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Mineola High School Principal Discusses Project-Based Learning

High School team presents plan on main goals moving forward with state testing

The landscape of student education in the 21st century is rapidly changing from a traditional fact-based curriculum to a project-based learning environment, and Mineola High School is currently evaluating the benefits of embracing this new model for teaching.

According to New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner, the United States has been put at a serious disadvantage globally because of a lack of homogenous standards and assessments. With Steiner’s words in mind, a new, national assessment system will likely be anchored into schools, which means Regents exams in English and Math may be a thing of the past three to four years from now.

These new standards and assessments have changed the way educators teach lessons, as there is a newfound emphasis on giving students a deeper understanding of skills and concepts rather than simply memorizing facts that may soon be forgotten.

To get Mineola schools prepared for the new assessment process, high school principal Ed Escobar and several teachers within the district presented a plan to the school board on Dec. 19, outlining the high school’s main goals moving forward. Escobar said the three main goals for the high school will be to use “response to intervention” strategies to monitor student progress, implement common formative assessments, and introduce project-based learning (PBL) into the district.

In project-based learning, students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem or challenge. With this style of learning, students use critical thinking to learn how they can apply and analyze the content they were taught. In the past, students would learn facts and memorize content, and very likely forget about it days later and not necessarily know how to apply what they learned in a post-graduation college or career.

Board President Christine Napolitano asked Escobar what he thinks will be the biggest challenge in implementing a project-based learning environment into Mineola High School.

“I think the students would embrace something like this,” Escobar responded. “They always ask why they are learning something. For example, they ask what’s the purpose of learning about transformations in Geometry, or rocks in Earth Science. But if you show them how they can apply it, you wouldn’t have those kinds of questions.”

Escobar later said that getting all of the district’s teachers on board with the new plan might be difficult. “I think the key issue in our school would be working to get all of the staff on board with this,” he noted. “I would say three-quarters of the staff would think this is a good idea. That’s not everyone, so we have to work at getting everyone on board.”

“We teach content because it ends up on the Regents Exam.” School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Nagler added. “If the Regents goes away and you get this PISA question, the teachers’ heads are going to spin around because it’s a change that’s 180 degrees. You teach content your whole career, and now guess what, they’re not asking questions about content anymore.

“You have to apply the content,” Nagler continued. “You still have to know [the content], but now you have to apply it to answer the question. That’s a whole different way of teaching.”

Nagler was referring to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in over 70 participating countries. Nagler said he understands why the teachers may be resistant to change, but it’s important for them to get ready for the 2014-15 school year, when Regents Exams may be replaced by computer-based assessments.

“They’re not going to believe it until the assessment changes,” Nagler said. “But we want to have these foundations in place so they know what it is and what we’re expecting them to do. [These changes] are coming.”

In other matters, the board approved a payment of $10,000 to satisfy claims against the district in connection with the cleanup of the Port Washington Landfill Superfund site.

“This was a long time ago, prior to the board and administration,” Nagler said. “There was some improper disposal of waste. In an effort to close the books on this, we arranged to pay $10,000 for our part in that.”

Legal counsel representatives said that close to 100 districts were involved in the Superfund cleanup after New York State went after eight to 10 primary parties they thought were responsible.The initially targeted parties turned around and went “under circular,” which meant that anyone who ever deposited waste in what become this superfund site would ultimately be responsible for its cleanup.

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Mineola district was originally on the hook for $15,000, but they negotiated down to $10,000.