Just three months into the first year of Warhill High School's Pathways Project, officials from the Virginia Department of Education stopped by to check in on its progress.
Virginia's Secretary of Education Dietra Trent and Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Coy joined the Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Staples and Ted Dintersmith, creator of the education documentary "Most Likely to Succeed," to tour the Pathways classes Wednesday morning.
The program was created with the College of William and Mary using two $50,000 VDOE innovation grants. After applying from all over the county, 100 freshman were enrolled in the program's pilot year.
The program focuses on hands-on, project-based learning and career preparation as an alternative to the traditional high school structure.
Staples said this is the group's first visit to a recipient of the state innovation grants, but he plans to see the four other sites over the next seven months. The other districts at the same stage Warhill is, with their own programs underway, are Fairfax, Salem, Richmond and Newport News, Staples said.
"The idea of the grants was to create models in Virginia that other Virginia schools could look to," Staples said. "It's seeding the thought process and helps other schools envision how it might work in their setting."
The tour rotated through two of the four Pathways classes — humanities by design and English — before gathering in a lecture hall for students presentation from the physics by design course.
Faculty from the College of William and Mary's School of Education and Williamsburg-James City County's Interim Superintendent Olwen Herron also wandered from class to class with the groups.
Staples entered Brier Anderson's English classroom and sat down with two girls working as a pair on a computer project. Dintersmith chatted with a girl working alone and started talking with her about the psychological Stanford Prison Experiment.
The class, as with all four Pathways classes, is self-paced, so each group was at a different point in the curriculum.
Anderson said having the state education officials visit was "a little scary, but exciting."
The group visited English teacher Jackie Chisam and social studies teacher John King's blended humanities by design class. While Anderson's had been quiet, the humanities class was boisterous, firing answers at Chisam, who moved on to the next question or next student with lightning speed.
Most were rapt with attention and ready to answer, while one or two doodled on the desks equipped with dry erase markers.
The class is a combination of English and social studies. King explained to the visitors that students are now deconstructing "Lord of the Flies," by William Golding. Later in the semester they will apply the story to a modern-day situation and draw similarities, culminating in a skit or play.
King and Chisam both teach more traditional classes at Warhill as well. King sees some differences between the Pathways and traditional classes.
"Some of the things they're doing in the project-based class is bleeding into their classes elsewhere," King said. "The way these students are learning is more rewarding. … that it's more hands-on. … I think probably because this is different I'm seeing more positive results."
King said he hopes all of his students are learning, the Pathways program is just a different way to get there.
With three months of Pathways classes done, the students talked about what they liked about the program so far, what they found challenging or could be better, and why they joined in the first place.
Freshman Michael Akpan said he had improved his work ethic since the program started. He pushes himself further and can't just slide by with minimal effort, he said.
"If you actually want to succeed in this program, you have to push you limits," said Akpan during a student-parent panel.
Haley McLain added to Akpan's statement, highlighting the students' importance of taking responsibility for their own learning. Staples said he enjoyed seeing that students were driving their own learning.
"You're not being forced to do it, but if you don't, you fail," McLain said.
Trent said she is excited to see the program in action and hopes it can be applied in other schools around the state.
"It was very fascinating," Trent said. "I think these kids learn so much about themselves — the ability to overcome, to solve problems. … It's transformative."
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.