Thursday, January 01, 2009

Academic Impact

The Gereua Center in Rocky Mount enables students to explore

            If you ask David Sicher “How was your day at school?” it wouldn’t be unusual for the 13-year-old to reply, “Pretty cool. I got to fly a plane from Roanoke to Atlanta this morning.”

            He might also casually mention completing several preliminary aviation tasks like calculating fuel requirements and altitude headings or assessing the weather conditions. 

            Yes, it’s just a typical day for an eighth-grader from Smith Mountain Lake.

            David attends Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Rocky Mount (which, in his opinion, is pretty ordinary). But every other day, he rotates to the Leonard A. Gereau Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration where he says excitedly, “nothing is boring.”

            David’s enthusiasm is exactly what Len Gereau, former Franklin County school superintendent, envisioned in 1990 when he began to explore ways to make a major academic impact on the students in his district.

            Gereau, now retired and living in Lynchburg, conceived the idea of matching experienced professionals with teachers to provide a unique, hands-on learning experience for eighth grade students who thrive on building things and taking them apart.

            Through focus groups with local business professionals, Gereau asked, “What’s needed for the future? And they confirmed that students would benefit most from opportunities to experience technology applied to careers in the arts, aviation, environmental science, engineering and architecture, health and human services, media design, legal science and finance.” 

            That list developed into the eight electives – also called modules – offered at the center.

            Gereau’s dream was to give all students exposure to areas of interest that would motivate them to pursue high-tech, professional careers. What they experience at the center influences the courses they choose in high school and drives their desire to continue on to college, he said.

            “It’s a common misconception,” Gereau said, “but the center is not a vocational school. The careers explored here lead to higher pay and improved economic futures. Identifying areas of interest leads to motivation. Once motivated, the rest is easy.”

            It took seven more years for Gereau to secure the funding to build and complete the facility, which was architecturally designed to expose students to a real-world work environment with state-of-the-art hardware and software. Speaking to representatives from dozens of churches, civic groups and business organizations in the county, Gereau lobbied support for a bond referendum, which passed with the overwhelming support of the community. A federal grant – one of only seven offered in the U.S. – helped complete the project.

            When the center opened in 1997, the school began dividing  the eighth grade class into two teams. Attending classes on alternating days, students study English, science, mathematics and one elective while at the middle school; at the Gereau Center, students take civics and three career modules.

            Sandy Samson, a licensed pilot, is one of David Sicher’s teachers in the aviation/aerospace module. Together with retired Navy officer Bob Keck, Samson developed the curriculum for their module, which includes basic kite building, a study of hot air balloons, the history of aviation and old-fashioned flight navigation. Best of all, according to David, is the high-tech stuff.

            “We have 25 Microsoft flight simulators,” Samson said, “which allow the students to realistically experience piloting a plane. They write out flight plans, learn to use the GPS [global positioning system] … everything they need to know to fly a plane.”

            Kevin Bezy, principal at the center, said about 600 students rotate annually through the modules, which are developed to stimulate critical thinking skills, problem-based learning and real-world application to real-life challenges.

            “We have to be on the cutting edge,” Bezy said. “Some careers will be obsolete; some will be created before students finish school.”

            Those cutting-edge studies include clay animation, computer graphics and digital photography in the arts module or evaluating the impact of global warming in the environmental science/natural resources module. Students learn to direct and produce live TV broadcasts, news interviews, commercials, editing and writing in media design while engineering/architecture students explore careers that include designing house plans, dams, bridges or road construction. Students studying health and human services evaluate teaching and social work careers and those interested in legal science pursue case law, crime scene investigation, finger printing and courtroom procedures. The finance module helps students experience banking, investments and today’s economy.

            Charles Lackey, superintendent of Franklin County schools, said plans are moving ahead for the construction of a new building to house the Center for Energy Efficient Design at the Gereau Center where students will learn about geothermal, solar and wind energy while studying energy conservation in a specially-equipped environmental learning lab.

            Lackey, Bezy and Gereau agree that staying ahead of technology growth and world trends is part of the challenge and excitement. For students, David said, “Learning concepts, putting them to use, seeing how they work is so much more fun than regular classroom work.”