By Nichole Bernier
As WHS Evolutions program nears the end of its debut year, the administration is reflecting on its experience, making a few modifications, and urging the community to take a closer look. This week, WHS throws open the schoolyard doors for the Spring Expo, showcasing Evolutions capstone projects on May 11th at 7pm.
Evolutions, for those not yet familiar with it, is an innovative school-within-a-school educational program open to juniors and seniors, with three tenets distinguishing it from a typical classroom structure: Collaboration, interdisciplinary learning, and experiential learning. A themed unit (say, War) is addressed in all the core classes (Math, English, Social Studies, Science, Art), and discussed through the lens of that subject - for example, a numerical analysis of mortality statistics, and sample chapters from a cross-section of literature about global conflict. Students are divided into groups that work together on a collaborative research project of their own design, such as physically recreating a military base camp, curating a museum exhibit, or designing a memorial.
Evolutions' workload is, generally speaking, more choice-driven and cooperative than standard classroom curriculum. It might mean less homework in terms of reading hours and memorization for tests, but likely no less work time, and possibly more. Every unit requires a self-reflection piece at the end, with students examining how they worked as a member of the group. Some units require a personal evaluation project (working individually rather than as a team), and some of the work is shown community-wide at an Expo, held twice a year.
Evolutions isn't aimed at any one particular type of student, and there are a variety of factors that attract applicants. "There are a million reasons why you might be curious about doing things another way. It might be that the current way doesn't work for you - it could be you're a kid who has social anxiety and wants to connect to peers, and you build a much tighter community in Evolutions, where they know each other and work together. It could also be for the high-flying, high-achieving kid who just doesn't find the regular route meaningful," says Dr. Jamie Chisum, a firm believer that the program is for anybody and everybody. "We believe everyone has the opportunity to feel smart and to be heard. That's not always possible in the regular classroom. When you bring the disciplines together, that's when you really see it come out."
Students find less emphasis on individual achievement and grades and more on negotiation and collaboration, working together with a team that's not entirely of their choosing. High stakes still exist (thus the Honors designation), not only in the form of traditional grades, but in public accountability as well: the brainstorming of ideas, advocating for your methodology, and having the results visible to peers and sometimes the wider community.
"These are not just tasks that get memorized, done, and forgotten in two weeks. You work hard because you care, and because you want it to mean something," says an Evolutions junior who appreciates the tight-knit community of people with whom she can be enthusiastic about learning without being branded a "hardo" - someone who geeks out by going above and beyond the required workload. "We have a Facebook group, and people post educational articles daily, saying things like, 'This reminded me of your project.' There's a group of people you can share cool things with. It's usually kind of frowned upon to talk about cool educational things."
Thom Henes, English teacher for Evolutions, says the program seems to work best for students who are open to different approaches to learning, willing to try new things, and aren't held back by the fear of stumbling in front of others. He recalls one student telling him that she joined the program specifically for that challenge - because she knew it was going to make her uncomfortable. Those who probably aren't best suited to the program, he says, are students who prefer to perform specific, well-defined tasks. "The kids who tend to be less suited to the program are those who haven't been able to transition their mindset away from, 'just tell me what I need to do to get by.' You really have to have self-motivation, and take ownership of what you're doing."
They also, at least for the students in this debut year, have to take ownership of what it means to be part of an innovation that isn't widely understood, and is viewed by some as less academically rigorous.
"That's the stigma," says Henes. "We are more visible because we move around the building a lot and get into group dynamics where people can see us, and to some it may not look like learning."
The first class of Evolutions has found the inaugural year to be a tremendous opportunity but also at times a mixed blessing, with the burden of having to define the program for those who don't yet understand it. "Some of the students aren't the nicest about it. They see us doing projects in the halls and say, 'I guess it's arts and crafts day for Evolutions,' " says one Evolutions student, a junior. "Personally, I've matured so much. It's about being secure in yourself, not caring what people think just because it's different. It looks like we're not doing work because we enjoy what we're doing. Wellesley is competitive, so if you're having fun, you're not working." And yet several students in the program have observed over time the curiosity of other students gravitating toward their work in the halls, drawn in. "It's a cool thing when you're seeing some people come around daily to see what's been added on to our murals, hanging back but watching it evolve," she adds. "You can tell they feel involved."
College has always been the elephant in any room where Evolutions is being discussed. Will Evolutions kids be perceived as less ambitious? Will participation in the program keep them from getting into their top-choice schools?
"College admissions people are intrigued by Evolutions, they see that you took this risk. I feel like I'm able to have conversations that are more intense because of it. My biggest hesitation was what Evolutions would mean for college, but it's helped me," says an Evolutions senior. "And it's probably made me look at colleges that are different than the ones I might have looked at if I hadn't taken it."
Over the past year, the WHS administration encountered some practical concerns about students' limited ability to take classes outside the program, so program changes put in effect for 2016-2017 will address this. Next year, Evolutions allows for three full classes outside its curriculum - including math, foreign language, and an elective - compared to this year's 1.5.
"If you were on the track of having to get Calculus in a certain year, this is where people struggled. Some weren't doing Evolutions because they were afraid to get off the train," said Dr. Chisum, who watched enrollment decrease from this year's 80 ("which was way too big") to 25 for next year. By eliminating that obstacle, he's hoping students who are intrigued might find it within reach. "Maybe a way to visualize it is finding a way to get a traditional class in some other way-in summer school, or later in college, if you're in no rush. Because Evolutions is a unique experience. You are encapsulated in this, and can't recreate it somewhere else."
This summer, Dr. Chisum arranged for a Wellesley faculty team to visit an education institute in San Diego to stay on top of innovative programs around the country. He appreciates that the lower enrollment next year is part of the natural ebb and flow of a new program while its structure, and public perception, evolves. And he looks forward to that evolution, and hopes the Wellesley community gives it room to breathe.
"What I hope is that people allow for there to be another path through WHS," said Dr. Chisum, who's been inspired by innovative schools such as High Tech High, featured in the documentary "Most Likely To Succeed." On the flip side, he has been deeply impacted by students he's encountered who are struggling to "survive" high school, and is devastated when the school loses a student who has been suffering.
"I don't want school to be something to be endured. Those students don't look at it as a thing to be enjoyed, it's a means to an end, and college is just this albatross. Until you get in you can't be happy. But where's the joy for now? That doesn't sit well with me, and it doesn't sit well with a lot of people here. I felt this way long before I thought of Evolutions. I want there to be many paths."
CLICK HERE. for more information on the Evolutions program at the Wellesley High School.