on projects with real-world impact. Selecting from the dozens of schools and districts across the country working to replicate High Tech High’s practices, we chose to spotlight one district that is doing so without many special resources or advantages, the Whitfield County Schools in northwest Georgia. We hope this coverage will help to answer these common doubts about what it takes to replicate great educational practices.
- Don’t you have to be a charter school to get away with being so nontraditional? There’s no doubt that the freedom from district curriculum mandates and union hiring rules allows charter schools to move more nimbly. But that in no way excludes standard public schools from making major changes, as the Whitfield County Schools are proving. The five middle schools there -- which are in their second year of transitioning to High Tech High-style project-based learning -- are regular public schools. Their main asset is a small corps of teachers willing to take a risk and be the first to try something new, backed by supportive administrators who are committed to realizing this vision for change. “You can look at the High Tech High architecture and the culture they’ve built, and it is impressive and intimidating at times,” says Eric White, a teacher at the Whitfield Career Academy. “But we also realized it took them a long time to get to that point. So we looked at their core design principles -- a common intellectual mission, personalization, adult-world connections -- and we said, 'Those are good for our kids. That’s not a High Tech High thing. That’s an every kid thing.'”
- Doesn’t it take a lot of money to make such big changes? Generally, it takes some investment in staff training at the beginning. The Whitfield County Schools cobbled together about $50,000 from internal funds and outside grants -- not a staggering amount for a district that serves more than 13,000 students -- to send 45 teachers and administrators to High Tech High for training. Besides that, their investment has entailed pretty standard staff-development fare: bringing in experts to give presentations and giving teachers time to meet and design lessons together. At the Whitfield Career Academy (a high school created by charter that operates essentially as a regular public school under district direction), administrators and support staff took over morning duties to free up teachers to have more shared planning time.
- These ideas sound nice, but you can’t spend time on creative lessons when you serve low-income students who are reading well below grade level. It’s definitely challenging to consider going above and beyond when you’re struggling just to cover the basics. However, these schools believe project-based learning is a more effective way to engage students, which will help them learn the basics better too. The Whitfield County Schools serve a rural community in which 66 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.