By Kendall Morgan
The Aledo School District and the upcoming elementary school in Walsh offer an exemplary education. The most important role of a parent is to give our children the best start in life. When it comes to schooling, allowing kids to thrive through a carefully balanced mix of learning, recreation and community is the greatest gift that a mother or father can bestow.
For the kids lucky enough to attend Aledo ISD, a STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) gives the next generation of Texans the foundational skills they’ll need most in the 21st century. Project-based learning in selected career technology courses allows students even at the elementary level to apply these skills in a way that that will give them a distinct advantage when it comes time to choose their future jobs.
Although all elementary schools in the district — eight traditional and one alternative campus—follow this philosophy, the district’s 10th campus will also benefit from a sophisticated layout that encourages learning to spill out of the classroom and into the common spaces.
NATURE AND NURTURE
Opening in 2017, the Walsh Elementary building designed by VLK Architects is surrounded by a green space of sports fields and playgrounds, with a neighborhood park just across the way. Inside, grades are divided into upper and lower levels for Kindergarten through Second Grade, and Third through Fifth Grade respectively, giving each stage of learning its own devoted space, a so-called “campus within a campus.”
Says superintendent Dr. Derek Citty, who joined Aledo ISD in the summer of 2013,
“We believe in nature and having open spaces and ways to stimulate yourself. We’re trying to program a lot of elements into Walsh to allow that, like having a community garden with classes. We want a curriculum of things kids can do outside with their hands.”
Classrooms for science, functional academics, music and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) instruction will be joined by a “media center” amphitheater large enough to hold two classes for visiting lecturers, authors or screenings. Blackboards are mounted in hallways so that students can participate in maker workshops, allowing them to be more hands-on with the projects the teacher assigns.
“It’s the first school in the country that from day one has a maker space,” says Dr. Citty, who consulted the likes of former Techshop CEO Mark Hatch and Dale Doughtery of Make: magazine while refining the curriculum. “Some of our campuses are 57 years old—they came into vogue in the Industrial Age, so they were designed like factories. Walsh is very different from that, it has specific learning spaces both inside and outside the classroom and outside the building. A teacher could put part of the kids in the hallway doing a maker space type of activity and have another group of kids in the classroom working off a Promethean Panel and another group doing a writing assignment. It’ll be a new school for our district, but (the design) will eventually be very common.” The 660 children who will attend Walsh will also benefit from an additional recess, allowing them two opportunities to blow off steam during the day. Says executive director of curriculum Kathy Allen, “It’s important to give kids that release time and play time. We value it as much as what kids learn during the day, so it’s what all our elementary campuses are doing. If something is good for one campus, we’re going to push it across all campuses. We want our kids in Aledo ISD to have as many options as they want once they leave this ISD.”
And options they have. All of the elementary schools, including Walsh, feed into an exemplary program at both the middle and high school levels. Exposed to a large number of interests that play to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, totems of Texas education such as football are seen as an additional asset, not the cultural essential that it can become in other districts.
“We’re very successful (at sports), but it’s something our kids do along the way,” says Dr. Citty. “It’s a lot more important to prepare a young man or young lady for that next step once they get out of high school. We’ve begun a process three or four years ago which gives kids a number of pathways before graduation. About 83% of our kids go to college, and the vast majority of those who don’t, don’t choose to. We prep those kids for something they still need to make a living with a career tech program.”
By the time students graduate to Aledo Middle School, they’ll have a plethora of educational choices, including a newly implemented robotics program. In the current academic year, Aledo Middle School also began a “What’s Up Wednesday” program that sanctions time for students to participate in clubs and organizations. In addition to Robotics, they can explore Naval History, Classic Sitcoms, Mind Craft and Character Counts, among other options. All clubs allow students and teachers the opportunity to bond over similar interests outside a traditional academic setting.
Students will eventually feed into Aledo High School, a Silver Medal finalist ranked 122 in the state of Texas. As high schoolers, Aledo ISD students have access to ten of the 16 career technology pathways, including Agriculture Science, Business, Finance, Health Science, Information Technology, STEM (Engineering/Robotics) and Manufacturing (Welding). They also have the opportunity to obtain industry certifications prior to graduation, including Community Emergency Response Team, Certified Nurse Assistance and certification in office skills such as Excel, Word, and Power Point.
With such a supportive infrastructure, is it any wonder over 54% of Aledo High students feed into Advanced Placement® classes, and annual scholarship winnings for the 2016 graduating class total over $13 million dollars?
COMMUNITY & COMPETITION
What sets up Aledo ISD students for success is easy to discern: the twin pillars of community and competition.
Says Kathy Allen, “No one has the reputation of success and competition that the Aledo ISD school system has. You could have an upper 90s average and you’re not in the top ten of the graduation class. It’s uber-competitive—everything our kids put their minds to, they’re successful at.”
“We have a brand-new health and science program that just went to state,” adds Mary Elizabeth Smith. “The things that set our students apart, is they don’t come to participate, they come to win. Our welding kids would wake up and go to Holt Caterpillar at 6:30 am before school so they could compete with their projects.”
Partnerships with local businesses, parents and community members give Aledo ISD an inspirational advantage. Area moms do everything from mentoring, answering phones, running copy machines and chaperoning field trips, while dads participate in the WATCH D.O.G.S. programs to support education and safety. An active student council helps support team building, community outreach and leadership skills, further solidifying the relationships between local students and the city in which they reside.
But, according Dr. Citty, what Aledo ISD does best in engage students’ curiosity from the moment they enroll in school, an approach that is proving to provide lifelong benefits.
“We want them to walk into whatever class they’re in and get captured from the moment they walk in, until the moment they leave.”