Living with Robots

Stylist Ashley Helvey; hair and makeup by Megan Dodge

"CHECK THIS OUT! We’re cutting and pasting, people!”

You’d think David Friedle’s shoes were spring-loaded, the way he pogos around in front of his students. The Cleveland High School media studies teacher is amped. He yelps. He points and clicks, and fires off questions. He’s…teaching desktop publishing. Wait, what’s so exciting about that?

For starters, it’s not just the subject. It’s how he teaches it. As of this year, Cleveland has dumped the stuffy old stand-and-deliver lecture style that most of us suffered through in high school. And in its place, teachers develop projects that hit all of the same standards that kids at every other Seattle Public School must meet, but unlike their fellow fledgling learners at, say, Ballard or Garfield, Cleveland students tell their teachers what they need to learn to finish those projects. Right now, Friedle’s kids are learning how to design a magazine-style feature article—complete with photos, sidebars, timelines, etc.—for a presentation on historical revolutionaries that they’re working on in their social studies class. A touch of “inmates running the asylum”? Maybe, but the idea is to put the onus on the kids and get them thinking about what they know—and what they don’t know. “If we can give kids not just a knowledge base, but also give them the tools for finding out what they need to go forward, we’d be doing the best possible thing for them,” says Cleveland principal Princess Shareef.

That project-based learning style is Part One of the school’s academic face-lift. Part Two: ramping up the rigor, through a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. (That’s STEM, for short.) After years of tumbling test scores and paltry enrollment, Cleveland is trying to rebuild its reputation and draw from all over the city college-minded kids—and their parents—who in years past would have scoffed at the idea of going to a Southeast Seattle School. And to cultivate that magnet-school vibe, Cleveland’s exempt from the district’s new student assignment plan; 100 percent of the ninth-grade seats from now on will be open-choice.

The idea is to put the onus on the kids and get them thinking about what they know—and what they don’t know.

Actually, it’s not entirely accurate to say the STEM curriculum is a focus. It’s more of an all-encompassing, total-immersion boot camp. Freshmen enter one of two academies: the school of life sciences and global health or the school of engineering and design. From there, they move on to the college-readiness academy in 11th and 12th grades. And in those four years, they’ll not only take life sciences, biology, chemistry, and physics (which, by the way, is one more science class than the state mandates), but they’ll also take four additional science classes specific to their chosen academy. Oh, and then there’s four years of math, too. “When colleges look at their transcripts, they’re going to see a lot of advanced math and science,” Shareef says. “Regardless of whether they want to continue in STEM-related studies, they’re going to be able to get into the schools they want to get into because their transcripts will look so great.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but all of this—the project-based learning, the STEM program—was a lot of change in one year. Because it’s an option school, this year’s freshmen came to Cleveland knowing that they’d be thrown into the science-and-math deep end. But the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who were enrolled there last year didn’t necessarily sign up for this. Shareef says that by and large those students who were grandfathered into the program have coped well, and she notes that non-STEM subjects like language arts, history, and world language are still part of Cleveland’s curriculum, as required by the state. And although those classes will incorporate the project-based learning method, they won’t—as some parents assumed—be crammed with unnecessary tech content. “You want technology integrated into all of the classes, but you don’t want it forced,” Shareef says. “That puts the focus on technology instead of on the learning that’s supposed to be going on.”

And then there was the faculty. Turnover at Cleveland was high this year, partly because some teachers couldn’t—or didn’t want to—adapt their instructional style to the project-based learning method, and partly because they had to commit to a longer day and submit to a new, multitiered teacher evaluation. Friedle is one of the ones who stuck around. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years,” he says, still visibly buzzed from his demonstration. “It’s hard to do, and it takes a lot of maintenance. But I love it.”