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Education & Enrichment

Full STEAM Ahead at Plano Academy High School

It’s Monday, and you’re heading to your high school in the midst of your senior year. First, you sign up for the classes you’re going to take that day, chemistry, government and history, using a website called Canvas. Then you meet up with your project team to work on a presentation.

After that you eat lunch, finish your homework in an open learning space and then head off to one of the seminars you signed up for that morning. Later, you might go meet with your facilitator, otherwise known as a teacher, to discuss a research paper. Finally, at the end of the day, you could hit the gym or go to robotics club. Or maybe you’re working on the solar car that day.

This is not the schedule for a typical high school student, but for learners at Plano ISD Academy, it is. At Titan High, as it’s colloquially known, traditional education practices have been thrown out of the window and replaced with an innovative, project-based learning community.

There are no formal classrooms, and instead of a football squad or marching band, clubs are centered around solar cars and robotics. Titan High is based on the STEAM program: Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics. Essentially, Titan High teaches learners to thrive in a professional environment.

The first and probably the biggest difference you notice when you walk in is that it doesn’t look, or feel, like a school. The front desk sits in a small but open atrium of sorts, and to the right is a dune buggy-like vehicle which, upon further inspection, is a solar car designed and created by students—the recipient of state and national awards.

Windows substitute where one might assume walls would be, and the open “learning spaces” are in full view of passersby. The spaces are large open rooms—as big as four traditional classrooms—which can be used for seminars or as meeting places for study groups; one even holds a practice arena for the robotics team.

Photos by Cori Baker

As I walk through on a tour with student ambassadors Rahul Menon and Brandon Gansell, I observe learners sitting alone, concentrating on their school-provided laptops; others are grouped together around tables, and some even lounge on the floor. To one side, a facilitator sits quietly doing her own work; only her age distinguishes her from the learners. Evidently the high school is small; just 450 students comprise grades 9-12, compared to the 2,600 at Plano Senior High.

Titan High was not intentionally built as a school. It was an AT&T Call Center back in the day, sold in 2007 and finally, given to the school district in 2010. And thanks to a generous donation of $5 million from Texas Instruments, along with support from Cisco and Southwest Airlines, Plano ISD did not invest any money for the initial start-up.

So with a building and proper funding, the architecture firm SHW Group, now known as Stantec, was hired to redesign the space with instructions to prioritize learning—not teaching. The firm won the Caldull award from the Texas Association of School Boards for adaptive reuse of the building, and, even more impressive, architects and independent school district officials from across the country, and even as far as Panama, now come to study the school’s layout and learning philosophy.

Following my tour, I speak with Principal Lynn Ojeda and Assistant Principal Catherine Gaschen, who constantly share their message with visitors: learning drives the spaces, the space doesn’t drive learning.

Ojeda: When we first came together the community formed a visioning committee. There were city leaders, faith leaders, business leaders, education leaders, parents, learners, teachers; all working together for six to nine months. They did virtual tours of other schools because there was a strong belief that we needed to offer some choice.

Every learner [in Plano] has access to an outstanding education in PISD. We do things well. But we are surrounded by other communities that offer different choices. When we talk about the future of education, where does school choice come in? Our district was very thoughtful in wanting to offer a choice to a kiddo who wanted to pursue a different path.

Plano ISD Academy is one of three choice schools that have opened in Plano in the last few years. The other two are The Health Sciences Academy and The IB World School. The academy opened its doors back in 2013 and will be graduating its second class of seniors this fall; the first class to have attended for all four years.

Ojeda: Cathy has always said, we’re not about bodies…

Gaschen: …bodies per square [foot], we’re about brains per square foot. Many traditional schools are built like prisons. Of course, we’re not the only school using innovative methods: Williams, McMillan…and Shepton is about to be renovated.

O: We just have more flexibility. A traditional campus is a lot like a cruise ship. You move through the water very smoothly. If you’re a tug boat, like us, you feel every wave in the ocean, but the ship can’t turn on a dime; change is slower. We have the opportunity to make changes. There are growing pains that we experience, but we are in a unique place because of how small we are.

Of course, it’s not perfect. When giving tours, Principal Ojeda is not shy in admitting that the Southwest Fabrication Lab, which is full of sawmills, welding tools and large pieces of wood and metal, could have desperately used a rolling garage door.

G: When you look at an academic feedback loop it’s numerical in nature and it can be based on compliance. Just doing the homework and taking a test, that’s not a real demonstration of learning. You can’t really learn without feedback. Forward feedback in our case is: I’ve done a singular iteration of something, and I get additional feedback from my peers or a facilitator, and I’m going to take that to the next step.   

O: Or even [feedback] from a professional mentor. What we want is for that professional expertise to enhance authentic learning, because even as educators with degrees in that same subject, we can’t necessarily do that.

It’s one thing for us to understand the power of markets, it’s something completely different to bring in a marketing expert from a company to say, “Show me what you created, and have you thought about this? What would you do if this were to happen? Why did you select this as your target audience? What is it about your product that is going to reach a wide group?”

For example, Rahul and Brandon’s favorite project was for one of the school’s corporate partners, Southwest Airlines. Rahul’s group was focused on business solutions; Brandon’s team was marketing; others were focused on elements like engineering.

Rahul’s group created a feasibility study on expanding Southwest Airlines into foreign markets, using math to predict when the airline would see profits. Brandon’s team made an app for unaccompanied minors and their parents.

The child would use the app to check in on the plane, while the parents could track the status of the flight. Another group put automatic brakes on a drink cart, in case it started going too fast down the aisle, and added a soda machine.

Their findings were reported with professional-level presentations to Southwest executives. This practice is another important factor that leads these learners to success; Rahul says, “You couldn’t just research a solution online and spit it out. You have to really think for yourself.” It’s just one example of how Titan High gives students autonomy over their education.

Not only do students get to present to executives, they also get internships from places like Pepsico, Dell and Toyota. In some cases these have turned into job offers, waiting for them once they’ve graduated college.

So how do Titan High students stack up in the competitive field of college admissions? The first graduating class was accepted to over 50 national and international universities, as well as awarded a combined $3 million in scholarships. Their class was made up of only 69 students.

And feedback from graduates has been astounding, according to Ojeda and Gaschen. Alumni have reported feeling very well prepared for college, not just in terms of knowledge, but in skills such as time management, organizing study groups, taking advantage of a professor’s office hours, group collaboration, project management and giving professional presentations.

By allowing learners to have so many freedoms, they created good habits which are leading them to success.

While this program sounds magical, which it kind of is, it’s not for everybody. Trust is a key component to the system’s efficiency, Rahul tells me. Facilitators trust learners to stay on top of their work, but in order to have those freedoms, the facilitators expect that much more. Students do leave the program from time to time, not because they fail out, but rather they realize this program is not suited for their learning style.

“You can’t really fake being here, it really shows,” Rahul says. “You don’t have to have an insane IQ and you don’t have to blindly work hard. But you have to have true grit which means working on the right thing, at the right time. Once you learn that within your first year, then you can really succeed.”

G: We keep saying education is broken, but I can promise you amazing things [are] happening every single day. Maybe we’re not broken. Maybe we are absolutely amazing. Public educators work tirelessly to work with kids and make an investment in the future, in what’s next.

It’s not about the walls. [Former PISD Superintendent] Dr. Otto used to talk about this: what made Plano ISD great was that there was always a partnership in our community. Education is a community experience. [Administrators and teachers] have quite a bit of training; most of us have at least one master’s degree, if not two… And at a certain point we have to trust and believe in them.

O: Plano might not always be the first one to the gate, but we’ll probably do it best because we’re always watching, listening and learning; from our superintendent to a teacher in the classroom. The City of Plano is a pretty special place and I think our school district has been intentional about making those connections.

We are seeing amazing outcomes of a dream that’s become a reality. [For the future] what I really want is the privilege to continue to steward this vision that is much bigger than me. It’s a community vision of what our schools will be, and [that vision] has a great track record for exploring other potentially unique schools in our district. We don’t have to be the only three schools of choice in PISD. I think there will be consideration, study and research which will lead to the district looking at additional schools at the secondary and the elementary level eventually. It’s about learning from our learning.

Cori Baker
Cori Baker is a journalist and photographer based in Plano, Texas. Cori is an alumna of Plano Senior High School and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor's in Journalism and a minor in business.

Cori has worked as an intern for KUT Radio, Austin's NPR affiliate station, a photographer for Reporting Texas, and is currently the Creative Assistant at the Plano Profile. Her work has been featured on Reporting Texas, Orange Magazine, Plano Profile, and the Austin American-Statesman.

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