BUTLER TWP. — So, when the Hazleton Area Academy of Science opens it’s doors to students for the first time Thursday, what will make this high school so different?
For starters, students had to undergo an application process, including a test.
Then there are the new Windows 8 tablet computers every student will get, which will allow them, among other things, to review teacher lectures after school at home or, well, pretty much anywhere, anytime.
The class offerings are heavy on advanced-level science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects — Which makes sense, since the district touts the new academy as the region’s first STEM school. It’s also frequently referred to as the area’s first “magnet school,” a term that generally means the school has a focus on specific subjects or fields designed to draw students to it.
There are also classes held off-campus with partners such as The Commonwealth Medical College, as well opportunities to take college courses — not “college level,” actual college courses, complete with credits toward a degree — right inside the school.
Did we mention the walls move? No, not like those randomly re-arranging staircases in Harry Potter movies, but they can be shifted freely enough to blend classes and lessons like, well, like chemicals in lab beakers.
“The idea is to bring two classes and two teachers together,” Assistant Principal Marie Ernst said. “Maybe we have a biology teacher and a civics teacher talking about environmental issues. Well, the civics teacher could discuss what are the laws, what are the legal aspects.”
The academy is housed in what had been a pre-built shell in the Can Do Corporate Center. The district spent more than $6 million setting up everything inside since construction started last December.
Strictly speaking, district Superintendent Francis Antonelli noted, the academy is a program of the Hazleton Area High School, not a separate school. In fact, it’s already been underway, after a fashion, with 180 students at the high school who were considered academy students last year.
“They were in a lot of different classrooms separately,” Ernst said, “The only time they were completely together with their magnet group was in their science classes.”
This year they will be in their own building, and there will be about 325 of them, Ernst said. Antonelli said the academy will teach grades nine through 11 this year and add 12th grade next year. Maximum enrollment is about 125 per grade, or 500 students.
How do you get in? “There is an application process that looks at grades, PSSA (state test) scores, teacher recommendations that include how much the student participates and the work ethic of the student,” Ernst said. The student must complete a science problem, analyzing data and writing a hypothesis.”
Students are given a score from 0 to 100, though Ernst stressed that’s not simply an average of test grades, it’s a scale created for her and other teachers involved in the selection process to gauge students. Get 70 or better, and you get a crack at enrollment.
Eligible students can enter the academy at any grade, though they can get in only at the start of either of two annual semesters, Ernst said. Likewise, if they decide the academy isn’t a good fit, they can return to the main high school at the end of a semester.
The academy teaches everything required by the state — all the English, history, civics and other non STEM subjects, but a student is much more likely to get a dose of science in those subjects, and certainly has a deeper range of options in the STEM offerings.
“We have introduction to computer science, Java, two levels of anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, robotics, organic chemistry” Ernst rattled off. “The school lends itself to teaching across disciplines because the walls move.”
The Academy is also collaborating with area colleges to bring professors on campus and provide credit courses at reduced tuition. This year a Penn State Hazleton professor will be offering engineering courses at one-quarter tuition, while two Luzerne County Community College teachers will provide Chemistry courses for about one-third the LCCC tuition.
Antonelli noted PPL offers financial assistance for students who want to take college courses but can’t.
The academy is also big on business partners both to arrange for students to get out in the field and learn by doing and by bringing people from businesses into the school.
“We have a partnership with The Commonwealth Medical College last year during the pilot program that sent students to the college for 10 Saturdays where they worked with medical faculty and students in their labs, on real lab problems,” Antonelli said.
Cabot Oil & Gas has also teamed with the district to come in and present the business side of the industry and the controversial drilling procedure of hydraulic fracturing dubbed “fracking.” Academy teachers cover some aspects, a Cabot representative covers others, and environmentalist can be brought in to give that perspective, Antonelli said. “Students see the issue form varying viewpoints and can draw their own conclusions,” he said.
Antonelli stressed the effort to set up more collaborations so students can get real-world experience working on problems in their own community. “The idea is to include a lot of project-based learning,” he said.
The technology in the school is all geared toward such projects: computer tablets, computerized “smart boards” in every room, the use of “lecture capture” to allow students to review teacher lessons at will online. “”They can create PowerPoint presentations, videos, arrange and hold town-hall style meetings,” Ernst said. “We want students to be able to express knowledge in different ways.”
While the application process makes the school selective, it’s not exclusive.
Students with disabilities get full access and assistance as needed if they get in. And at the end of the day — or more exactly, the end of 12th grade — they still are Hazleton Area High School students, graduating with the students at the main building rather than having a separate ceremony.
“We are tremendously excited,” Antonelli said as the opening day approached. “We think it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for the students, for the entire Hazleton Area School District, and for the community.”