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First Group of Students Completes Innovation High Program

There was the time Kent Innovation High School student Anna Reynolds’ group surveyed the community on their knowledge of human trafficking. Or the time an entrepreneurship-focused competition motivated them to demonstrate how to cross-pollinate snap and snow peas to create a yummy hybrid.

Looking back over four years at Innovation High, Anna sees how she learned to “own” her work.

“Having that knowledge of ‘Someone’s going to see this,’ there’s that pressure that you need to perform at a higher level,” Anna said. “You have to take ownership of what you did.”

She is part of the first cohort to complete the program. Of the inaugural class of 100 students, 57 recently celebrated finishing in tandem with graduating from their home school districts.

New Tech Network schools focus on:

  • Personalizing learning for all students
  • Increasing relevance of learning to better engage students
  • Cultivating the student voice so students “own” their education

Students told of projects that challenged them to step beyond the pages of a textbook and find answers to complex problems, or experiences that put them into the center of things.

Ben Swanson said he got used to the notion that schoolwork can be more than just an assignment. His presentations were delivered to businesspeople; he completed an internship at APEX Spring and Stamping Corporation; and his projects had usefulness that went beyond school walls or report cards.

“I learned to interact with people in a professional environment,” said Ben, who is going into engineering at Michigan State University this fall.

Kent Innovation students delve deep into project-based learning through schoolwork that is 80 percent collaborative. Students answer problems in open-ended fashion, learning that the process is every bit as important as the product when it comes to grasping a concept. Many tie-ins are made with the Grand Rapids community, including partnerships with businesspeople.

The model develops critical thinking, presentation and teamwork skills.

“The program itself helps the students who go here be prepared for what’s coming,” said student Grace Fild, who plans to study music and worship art at Cornerstone University.

“The curriculum is so different, and in the real world not everything is like, ‘This is what we need to know right now.’ It really gives us the opportunity to be prepared and not go in blind.”

A New Approach

When students registered in 2011-2012, before the Kent Innovation school building was even constructed on the Kent ISD campus, Principal Kymberly Kimber used a PowerPoint presentation to describe how things would operate. Students took a leap of faith, wanting something different than traditional education. The school, which doubled space-wise thanks to a large addition that opened last year, now operates as a ninth- through 12th-grade high school.

Anna Reynolds, of both KIH and Lowell High School and mother Carmen Tawney, a Lowell Elementary Teacher
Anna Reynolds, of both KIH and Lowell High School and mother Carmen Tawney, a Lowell Elementary Teacher

Kimber and 12 teachers have evolved the model into what it is today, thanks to strong communitypartnerships. Seniors are dual-enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College, earning up to 14 credits. They take electives next door at Kent Career Technical Center. Internships span industries.

Projects touch every subject area and connect with people from various backgrounds, spanning age groups and experience. Recently a class interviewed World War II veterans, developed documentaries and presented them at Wealthy Street Theatre in Grand Rapids. Another group, for a lesson in physics, worked with elementary students in Allendale on robotics.

The school’s launch was initiated by Kent ISD administrators and local district superintendents who saw a demand for the school. Each year, 100 students begin as freshman representing all 20 districts. Demographics resemble a typical public high school. Currently, there is a 7 percent special-education population; 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 20 percent are minority students.

“Kent Innovation High constitutes the research and development component for every high school in Kent county. The innovative approaches to teaching and learning honed at KIH benefit not only KIH students, but they are exported and benefit every teacher and student in the county. We are thrilled that Forest Hills students and teachers can play a role in helping KIH advance education in West Michigan.” – Forest Hills Superintendent Dan Behm 

Kent Innovation was a demonstration site for New Tech Network for the first three years, meaning educators from across the globe visit to see how it works. Founded in Napa, California, in 1996, the New Tech Network is made up of 160 schools in 26 states and Australia.

“It seems a little surreal,” said Kimber of seeing her first class walk out the door for the last time. “You get very close to the students, being that small school. I love to see them go and succeed and I’m proud of what they have accomplished and where they are heading…They are a special group, and they always will be to me.”

Students looked back on their experiences.

“Being the guinea pig is always hard,” said Anna, who plans to pursue an education degree at Grand Rapids Community College and Michigan State University. “But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

It was fun, added Callum Williams, who plans to attend GRCC and Kendall University for a graphic design degree.

“For me it was great being a part of something new. It helped me by teaching me to be in a very professional environment and to deal with different situations,” said Callum.

Helping to Meet the Needs of All Students

Carmen Tawney, parent of Innovation High student Anna Reynolds, and a teacher at Lowell Area Schools, said the project-based learning school provided a wonderful option for her daughter, although not for her son.

“This was the best choice for my daughter, to come here to Innovation High. My daughter and some of my former students have grown so much in their confidence and ability to speak in public. Some of them were really shy. Now when you speak to them, it’s so different and they present themselves so well.”

And her son? “He really thrives in a structured, more traditional environment, so he’s doing very well at Lowell.”

Anna, who both graduated from Lowell and celebrated with classmates at Innovation High this week, said “Coming here changed my career path and my outlook. I couldn’t ask for a better experience. I’m more professional, more outgoing and more collaborative. I’ve been really inspired by my teachers and hope to do that for students someday when I become a teacher.”


Kent Innovation High School

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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