Academies focus on project-based learning

By Roy Eaton | Published Thursday, December 2, 2010

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The Northwest school district was formed in 1949 because parents and community leaders wanted more for their children than the tiny schools in Rhome, Roanoke, Justin and Haslet could provide.

Eaton_Roy.jpgThose pioneers in education would be surprised and thrilled to see what the school district has become over the past half-century. The school district’s enrollment has now soared to more than 15,000 students, making Northwest the second-fastest growing school district in Texas.

The district now operates 23 separate campuses including Prairie View and Seven Hills elementary schools and Chisholm Trail Middle School. All are located between Rhome and Newark.

For the past decade, Northwest has successfully centered its focus on raising academic standards. Many schools in the district have earned exemplary and recognized status from the Texas Education Agency.

While I applaud the great academic success, my concern was that vocational education and the students served by those programs not be relegated to “second-class” status in a district so focused on college preparation.

It turns out that my concerns were not necessary.

Tour turns the tide

Dennis McCreary, the district’s assistant superintendent for facilities and construction, and I are serving on a committee to design a new outdoor learning center near Justin.

Dennis, a Wise County resident, invited me to tour the four new “academies” at Northwest and Byron Nelson High Schools and I quickly accepted. Superintendent Dr. Karen Rue asked to join us because, as she said, her “greatest joy” as superintendent is to be on campus with teachers and students.

Those four academies, Dr. Rue explained, are designed around “project-based” learning. In other words, the English and math classes in each academy have a curriculum designed to “fit-in” with the main subjects being taught in the academies.


The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy is in a special facility at Northwest High School. It is headed by Josh Withers, a Wise County native and Northwest ISD graduate. Withers, often honored as one of the district’s “teachers of the year,” is the son of the Rev. Jimmy Withers, the longtime pastor of the Aurora Baptist Church and his wife, Brenda.

STEM is designed for students interested in engineering. The program offers a four-year sequence of courses which, when combined with college-preparatory math and science courses, introduces students to the discipline of engineering. Students have the opportunity to learn about many phases of mechanical, civil, electrical and aeronautical engineering as well as other fields.

Walk into the classroom of instructor Phil MacKenna and you are faced with an array of Mac computers loaded with the latest engineering and architectural design programs.

Students are busy designing a “nose cone” for a rocket project. MacKenna was recruited by the district in 2000 to teach architectural and engineering graphics.


While it is hard for me to “pick a favorite” of the four academies, my love for the news drew me instantly into AMAT – the Academy of Media Arts and Technology. Northwest High School Principal Rose Brenner introduced us to Jeremy Rawe, AMAT facilitator.

Having been around a few television studios over the years, I was blown away by what Rawe showed us. They have a full-size studio with three cameras and at least three separate “sets” to deliver a daily web-based newscast, a “green screen” to help students forecast the weather and a set with two lounge chairs where Dr. Rue delivers a monthly “state-of-the-district” report.

The studio is supported by a control room with the latest equipment, a smaller broadcast studio equipped with digital recording capabilities and other laboratories concentrating on digital media.

Rawe explained there are “three tracks” for students in AMAT – the media technology track, digital graphics and animation track and information technology track.

There is no doubt in my mind that students coming out of AMAT will have a real “leg-up” on their peers when they graduate and enter college – or when they go to work in the industry.


The two academies that seem designed most for “ready to work” after graduation are at Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club. Linda Parker, a Wise County resident from Boyd, is the principal at Byron Nelson and is justifiably proud of the two special programs.

AMP is the acronym for The Academy of Medical Professions. This program is designed for students with a desire to enter the medical field. They complete four years of study in health care.

The academy offers industry certification, clinical internships and what Parker calls a seamless transition into college or the medical workforce. Students who are accepted into AMP are expected to complete all four years of the program.

On the day of our visit, instructor Julie Stapleton, a Wise County resident from Paradise, said that students were doing “clinicals” at two nursing homes and at Baylor Hospital in Grapevine.

Parker said that enrollment in the program is limited to ensure that every student receives a professional internship opportunity.

Culinary Arts

A commercial “kitchen to die for” is the magnet for students in the culinary arts program at Byron Nelson. The academy is headed by Chef Drew Mullins, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of New York.

Students learn the art of cooking and food service and soon will be hosting guests in a bistro served by a special kitchen apart from the Culinary Arts kitchen facilities.

Mullins, who has a vacation home on Lake Bridgeport, said the program would soon add a “hospitality” element to train students to work in what he called “front of the house” professions in hotels.

The Theater at Byron Nelson

While technically not an “academy” at Byron Nelson, no visit there would be complete without seeing the beautiful 800-seat theater at the school.

Theater Arts instructor Brad DeBorde was preparing for a production of “The Princess and the Pea.” Students were erecting sets for the program. “We were able to buy the scenery from Tarrant County College,” DeBorde said. “Also, we have a fully equipped carpentry workshop for students to build sets for performances,” he said.

Student Commitment

Students who enroll in any of the academies are required to stay at least one semester, and all the academies are available to students regardless of where they live. Students who live in the Byron Nelson attendance zone are allowed to enroll in one of the academies offered at Northwest, and the district provides transportation.

An application and essay is required for admission to all academies. It is completed during the eighth-grade year.

Eaton is a graduate of Northwest ISD and a former owner and publisher of the Wise County Messenger.

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