JHS seniors take part in experimental program

JOHNSTOWN – Students are being educated again this fall at the former Jansen Avenue Elementary School. But this time, they’re older and the instruction is different.

The Greater Johnstown School District reopened Jansen for its new Learning Project pilot program for a handful of preselected Johnstown High School seniors.

The school, now known simply as Jansen Avenue School, is the hub of a new experimental curriculum involving a project-based learning environment. The program involves group-directed, creative problem solving for students, giving them more hands-on work away from the typical classroom setting.

Students volunteer for the program through an application process and are selected by a district committee.

District officials say the Learning Project is an innovative, interdisciplinary project-based learning initiative. It encourages students by developing problem solving, critical thinking, communications and collaboration skills. Officials say it is done through a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, program model, and college credit can be awarded.

The district closed the former Jansen elementary school in June 2008. Enrollment dropped 24 percent from 1998 to that point, and district officials vacated the building for budgetary reasons, saving about $900,000 with the closure.

The Learning Project put part of the building back to use.

“People have said they’re really happy they’re seeing Jansen used,” said district Board of Education member Ronald Beck.

District Superintendent Robert DeLilli said the Learning Project involves the busing of 15 JHS students to Jansen daily to learn in the unconventional setting for a half-day in the mornings. Instructional sessions replace traditional 40-minute periods. Instruction is mainly done in the library space with two JHS faculty members – physics teacher Heather Buskirk and social studies teacher Anne Bagot.

District officials give much credit to Buskirk, a national board-certified teacher and Knowles Science Teaching Foundation alumni, with helping to launch the program.

“They seem to be enjoying it,” Buskirk said. “They want to be here.”

In normal classes, she said, there’s always a certain percentage of students late for class. Buskirk said with the Learning Project, the students “don’t want to miss it.”

Patricia Kilburn, the district’s director of curriculum, testing and personnel, said the Learning Project involves STEM and core subjects such as social studies, science, math and English. But the students also learn much more through hands-on work. For example, she said the students this fall are learning physics instruction involving accelerometers, an instrument that measures acceleration.

“They learn it all through projects,” Kilburn said.

DeLilli said some students are gaining physics credits though Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

One of the main reasons for the program is to create an “alternative pathway” for students to stay interested and engage the learning process, DeLilli said. Certain students are attracted to project-based models of learning.

Two of the JHS seniors studying last week at Jansen – Skylar Swatt and Sara Kosowicz – said the Learning Project allows for more quality learning.

“It’s better than just sitting in a study hall,” Swatt said.

Kosowicz said project-based learning allows for more informal and discussion about topics.

“They find it harder than they expected,” Buskirk said of her students. “It challenges them.”

Currently, she said, the students are working on an energy project involving the design of rubber-band racing cars that also involves creating an educational campaign.

Bagot, who teachers social studies and English at Jansen, said, “It’s challenging. We want to try to make all assignments as authentic as possible. They have to read two novels and comment. It’s a great opportunity.”

DeLilli said Jansen Avenue School also will be used next school year for a new $2.4 million P-Tech Grant program that was awarded to the region.

P-Tech, or Pathways in Technology, combines high school with early college opportunities for students in grades nine and higher. This concept connects high school, college and the world of work through college and industry partnerships. The grant will be disbursed over seven years. The money will pay for some staffing, lease space for Jansen, materials and tuition at FMCC for qualified students.

DeLilli said planning is under way for implementation in fall 2014. Students in ninth and 10th grades will go to Jansen, while students progressing along will spend 11th and 12th grades at FMCC and the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services center.

Kilburn said the P-Tech program is still being designed.

“It’s a great compliment to the Learning Project,” she said.

Michael Anich can be reached at