There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach in education anymore, and the Wilton Public School district has taken that to heart with its new Genesis Program. The program is an alternative school it has created for students in grades 7-12 who may find it more difficult to learn in a traditional, larger school environment but are still eager to pursue an education in their public school district.
Genesis has been created under the aegis of assistant superintendent for special services Andrea Leonardi, with the day-to-day responsibility of establishing the program, creating curriculum, and basically building it from the ground up in the hands of four educators who make up the primary Genesis team–Eileen Wheeler, special education teacher; Alison Hourani, social worker; Tom Koch, humanities teacher; and Brett Amero, STEM teacher.
They’ll be working with 10 students in grades 8-12 who applied for and enrolled in the program.Wheeler explains why a program like genesis is important.
“We have a small percentage of students that have a very difficult time navigating the size of the high school and the structure of the traditional style of learning and they just need another option. It’s a need and the district is willing to help us provide for all students.”
When the inaugural class of students made their first visit to the Genesis location at Trackside Teen Center two weeks before the start of school, it was clear, say the team, that the program is an option the kids were eager to have.
“They came for pizza and brownies and just to meet each other. Two of them asked if they could start tomorrow,” recalls Koch.
Wheeler says it’s evident the students are excited. “They want a fresh start, they want a different experience of learning, they want a new environment and they want their interests met.”
As the teachers explain it, the curriculum still will meet what the district and state requires. It’s just going to be delivered in a different style than in a traditional classroom. Genesis presents a different option for learning style.
“Everything will be project based learning, including the standards and strands of the connected competencies. So instruction will be delivered through projects and through student interests and answering big questions and trying to figure out problems,” Wheeler says.
How does that look in a practical sense?
“We’re going to be bringing in experts in the fields of what the students wish to pursue. So, instead of understanding the standards and competencies through textbooks or through direct instruction, the students will see the standards being met in a way that is tangible and applicable to real world situations and inaction. For example, if you learning different math and algorithms or if you were looking at amortization, we would do a project based on financial planning and bring in financial literacy experts so they could see how those computations work in the real world. It’s very different than the traditional classroom model,” says Koch.
Getting outside a traditional classroom is clearly part of that nontraditional model. Wilton will provide a great backdrop for that, says Wheeler, whether that’s learning about history or current-day business.
“We’ll be using utilizing the Wilton Historical Society and other parts of the town, like Ambler Farm. Day three, we’re walking to Wilton Library and we’re going to make sure that they can go in and get their library cards if they don’t have them. We’ll be in the community a lot–maybe get some vocational instruction for the kids that are interested in jobs,” Wheeler adds.
With the non-traditional model comes a non-traditional age grouping. The program is meant to blend students by interest and learning style, rather than grade, which could present challenges to a teacher. Or, it could present opportunities to the right kind of teacher.
“Just from what we noticed today, everybody sitting around the table having pizza, everyone got along. Everyone is getting to know each other and had questions for each other. I think there’ll be a lot of peer modeling. I think you need to keep the age out of it because everyone is going to come in with a different skillset and everyone will benefit from each other through collaboration,” Wheeler says.
What she’s describing is very much like the real world–starting with the teaching team.
“We also model that for them as well because we’re interdisciplinary here–there’s only four of us, and so we work very closely together. We model what that looks like, that these different age groups who can succeed and thrive together and really learn from each other in ways that they might not be able to in school,” notes Hourani.
“We have the opportunity to take advantage of that because of our numbers, because of our size, because of our training and our backgrounds. You know, you go to work in an office setting and you have a CEO who’s 72 and a millennial coming in who’s 23 you have a 49 year age difference. These kids are really not that far in age, interests, likes and passions.”
Again, how does that work practically, when you’re tasked with delivering education?
“For high school graduation, they need a certain amount of credits. Nobody says how you have to earn those credits. We’re just going to be very versatile in that area. So we might have kids that are in freshman year or senior year and they’re all doing physics skills–they’re still going to get the credits under physics,” says Wheeler.
With the small size, the social and emotional support is very strong, which is one of the key elements to Genesis.
“This small size, our environment really is conducive for paying very close attention to growth mindset, that you can’t typically do to the fullest extent in the traditional classroom. And we also pay attention to mindfulness and UDL [universal design for learning], which some students need,” says Koch. “That’s sometimes lost in the big school setting for some students. And to have that back builds a confidence or desire to want to come every day. That’s important to us because it’s important to them.”
Forward Thinking Community
As educators, the team says the Genesis concept is setting the bar high for the community and district, and creating a model that other educators will want to emulate.
“This is going make Wilton look like a very progressive, 21st century, forward-thinking model. We’re building from the ground up an institutional program that is a full blown concentration on UDL growth mindset. Kinesthetic learning that’s always spoken in the classrooms and it’s not always feasible. There are a number of students that are not accessing it even though it’s offered–they don’t see it. The community of Wilton should feel very proud that the superintendent and the assistant superintendent have started this, having the foresight to build a program that becomes a model for others to come and learn from,” says Koch.
So what about assessments and benchmarks and making sure the students are receiving the education the community says is standard? They may have similar assessments, like tests; or they may have presentations and a portfolio. But there will still be markers for progression and evaluation to document success and how those individual standards are being met.
“We’re confident that the students, if they have to take those tests, are going to do very, very well. And, and even just to take that emphasis off of that kind of traditional performance demonstration–this is showing another way that kids can succeed and helping them achieve those individualized ways of doing that. They’ll be demonstrating evidence of learning,” says Wheeler. “We will embed things much like progressions and curriculum ladders, if you will, to show the students where they are, where they need to be. And so the, those traditional teacher tools we’ll still use, but how we’ll use them is just very different.”
The teachers agree, that it’s exciting for them too, to be able to pioneer a new way to teach.
“It is the most exciting thing of my career yet so far,” says Amero. “It’s an exciting time. These kids are so lucky to have four people so passionate. We can’t wait to get this started.”
Koch agrees. “The genesis program is an opportunity that we can reach our full potential. We can exercise what we were built to do and our years of training and our years of experience. I feel like my career has reinvigorated.”
Amero, who is also a Wilton resident, points out another important aspect: it brings value to the community, both from the benefit as well as from a sense of morality–making sure that all kids are able to access what they need in a public school setting.
“The community is going to benefit a lot from this program. Not just the students that are going to be attending but also the community as a whole–it’s an important value that we’re adding.”
The Genesis program is open to all students in Wilton in grades 7-12 who are looking for a more personalized and project-based approach to learning. The district accepts applications year round. Genesis will host an open house in October and the community will be invited to attend to learn more.