The New Tech Network works with schools throughout the country to design academic programs that focus on project-based learning and student empowerment. One of only a handful of New Tech middle schools opened in Fort Wayne this year. Towles Middle School is one of many New Techs in Northeast Indiana. The region has one of the highest concentrations of the program in the country.
This classroom is larger than average, and each student has their own personal laptop to work on. Eighth-grader Malique Tai sits down to his in creative writing and media class.
“So this is our home page. Then it shows you a list and it’s the agenda. And then these are all the things we’re gonna do today, or tomorrow,” Tai said.
Students and teachers here use the online system Echo for everything: posting and turning in assignments, teacher feedback, and the grade book.
“It shows you how you’re working," Tai says. "We get graded on these five things: collaboration, agency, written communication, knowledge and thinking, and oral communication. All of these add up to 100 percent. Right now I have an A+.”
This is Towles Middle School in the Fort Wayne Community Schools District, which just started its New Tech program this year. Now this once all-Montessori school has large windows on classroom walls for easy observation.
Program Director Tim Captain shows just how open this community is. “We live by the culture of trust, respect, and responsibility" he says. "So you’ll notice lockers not locked.”
Overall, the kids here, like one young lady walking down the hall, have a lot of freedom. “We don’t have bells, she goes when she needs to go she just gets up, walks out of the class, goes to the bathroom, comes right back,” Captain said.
And that’s the premise of Towles New Tech.
“When they’re given the responsibility and the chance to soar, they do,” he said.
Few assignments have one correct answer. Students need to be resourceful and work together. Fewer lectures, more group projects. STEM knowledge and technological savvy are key. There’s still the basics like fractions and geology, but curriculum works together, like taking your findings from science class and creating an advertisement out of them.
Jude Garnier is the Director of Leadership Development for the national New Tech Network. She says education needs to change with the times. Garnier explains "the world, what’s demanded of them out there now is significantly different even than it was 10, 15 years ago.” But breaking the status quo with programs like New Tech, is no easy task. “This is requiring significant changes in people’s understanding and way of thinking about teaching and learning" says Garnier. "It’s adaptive work, it means changing belief systems and changing behaviors, it’s big. So when you begin to make those changes it can be scary for people.”
And Northeast Indiana shows what it takes to make that systemic change happen.The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, with many other partners, identified the skills that would be needed for the advanced manufacturing industry of the region, and the 21st century economy. They saw the New Tech model as a good option for the type of K-12 education they’d like to see.
More than $500,000 in grant funding was needed to start up each of the New Techs here – the first programs established have already shown improvements in things like graduation rates and higher order thinking skills.
Ryan Twiss of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership says it’s thanks to that same holistic thinking central to the New Tech curriculum itself that the programs were implemented - economic and workforce development, the education system, and elected officials all had to work together.
“We have a sense of collaboration here in NE Indiana that you don’t see in many other communities even nationwide let alone in the Midwest or throughout the state,” Twiss said. "Because of the cost it’s not likely that we’ll ever see 100 percent New Tech, but a lot of schools are still headed in that direction."
“What we’ve also supported but the region has really bought in is the adoption of project-based learning throughout the entire system,” Twiss adds.
Back at Towles, eighth-grader Malique is truly preparing for the future. His math class is working on a simulation in paying taxes and bills, and budgeting their finances.
“We gotta know not to blow all our money, some kids probably are doing that right now,” Tai says.
When asked what he'd actually like to do when he grows up, he candidly replies "have no debt."
More specifically he’d like to be either a debt-free pro basketball player or debt-free orthodontist.
New Tech might not help Malique get into the NBA, and it is Towles first year with this model, but if other programs throughout the region and nation are any indication, it’s likely that he and the rest of his classmates will have a shot at a bright future.