Viking New Tech opening new chapter in learning at high school

A group of Viking New Tech teachers discuss some last-minute details before school starts during one of their weekly meetings on Wednesday, July 28.
A group of Viking New Tech teachers discuss some last-minute details before school starts during one of their weekly meetings on Wednesday, July 28. Photo by Jessica Williams.

Viking New Tech in Huntington North High School opens Thursday, Aug. 12, when Huntington students go back to school, and 116 freshmen are enrolled as the first-ever students to walk VNT's new halls.

VNT Director and HNHS Assistant Principal Kelly Renier says Huntington's New Tech location is one of 16 in Indiana, the most in the nation, and the Northeast Indiana region has the largest concentration in the country as well.

A typical day at VNT would look different depending on the student, Renier says, but the day starts and ends the same times as HNHS. VNT students start their day in homeroom and will spend five or six classes a day in the environment.

In VNT, students will take two combined classes of 90 minutes and a math class; Algebra I, Geometry or Geometry Honors. The sixth possible class, Renier explains, is a math lab class for those who need extra Algebra help. For the remainder of the day, students will go out into HNHS for electives such as physical education, a foreign language or a music class. The seventh period is teacher collaboration time.

" ... Just because of the program being so new and kind of small to start with, we won't be able to offer electives this year. We hope to expand that so in the future we'll have opportunities within the Viking New Tech setting for students to take elective courses, but as we're getting started we had to focus on the core curriculum," Renier says.

The teacher selection for VNT was made in late January 2010, and teachers stepped up with interest in the positions. They attended meetings and trainings to introduce them to the New Tech model.

"The good problem we had is that we had more people interested than we could accommodate for the first year ... but what that did then is that created additional conversations that we started to have" about how other courses could fit in the model, Renier says.

She had to tell teachers to wait until year two, which will beneficial when staff is sought after for in the future. She says a misconception early on was new staff would be hired, but that isn't the case. It was a reassignment of duties for those teachers who volunteered, she explains.

And those who volunteered are looking forward to New Tech in Huntington.

"It's exciting to be pioneers in this kind of education ... [and] the student's should have some pride in that as well," says English teacher Chris Brisco, who will tag-team with history teacher Chris Wilkins for a class called Global Perspectives. "We (the teachers) see it as something that will eventually revolutionize education; we'll see this as the commonplace. But right now to be on the cutting edge it's pretty cool."

Brisco, a HNHS teaching veteran of several years, says he wanted to teach at VNT because it's the educational approach that makes the most sense and provides relevance as students work on real-world problems. He also likes that students are expected to participate more in their education.

"I like the freedom aspect; students have a lot more freedom to control their own learning and ... their education is in their hands a lot more so than (in) the traditional classroom where they're being spoon fed information. They have to really seek out information in this approach," he says.

" ... We're here to support and we're here to guide them and help them move in the right direction, but ultimately it comes down to the kids taking ownership and realizing it's not just sit and get; the teacher's not there just to spew everything out but they've got to take an active role in their education," says Renier.
These are appealing aspects to parent Amanda Sizemore and her son Andrew, a student coming from Riverview Middle School.

Sizemore, a licensed teacher and currently a stay-at-home mom, says her son is excited to start school at VNT because he'll have the freedom to do the projects the way he wants to and not in a typical lecture setting. She says she wanted her son to enroll in New Tech because he'd learn on a business model and would be taught in a "college mindset."

According to Renier, Sizemore was a member of a small group of parents who self-organized a visit to Decatur Central High School and their New Tech School of IDEAS, in Indianapolis. That New Tech location is going into its fourth year, Renier says, and the school as a whole is similar to Huntington North.

VNT's three main components are trust, respect and responsibility, and computer applications teacher Michelle Santa says that culture will be stressed this year. Her classroom partner, biology teacher Ashley Gonterman, notes its importance.

"If we can nail that culture piece this first year, I think we are setting ourselves up for success the rest of the years to come because that's key," she says.

"If you look at education, even though our facilities and technology have changed a lot, the approach to education really hasn't changed since this country was founded ... " Brisco adds.

He says in a traditional classroom, students sit in rows and if they don't ask for certain information, they don't learn it. An approach like this, he explains, is "way over due," because students can use technology and get the information that they want, not just what a teacher wants to give them.

Renier says because of the $450,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. through the Talent Initiative in Fort Wayne, which pays for the franchise fees, the Initiative has contacted her and VNT to make Huntington a site for Lilly Endowment Inc. personnel to visit on Sept. 21 to see how the money is being used.

The visitors will observe the school for half the day before they continue on their way to Fort Wayne for a meeting. Renier says their upcoming visit is a big deal because the Initiative recognizes the hard work Huntington teachers have done and she's not sure if they are stopping at any other New Tech location in Northeast Indiana.

Shoshannah McKinney, an Algebra I and Geometry teacher, says the teachers think New Tech is a good program that they want to make successful so both the students and community members see that it works. Brisco adds the community needs to see VNT as another school option, not just a program, and students who enroll in it would commit to graduation from it.

Other VNT teachers include Matt Stephenson, a Geometry teacher who will teach one class in VNT and the rest in HNHS classes; and Richelle MacAleese and Maggie Steensma, special services teachers who will serve as "academic coaches," Renier says.

She adds VNT staff has worked hard this summer, with trainings, workdays and weekly meetings, all in an effort to be prepared for the students when they walk in Aug. 12, she says.

Complete caption: A group of Viking New Tech teachers discuss some last-minute details before school starts during one of their weekly meetings on Wednesday, July 28. Pictured are (from left) math teacher Shoshannah McKinney, Viking New Tech Director Kelly Renier, biology teacher Ashley Gonterman, computer applications teacher Michelle Santa, English teacher Chris Brisco and math teacher Matt Stephenson.