Aurora -- The local high school earned another honor recently when it was named "most engaging high school" in the Visioning in Portage awards presented Aug. 24 at the Bertram Inn and Conference Center.
The awards dinner served as the kickoff of Portage County Celebration Week, an event begun this year to promote the good things that are happening around the county.
AHS earned the honor for its Independent Learning Experience, a program which gives students the opportunity to pursue a passion or deeply explore a curiosity, according to school officials.
"We are excited to receive this award because there are so many good things going on in high schools throughout Portage County," said AHS Principal Mike Roberto.
"One criterion for most engaging high school was to have an innovative program that connected with the community. We felt the Independent Learning Experience would be a good candidate because it is a different way of learning."
The semester-long program was first offered in the 2013-14 school year. The district's instructional technology coordinator -- Andrew Sams -- along with Roberto and teachers David Munson, Brian Caponi, Kevin Wilcox and Mike Rubin were instrumental in the design and establishment of the program.
Instead of going to a study hall, students in the program meet in the Mac Lab, where they dictate what they are going to learn, the conditions they are going to learn under and how they will demonstrate what they learn.
Last fall, junior Julie Dombroski told the student newspaper The Gambit that the program was started to give students a whole different learning experience. "You can learn what you want to learn, not what you have to," she said.
She described the experience as "really awesome. I didn't want to say no to it. I really hope this program continues in the high school, because I want others to have this experience, too."
Rather than a single teacher, the experience -- which is a scheduled period during the day -- comes with adult "learners" as well as student learners. The adults are teachers dedicated to the development of personal learning skills and processes in the participating students.
"STUDENTS ARE forced to look beyond the walls of the high school to learn about the topics they are pursuing," explained Roberto. "They make connections with businesses and community members, and search the endless amount of information on the Internet.
"As more people found out about the program, we had a number of community members stop in to see and speak with the students. We were able to reach one of our building goals -- to have the schools out in the community more, and to increase the opportunities to have the community in the schools."
Each student and adviser focus on a "plunge" -- an interest the learner wants to explore further.
The plunges include graphic design, electronics (hardware), computer science (coding), comic book development (storyline and artwork), investigation into design (including the use of Sketch-Up) and fashion illustration.
Students have the freedom to change their plunge or put it on hold as they come across information that leads them down a different path.
"There's no rubric, no grades," participant Olivia Pollack, who is a senior this year, told the The Gambit. "It's a really interesting way to learn, not just to study for a test." Pollack's focus last year was photojournalism.
AHS 2014 graduate Kyle Brown said he always had an interest and talent in art, but he never really explored it until deciding to major in it in college. He said he took the independent study to develop his artwork and assemble a portfolio, and "to become the best artist I can be."
Sam reiterated Roberto's excitement about winning the Portage County award.
"This is a reflection of the genuine collaboration effort of adult and student learners," he said. "Through this work, we have a platform for students to explore their passions, learn deeply and create amazing works.
"We are thrilled with the opportunity to continue this experience for a second year, and look forward to the future outcomes produced by our learners."
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