Transformative Education pilot course canceled after delays

Last spring, Transformative Education, an interdisciplinary course which had been several years in the making, finally seemed to be coming together—students filled out applications and attended interviews for the course, which was scheduled to meet at 1:49 p.m. on Wednesdays. The students admitted into the course were divided into Spanish, English, sociology, STEM, math, and art focus groups, the end goal of the course being to combine the various perspectives to implement solutions to real-world problems. The course would count as a year-long, five-credit independent study for all the participants.

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

After several weeks of waiting for the course to commence after the school year began, the 36 juniors and seniors who were accepted into the course received a letter from principal Gary Snyder informing them that the course had been canceled.

The letter, sent out on September 29, apologized for the cancellation but reminded students that the course was a “pilot” course and therefore had not been set in stone.

“While we delayed the start hoping to be able to resolve lingering, but significant issues, we find ourselves near the first of October with several unresolved issues with the course,” the letter read.

The cancellation of the course was a disappointment to many involved with it. “Everybody was really hoping that it would come together, because everybody was so excited about it,” said Educational Media Specialist Jennifer Bigioni, who helped spearhead the course.

“We were always hopeful that we could get it ready, so even in the spring, it wasn’t ready, but we [still] advertised it as an option,” said principal Gary Snyder.

Because the course was offered to the students without a finalized curriculum, it had potential to be be canceled from the start. “There were just all these little things that couldn’t come together in time to still feel safe about running the class,” said Bigioni.

The idea for the course was originally conceived by Spanish teacher Martha Hayden, who leads the annual non-school-affiliated sightseeing and community service trip to Peru. “We worked for three years on the curriculum, how we were going to work the class, and how we were going to implement it,” said Hayden.

Although students had already been notified that the class would be postponed, they were unaware that the course would be canceled until they received the letter. “We couldn’t continue to just postpone it indefinitely, so we had to make that hard decision to say that it’s not going to run,” said Snyder.

The teachers running the course did not play a part in the decision-making process that led to its cancellation. “We were ready to go, so we were upset that it wasn’t going to happen because we had been working on it for a long time, and we actually were not informed that it was canceled. The students were informed, but [the teachers] weren’t,” said Hayden.

Some teachers did not feel the reasons provided by the administration for the cancellation were relevant.

“There were several reasons [that the administration provided], but as teachers, we feel that we had answers to those reasons,” said art teacher Judy Buckley, who was supposed to teach the design aspect of the course. “We were very disappointed and saddened because we had been working on it for three years.”

The teachers had put in a lot of effort to create and design the course, spending significant amounts of time outside of their normal hours and classes. Buckley said, “Most recently, we had professional development days centered on the class, [and] we had many meetings after school and during Wednesdays with all of these teachers.”

Students were not given a lot of information about the course throughout the month of September. “None of us knew what was going on until we got this letter,” said Asher Wulfman ’15. “I was told in August that I was part of [the course], and they said that they would give more information in a few weeks, so my expectation was that it would start at the beginning of the school year,” he said.

Even with the postponement, students were still in the dark about the problems with the course. “I was expecting in a couple weeks for it to start up, but I wasn’t sure,” said Sarah Eisenach ’15. “For the first couple weeks, we didn’t have any form of communication. They didn’t email us or say anything about what was going on. A couple people went up to the teachers, and they gave vague answers, like that they wouldn’t be meeting this week.”

Isabelle Sohn ’16 thought that it would provide valuable experiences for the students involved. “Confronting and trying to solve real world problems … [is] something important that we should learn as high schoolers,” she said.

The course appealed to students because of the focused discipline and the global application. “I found out that I would be working in the STEM discipline,” said Eisenach. “I was really looking forward to taking all of the different disciplines and working towards making an actual object or something that can be used to help [a] community.”

Other students felt the course would give them the opportunity to positively impact others’ lives. “It sounded like a great way to use the skills I already have to actually have a change in the world, which is something that you do not get to do a lot when you are in high school,” said Ben Donnelly-Fine ’16.

Many qualms and complaints about the sudden cancellation of the class arose after the letter was distributed. “To say that I am incredibly frustrated would be putting it mildly,” said Nora Schultz ’15. “I am more than incredibly frustrated. I have been planning on going and [talking] to either Mr. Snyder or whoever it was who finalized the decision.”

The teachers involved felt the same frustration as students. “I’m just sad that it’s not going to happen, because I really think that it’s a big loss for the students, who really would have enjoyed it and learned a lot,” said Hayden. “We really worked on it. We wanted it to be a student-centered class.”

Once the administration sent the letter to students, students who had been accepted into the course found themselves with free time after school on Wednesday that they might otherwise have used to participate in a program like Peer Group. “When I found out it was going to be a class just on 1:49 p.m. on Wednesdays, then I made a decision not to do Peer Group, not to do Big Brother Big Sister because I was leaving space for this course,” said Schultz. “I did not send in an application for those things because I was saving time for this course, and I was very excited for it. Now I wish I was a Peer Group leader.”

Shihan Yu ’15 was in the same predicament as Schultz regarding Peer Group. “Because of Transformative Education, I gave up my spot [in Peer Group] in order to commit to the program. With it being canceled, I wasted my time and the other opportunities I had,” Yu said.

While the course is not happening this year, it might return in an altered form. “We had to step back and regroup, think about the concept again, which is good, and then how we might be able to redesign it and implement it in the future,” said Snyder.

While it cannot be implemented this year, many still hope to see this realized. “An interdisciplinary course like that is exactly what we need in PHS and what education needs to start becoming,” said Schultz.

“It could still be a possibility, and people are still really motivated to make it happen,” said Bigioni. “It’s such an innovative program … It would be a shame if it died.”

Correction: October 29, 2014

An article that appeared in print and on the Tower’s website on October 24, 2014, about the cancellation of the Transformative Education pilot course, incorrectly stated that the main reason for the cancellation of the course was a lack of timeliness in the approval process, attributing this statement to Jennifer Bigioni. While Bigioni said that, as of October, the course had not yet been approved, she did not say that the lack of approval was due to the administration.

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