Marsha Dobrzynski: The inspiration for CHSDA came from the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning’s ArtWorks program. ArtWorks is a 10 year old arts-based youth development program that hires 200 teens annually to create visual, performing and digital arts while learning skills needed for college and the workforce. About 4 years ago, we began noticing how the teens working in the digital arts – game design, recording arts technology and digital film – were more engaged and took ownership of their own learning. They were the kids who never missed a day, arrived early, stayed late, and worked at home. We did a little research on high schools around the country that are working and thought it was a great concept for a new school. The Cleveland Foundation and Gund Foundation heard about this and invited me in to learn more. They provided funding for a year of research and site visits to schools. With a team of national advisors who made the visits with me and local people like Lev Gonick and Ivan Schwarz, we fully developed the concept and submitted it to the CMSD and The Foundations.
NEOSA: And you just officially opened, right, how many students do you have? What grades and when will you be a full, 4-year high school?
Marsha Dobrzynski: Yes, the school opened a few weeks ago on July 28th! We have 110 students enrolled in the 9th grade. The school will add one grade level – 9th grade - each year to reach a full 4 year high school. In 4 years we plan to have 400+ students learning through the digital arts and interning in the community in the digital fields.
NEOSA: Tell us a little more about the general curriculum, how is technology integrated?
Marsha Dobrzynski: The teachers are using a project-based interdisciplinary approach to teaching. The core content teachers – English, math, science, social studies – partner with digital arts teachers. The students will use the digital arts to access core content and demonstrate their understanding of it by creating games, recordings and films about core content. Imagine how much deeper your understanding of Ancient Egypt would be after creating a game or in science as you learn about the environment and alternative and renewable energy sources, creating a music CD that will teach others.
The school also has a different schedule. It is year-round with four 10-week sessions followed by three week breaks. It is open from 9AM – 5:30PM three days/week to provide time in the afternoon for internships and mini-courses that will be taught by professionals in technology. This is the time for real experiences that help students learn about potential careers.
NEOSA: What do you think the typical path after HS is for your students?
Marsha Dobrzynski: The goal of the school is 100% graduation and 100% college acceptance. One of the hopes is that as the digital workplace expands in northeast Ohio, following college, the students will return to the area to work in these fields. But the high school prepares them for any career. It is really about developing an intrinsic understanding of taking ownership of your own learning and future.
Some students may not choose college immediately after high school but with an acceptance, they know they are prepared and can return later. I think some students will want to work immediately in some of these areas. There are jobs waiting for them.
NEOSA: What have been some of your challenges getting started?
Marsha Dobrzynski: One of the biggest challenges was narrowing the scope for the school. We had to make deliberate choices on which digital arts to include at the start. The initial research as well as the expertise of the advisory group helped to make the decision. Then it took a while to find a downtown location. We wanted to have easy access to the growing tech industry downtown and be centrally located so students from both the east and west sides could attend easily.
NEOSA: How can we get the tech community behind you? How can companies provide support or help advance the school?
Marsha Dobrzynski: We can use their help in lots of ways. As I mentioned, there is an extended day in the schedule that is designed for the student shadowing, internships and other on-the-job learning opportunities. We also want professionals to teach mini-courses at the school. These can be on just about anything – film lighting, starting a game design studio or professional recording studio, creating a business plan, etc.
We are also starting a Technology Impact Fund that will support the ongoing need for new hardware and software, studio upgrades and expansions. It will be used to provide as many opportunities for the students to be deeply engaged in technology.
We welcome visitors to the school at any time to see the amazing work that is being created by the students.
We need tech people here in the CLE and there’s a lot of effort going towards that challenge. The work of people like Marsha is critical to helping us keep this momentum going and NEOSA hopes to support her as much as possible.