ABERDEEN – A five-fold approach to enhancing student opportunities is the key to Aberdeen High School’s application for School of Innovation status, meant to better prepare students for success in work and in life. Programs focus on reducing achievement gaps by expanding student learning experiences.

Whether or not the Mississippi Department of Education awards it or not, district superintendent Jeff Clay and AHS Principal Dr. Dana Bullard are determined to push for more creative approaches to education, which is already evidenced through several existing innovative aspects at the schools.

“Whether we’re awarded this or not, we’re going to do everything in our power to implement all phases of this, even if it takes three years,” he said. “We want all of our stakeholders to know we’re trying to be creative and innovative to give our students the best opportunities we can.”

The main approach of School of Innovation status is to develop AHS as a recording arts school.

“We’re doing innovative things and we’re not waiting for someone to say it’s OK,” Bullard said. “We want the community to know our kids can do this and we want them to do it.”

Ultimately, she envisions a recording studio educating students about mixing, producing, creating podcasts and filmmaking. She applied for a federal STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) grant towards the program.

“If you have (Netflix series) 'Last Chance U,' you have something in these kids’ lives people are going to be fascinated by,” Bullard said.

In addition to a recording arts studio and career-technical education recording arts pathway, the proposed innovative model includes a middle-college and dual credit program with the Mississippi University for Women; a review and revitalization of career-technical education pathways and partnerships; livestreaming of AHS teachers in Google Hangout or Zoom for alternative school students; and creating an authentic program for students two or more years behind grade level.

Balancing classes

AHS currently has eight seniors taking six hours each semester at Itawamba Community College through a middle-college program, and four of them finished last semester with a 4.0 GPA, two of them had a 3.66, and two of them had a 3.33.

To prepare for next year’s program, which entails students taking college and high school classes, AHS will administer the ACT March 24, particularly for sophomores wanting to participate.

“They’ll need certain ACT scores, good disciplinary records, good GPAs and good attendance records. Our plan for next year is to have 10 juniors and 10 seniors in the middle-college program,” Bullard said.

The district has been in communication with MUW officials for potential guest instructor lecturers for upper-level math and upper-level science courses. A partnership with the university also folds in with the goal for the recording arts studio.

“MUW is so suited for this. Aberdeen has such a great arts interest, which is now limited to first and second period because we share instructors with the middle school,” Bullard said. “They have digital media and arts at MUW, and we have discussed a summer program where students work on digital media in the morning and take dual enrollment in the afternoon for five weeks.”

During the 2015 Mississippi Legislative session, Senate Bill 2191 was passed to allow for school districts to apply for the program. Corinth, Booneville and Baldwyn, Oxford, Gulfport, Vicksburg, Grenada and Hinds County currently have School of Innovation statuses, which are being used for aspects such as early college, career-technical education, distance learning and career academics.

Creative learning

AHS’ JROTC program is in the process of acquiring two virtual flight simulators, including 75 hours of remote instruction. Clay said it is the only high school in the nation to have a program with this particular brand of flight simulator.

AHS JROTC instructor Sgt. Allen Williams presented to the Aberdeen School Board last month about the possibility of participating in an aerospace science academy. The concept was presented by one of Williams’ connections in the aviation training industry to a two-star general at Air Education and Command in San Antonio, Texas last month, and AHS’ interest was discussed.

Aberdeen Elementary School gifted teacher Jessica Flynt was awarded a $2,500 Tennessee Valley Authority STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) grant two weeks ago for resources to help build several skills for students. 

“We plan to buy a sewing machine, microscopes, a circuit board, craft supplies, storage bins, hand tools, building supplies and more. These specific supplies will help us create hands-on learning opportunities for our kids and allow them to use the skills taught in the classroom in practical ways," Flynt said. 

The grant is part of $600,000 in competitive S.T.E.M. grants awarded to 142 schools across the Tennessee Valley. More than 400 schools applied. 

Last week, AES received Mississippi’s first SMALLab, which is an interactive platform enabling students to use a wand on an electronic board on the floor to learn lessons.

SMALLab stands for Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, and it includes lessons in subjects such as math and English language arts.

“This morning, a group of students tested it out with an English exercise. They were given a word and had to determine if it’s an adjective or a superlative. It teaches teamwork and collaboration and follows along with lessons. It’s a good opportunity to reinforce what the teachers are teaching in an interactive way,” Clay said last Wednesday. “A lot of it is memory recall.”

While at a conference in New York 13 months ago, he saw a SMALLab demonstration and had the opportunity last fall to apply for a grant covering the hardware. The district pays for the software.

“I thought it would be a good engagement opportunity for the elementary school, and we can build it from there,” he said, adding his ultimate goal is to have one at AHS for computer animation lessons.

During the fall semester, AES received a sensory path. Originally meant to help engage autistic students, the colorful activity-type walking path in one of the school’s hallways can be used by all students.

“I was teaching special education in Oxford. I had been researching movement and its effect on cognition since I started teaching. What I found with the kids I had when I first started teaching is when kids are trying to focus and trying to work and they start zoning out, their little minds get distracted,” said Holly Clay, who developed The Sensory Path, Inc.

She tried different physical movements and took data notes on how that helped the students perform. Her idea expanded to an area where teachers could help engage students through a series of movements that worked through her research and formed the sensory path.

“Kids with autism, sensory input or even ADHD, if their bodies are craving a sensory input, their ability to get what’s in their brain down in their hands to do their class work or even sit up in a chair … if their bodies are craving a sensory input, they’ll start behaving improperly,” she said.

She said if students with such conditions don’t get a sensory break, their brains can’t physically tell their bodies what to do in class. The path is designed in a way to affect each area of a student’s legs and arms, and it stretches backs and muscles. The sensory path is inclusive for all students.

"It allows our students to have an active way to reset their brains during the school day. We do have several students who need that way to get out that energy. We have a six and a half-hour instructional day, and some of our younger students need that to get energy out to begin instruction again," said AES Principal Lauren Fondren.

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