New Madera Co. high school a model of the future

O'NEALS -- Outside the high school library, a student carrying a camera grabbed Principal Michael Niehoff's attention. "Give me your game face," he said before snapping a picture.

Minutes later, the principal's photo -- his face scrunched and lips pursed -- had been uploaded onto a computer, posted onto an ad for a staff-versus-student basketball game, and broadcast on big screen TVs throughout this tiny, tech-savvy campus in Madera County's foothills.

This is Minarets High -- the county's newest high school and a model for what public education might look like in the future.

Here, every student gets a laptop. Classes are focused on group projects instead of homework and lectures. After school, students and teachers text each other and use online tools to complete assignments. The library, called the media lounge, is furnished like a coffee shop with large windows and couches. The books are packed in a few rows of shelves in a corner.

In PE class, students ride mountain bikes on nearby trails or jump over classmates in team-building exercises. When teachers go to conferences, they take students with them to help with presentations. And almost every student has a laminated profile posted in the school hallways. It features their name, age, interests -- and GPA.

The posting of grades -- which a few Minarets High students have opted out of -- fits in with a new model of education. Niehoff, an energetic and fast-talking 46-year-old who seems to have a knack for holding two or three conversations at once, said he is trying to fight a culture in education that tells students their schoolwork and grades are only good enough to show to their teacher.

"That's the idea -- you've got to be public, you can't hide," he said of the publicly posted grades.

The concept is a bit radical, however.

"No one here has ever heard of such a thing," Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said after learning about the publicly posted grades.

Jon Corippo, an English and media teacher who is also Minarets High's instructional technology coordinator, is convinced his school is the only one in California incorporating all the new trends in education: starting school later in the day when students are more alert (classes start at 8:40 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.), embracing technology, focusing on hands-on and real-world projects, and pushing students toward career preparedness.

"We're the only one doing the whole package," said Corippo, who used to work for the Fresno County Office of Education as a technology trainer. "The big advantage is that we're brand new, so it's a blank slate."

Emy Lopez-Phillips, the Fresno County Office of Education's director of instructional technology and Corippo's former boss, said some charter schools are adopting similar initiatives. But, she said, most public schools are lagging behind Minarets High because they must focus attention on other issues, such as maintaining campus security, helping English-learner students, and maintaining academic requirements.

Minarets High has few English learners and its students come from a mix of socio-economic backgrounds, though they are generally a bit more well-off than the average family in Madera County.

The school, Lopez-Phillips said, is a model for what schools can look like under ideal circumstances: a team of creative leaders and a small student population.

"They definitely stand out," Lopez-Phillips said. "Minarets is a 21st-century school."

It's unclear how the students will perform academically in the long run. Because Minarets High is still in its inaugural year, officials haven't had a chance to see how the students do on standardized tests.

A customized campus

Set on rolling, green hills and with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, this picturesque campus opened in September with about 135 freshmen and sophomores. Over the next three years, the school plans to add another 300 to 400 students.

On Thursday, Minarets High held its official grand opening and unveiled its gym -- the last of the campus's five buildings to open its doors.

Reaction to the $75 million high school has been overwhelmingly positive: Parents who visit the school are jealous that they didn't get to attend here, students describe Minarets High as "awesome," and teachers talk about having found their dream jobs.

About half the students are transfers from other districts in Madera County -- meaning they are willing to travel farther to attend the school.

The school also has attracted attention from officials at universities and high schools from across the state who are interested in finding out how Minarets High's new educational approaches have worked out.

The high school primarily serves the foothills communities of O'Neals, Yosemite Lakes Park, Coarsegold and North Fork.

For decades, residents wanted an alternative to Yosemite High School in Oakhurst. Parents complained that their kids had to take hour-long bus rides along winding mountain roads to get to school.

But politics got in the way of building the school. Many people wanted the new high school in North Fork, 15 miles to the east.

"I was hoping they would have built it right over here," said Ed Johnson, who owns B & B Hardware in town. "It would have helped the economy. We needed it here."

But in the early 1990s, the Chawanakee Unified School District settled on a site near the tiny community of O'Neals because it was closest to the center of the district. A $9 million school bond passed in 2005 after three attempts. The state covered the rest of the cost.

Before designing the school, the district hired a consulting company that surveyed residents on what they wanted for a new high school. The consultant concluded that the school should focus on a handful of areas -- media, arts and agriculture -- and should make sure students learn marketable skills that can be used after they graduate, even if they don't go to college, said Barbara Bigelow, a district board member.

She said the board embraced the consultant's recommendations to incorporate new technologies -- including laptops that cost $1,000 each, an expense partially offset by reduced spending on textbooks. Materials from textbooks are loaded onto the laptops.

"We're on the cutting edge," Bigelow said. "This is definitely the way that most high schools are going."

Parents OK with posting grades

On a recent morning, a dozen music students reclined on couches in the school's media lounge, each working on a project with a laptop open. Asked what they thought of their new school, the students heaped on praise.

Sarah Bradshaw, a 14-year-old sophomore from Oakhurst, said that if she doesn't understand her homework assignments, her teachers will go online for a video chat after school to explain them.

"Here, if you need help, they will show you exactly what you need to do," Sarah said.

The students say they're happy to carry around laptops instead of bulky textbooks. Studying on laptops is "less boring" and "doesn't make you want to fall asleep," said 16-year-old Justin Crossley from North Fork.

What about students who try to surf the Internet and update their Facebook profile while in class? The school thought of that, so they gave teachers the power to remotely access and even lock down students' laptops if they abuse their privileges.

The school also tries to make the campus a place where students are encouraged to hang out -- both during school hours and after. During lunch breaks, for example, 15-year-old Madera Ranchos sophomore Jamin Baker and his heavy-metal band, Charun, often rock out on campus. And on some Friday nights, the school turns the media lounge into a low-key performance night for musicians, featuring pizza and decaf coffee.

Victoria Ashton, mother of 9th-grader Miranda, said her daughter and another 9th-grader who lives with them have never been more excited to attend school.

"They're bored when they're at home," she said.

And parents don't seem to mind the publicly posted GPAs, saying they foster a healthy competition.

"I like the way the school teaches the kids to be professional, to be who you are, and to represent yourself," said parent Jenny Morgan from Coarsegold. "If they're doing well, they can be proud of that. And if they're not doing as well, they need to make some changes."

Slater, the Department of Education spokeswoman, said there are no laws against publicly posting grades. But some officials in her office were concerned that students may not understand the ramifications of letting their classmates know their grades, she said.

That competitive spirit, however, seems to be driving some students to achieve more. Jonny Jones, a 15-year-old from Coarsegold, said his grades have never been better.

Another student, 16-year-old sophomore Alonnah Barkdull from North Fork, wrote on her public profile: "Every day I wake up and can't wait to get to school. Before high school, I was always absent. Now that I go to Minarets High I have perfect attendance."

Another student profile, however, was a reminder that at Minarets High -- like many other high schools -- there is still the age-old conflict between teachers who assign homework and students who don't always want to do it.

Harley McGovran, also a 16-year-old sophomore from North Fork, wrote that his favorite quote from a teacher came from Corippo: "DUDE! You're slacking."

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