St. Leonard project earns national honor

Caitlin Ousley, a middle school science teacher at St. Leonard School, listened as students, from left, Dia Chase, Maggie Walsh, Hayden Greer and Morry Owen worked together April 19 at the school on Zorn Avenue. Through a new class called the “20% Time Project,” St. Leonard sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are turning their library into a media center and maker space. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

A new course at St. Leonard School aims to inspire critical-thinking skills, improve writing and encourage students to accept responsibility for learning. And it will result in a student-designed renovated media center.

It’s generated excitement at the school on Zorn Avenue and recently earned a national award.

The class — called the “20% Time Project” — is designed for the school’s 44 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The project was recognized earlier this month by Today’s Catholic Teacher. The national publication presented St. Leonard with a 2018 Innovation in Catholic Education award in the curriculum and instruction category. The recognition was accompanied by $2,000 in prize money.

“20%” refers to the amount of time the students dedicate to the course each week. The middle schoolers spend two class periods — about two hours — each week working on self-directed projects, a school-wide project they work on together and individual projects.

The idea stems from a presentation St. Leonard teachers saw at a conference last year and is based on concepts used by such companies as Google and 3M, which give their employees time each week to work on projects of their choosing.

Mary Parola, St. Leonard’s principal, said the course draws on skills and information the students have gleaned across the disciplines — math, reading, social studies and science.

“The goal has been for them to connect all that learning they’ve been exposed to all these years and make it their own,” she said.

The group project has focused on renovating the school’s library into a multiuse space that incorporates a media center and a makerspace.

The students have led the process from start to finish, Parola said. They’ve conducted research, calculated the cost and determined the project’s purpose and importance to their learning. Along the way, Parola said, the students have had to ensure the research is valid, learn to cite sources, organize their notes and put together a coherent plan.

The students established committees to handle everything from fundraising to the budget, furniture selection and technology. They also created agendas for meetings, honed public speaking skills and set long-term goals.

The growth in the students throughout the year has been evident, Parola said.

“I have seen students excited about learning and growing into competent speakers and writers actively seeking criticism to improve.

“I have seen relationships built and strengthened — among the students in different grades, between the teachers and students, among the four teachers who co-teach this class and the other school staff, and between the parish and school communities,” she said.

Madalyn Schepers, the middle school language arts and social studies teacher, said she’s seen the students’ writing abilities vastly improve as a result of the cross-discipline work.

“I’ve seen their writing skills grow tremendously and also their willingness to keep looking for answers, to keep pushing through when they hit a wall,” she said.

The 20% Time class is a chance, Schepers said, for the students to gain 21st-century skills that will take them well-beyond school.

“They’ve gained presentation skills. They are learning to contact adults outside school and to not be afraid to go out and learn something new,” she said.

The three other teachers involved in the project are Aaron Dauenhauer, middle school math teacher; Caitlin Ousley, science teacher; and Joe Reed, technology coordinator.

Nia Gandolfo, an eighth-grader, said she never dreamed she would be learning how to set budgets and meet long-term goals in eighth-grade.

“We’re learning budgeting, learning how to present to large groups of people and to work in teams. These are skills we’ll need
ater in life,” she said.

Eighth-grader Kaelyn Douglas said she appreciates the real-world skills she’s developed this year.

“I’ve learned how to interact with people in different situations; I’ve learned how to create a budget; and how to set and accomplish goals,” said Douglas.

The students have also been working on individual projects. One student is coding a study app, another is creating a garden for endangered pollinators and another is starting a clothing project whose proceeds benefit the Home of the Innocents.

Prize money from the national award will be used to fund the library renovation. In celebration of the award, several St. Leonard parishioners have also matched the prize money.

St. Leonard School students, from left, Lucy Riley, Eliza Dawson and Olivia Ising assembled furniture for the school’s new media center. Through a new class called the “20% Time Project,” St. Leonard sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders dedicate time each week to special projects.
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