In the nation’s best high schools, learning is powerfully connected to life and to students’ interests. This is what we saw at Salt Lake Center for Science Education, where educators were committed to giving students a voice in their own authentic learning opportunities. The school’s seniors told us that everything they learn at SLCSE helps them grow. “You can take it outside of high school,” they told us, “teachers teach you how to teach yourself.”
To leverage the benefits of its location in a diverse area of Salt Lake City, SCLSE reserves at least 50 percent of its available spaces to kids from the neighborhood. This charter school’s curriculum is de-tracked and inclusive—students are welcome in any classes, including Advanced Placement courses. With an eye toward access and equity, the school deliberately places students in heterogeneous classes that include special education, English language, and ethnically diverse students. All students have access to interesting electives such as commercial art, jewelry making, bike shop, financial literacy, 3D printing and design, and peer leadership.
A healthy, trusting school environment supports teaching and learning, with students and teachers learning from each other. When students, for example, felt that more needed to be done at the school to address LGBT issues, they created and taught a professional development session for the staff. Students also lead peer mediation programs and mindfulness classes. Similarly, SLCSE staff members encourage students to “fail forward,” to take risks and learn from their mistakes.
Teachers, too, are given license to be flexible and creative in their scheduling and coursework, frequently swapping students who need more time to work through challenging academic concepts or creating new seminars and partnerships based on their and their students’ interests.
All students benefit from the school’s authentic, project-based learning grounded in real world issues. Interdisciplinary and teamed classes for math/science and history/language arts are common, and many courses are linked with internships and other experiences through partnerships with the University of Utah, local businesses, and science and arts organizations.
As partners in Hawk Watch International, for example, SLCSE students observe and band birds and then release them. Back in the classroom, they calculate statistical data related to raptor sustainability. Another example is the school’s the “Down the Drain” project, where students work in the city’s water treatment plant to learn how water systems function. Students also have opportunities to conduct advanced science research in labs at the University of Utah.
True to the school’s name, it offers students rigorous STEM courses. But these are combined with multiple opportunities to engage in humanities, arts, and outdoor education experiences. When students told us, “our school is so much more than science,” they captured a fundamental and wonderful truth about Salt Lake Center for Science Education.