Howard Connect: Authentic Learning in Middle School

Howard Connect: Authentic Learning in Middle School

What is the “why” of middle school? Pre K through fifth grade are focused on establishing a strong foundation of reading and math skills. High school concentrates on preparing students for the next stage – further education or the workforce. Is middle school just something students have to survive (we’ve all been there!), or can it be something more? 

In 2018, Hamilton County Schools (HCS) identified a need for a new middle school, and leadership was ready to do something different. Instead of a “traditional” middle school, HCS, the community, and Benwood came together to design a new model for middle school – one that would nurture curiosity and empower big ideas. After a year of planning, 150 sixth grade students were welcomed to Howard Connect with Principal Mardee Miller at the helm.

Design & Determination

“At Howard Connect we are curious about transforming middle grade learning and collaborating,” Miller states. “We began with an intentional design process involving community members because we need to design with and not for. It was important to listen and understand what the community wants for the children who will one day be the future.”

Thinking differently isn’t an easy path. Miller points out that we rarely ask people what they want for their children in education, but that when the design team dug in, they learned a lot. 

“The traditional Howard community has a legacy of leading,” she says. “The community wants Howard Connect graduates to be confident, bold, and able to solve problems…to see an issue they want to tackle and have the curiosity and interest to figure out how to tackle it.”

Their efforts coalesced around an energizing vision: to unlock in all students a creative confidence of knowing what they want to be because they know the possibilities of what they can be. 

Challenges & Changes

Dreams came to life in the fall of 2019 as those first sixth graders poured through the doors. Their days included personalized math, tool time, a discovery period, and a genius period, most of which occur in “collaboratories.” These labs are the heart of Howard Connect’s interdisciplinary and project-based curriculum. 

In the Invention Lab funded by Benwood, students have access to STEM tools including 3D printers, laser cutters, and robotics tools. The Xfactor Lab supports music and digital production. The Imagination Lab is a hub for visual arts. Students also explore real issues in their community during “discoveries,” field experiences that align with the design of Howard Connect learning and fields of study. 

Miller’s enthusiastic team has met numerous challenges along the way. “We learn lessons every day,” she says. “Our design canvas will come to life by the team of adults who are committed to the vision.” 

COVID-19 created an enormous, unexpected obstacle. 

“We’ve never had a full year before,” Miller says. “Building community within the school has been hard because of safety protocols, and we’ve had to limit our discovery trips. Also, we’ve added a grade each year, so now our building is home to 450 students from 24 different elementary schools around the county. Our team is constantly thinking through how to scale our design ideas and build capacity.”

In the midst of adversity, MIller is galvanized by the growth she’s witnessed in the first class of eight graders. “I’m seeing our eighth graders intentionally thinking about what school is next for them, not just going wherever a school bus takes them. We have students with the confidence to create a portfolio and audition for arts school; they wouldn’t have known before that they could even conceive of that. That alone tells me they’re on the right path.”

Looking Forward

As Hamilton County Schools considers the “why” of middle school, Miller hopes it will consider the learning taking place at Howard Connect. 

“Reforming and transforming learning is very complicated in public education.” Miller says. “There are so many boxes you have to fit into and leaders change, so it’s difficult to sustain ongoing innovation and maintain the integrity of an original design.

“If a school like Howard Connect can transform middle grade learning, can it transform learning for all middle schools in the district?”

 Watch this video to learn more about Howard Connect Academy and visit the website