Tucked away in the heart of the Central Valley is the city of Farmersville. The rural agricultural community is home to Farmersville Junior High School (FJHS) which according to Learning Director Jaison Norton, “has a pretty unique thing going on.”
In the beginning the new school year students were welcomed back with a new fitness center, a piano lab and new MacBooks.
According to FJHS Principal Loretta Aragon, “We want to provide opportunities for our kids to be competitive despite being from a rural district.”
Plans to implement the new programs began last year and were made possible through the districts Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) funds. The LCAP is planned out in three-year increments in order to ensure the districts are able to accomplish their actions and outcomes.
Each year administrators carefully consider how to reflect the services and related expenses for their basic instructional program in relationship to the state priorities. At FJHS administrators chose to focus on student health, enrichment and access to current technology.
“I believe in developing the whole child.” Aragon went on to say, “Our students deserve the best. And I don’t think they should miss out on the best because of their geographical location.”
FJHS Piano Lab instructor Mr. Blackham explained that learning to play piano has the potential to increase a student’s ability to learn outside of his classroom. As a student learns how to use two hands independently of each other while simultaneously navigating 88 keys, they’re increasing their brain’s ability to quickly process complex information. “You have to think and you have to work hard,” said Blackham.
According to Blackham the concept of starting a piano class has been in existence for a number of years, but there was little support or interest in setting up the classroom. He himself has been developing a group piano class over the span of his 27-year teaching career, and is happy with the results thus far.
“This is kind of an experiment. With 24 kids in different places it’s a challenge,” said Blackham.
It was a combination of Aragon’s encouragement and the district’s funding that made Blackham’s vision a reality.
Norton shared that student interest in the class was overwhelming. There are currently two piano lab sessions available, four times a week. Students learn how to play piano using headphones connected to their keyboard. They are given a book of music designed to gradually build their skills. Blackham monitors the students progress throughout the class period simply by unplugging their headset and listening to the student play and providing instruction.
“This class teaches the student’s about reality. You can’t pretend in this class, you either know how to play a song or you don’t.”, said Blackham
The lab is unique to the county and provides students opportunities they may have never been exposed to otherwise.
“If you pay for half hour piano lessons and never practice outside of the home your progress is going to be slow. But taking this class for a month, a student’s progress can be much more.” shared Blackham.
The girls volleyball team is currently undefeated in their division, which is not a common trend for the junior high school. Both Norton and Physical Education instructor Ford feel that the reason behind their success is the school’s new outlook on fitness.
Over the summer Chris Sanchez and Ford installed brand new workout equipment including kettle bell weights, medicine balls, stationary bikes and free weights. “Its all about fast movement and picking up the heart rate.” said Sanchez. The class is structured into 30 second circuits, which means that students are constantly on the move. The new equipment also allows the teachers to change the routines throughout the year ensuring that students never get board in their workout. “This is the trend in fitness right now,” stated Ford.
Through the year Ford will track the student’s GPA, weight loss and BMI which provides each student a individualized assessment. “Students don’t even realize that they basically have a personal trainer,” said Aragon. The data Ford gathers is always available for students to view in a easy to read chart near the entrance of the classroom. Ford explained that when students work hard in fitness it translates into their academic performance. Prior to FJHS, Ford taught physical education at Farmersville High School where he had a great deal of success implementing a similar physical education curriculum.
“This program worked at the high school and I believe it’s going to work here,” shared Ford.
The school is nearing a 1:1 student to device ratio and currently houses eight carts, each containing 30 MacBooks. “Students and staff are exited about the technology and next year our goal is to add three more carts, which will bring us to a 1:1 ratio,” said Norton. The decision to go with MacBooks was due to their durability as well as the decreased risk of viruses. The devices are connected using the schools blanketed Wi-Fi access. As part of the LCAP the district has invested in their infrastructure which has allowed for an increased in bandwidth. Over the last year the district has hired an two new employees to maintain the increase in bandwidth and provide each site in the district a computer technician.
With their new MacBooks, FJHS student are now using to Google Classroom, an online app which allows teachers and students to connect in and out of the classroom as well as, track student progress. In Leslie Stewart’s seventh grade World History class, the first thing students do is grab a MacBook and log into to Google Classroom for the day’s lesson. One student, Maricruz Miranda, stated, “It’s so much better than having to use a textbook.”
After receiving instruction from their teacher they begin working with their cohort to take turns reading their assigned passage. Each student is then tasked with the creating a slide which is integrated into a group presentation. Stewart’s motto is “three before me,” reinforcing the student’s responsibility to their individual learning. Stewart went on to share that both she and her students are excited with the potential for learning through the use of technology.
“When I ask students what they like best about the school it’s always the same response: fitness, piano and technology. And they are always excited to tell me how much they like the classes,” said Aragon