NEWBURYPORT — If Newburyport High School teacher Peter Hill had one wish for students of his history class, it would be to put an Apple iPad in each of their hands at the start of every school year.
Science teacher Steve Cole dreams of putting every one of his students in touch with companies that are experiencing real problems, so students might solve them as part of their annual science fair projects and feel like an integral part of the world outside NHS's ivy-covered walls. Other school leaders would love to see foreign language students have the ability to Skype conference with students from other countries, or intern as a translator at the county courthouse or local hospital.
And through a recalibration of the organization that works on initiatives that form bridges between Newburyport schools and local businesses, the Education Business Coalition, formerly the Newburyport Education and Business Coalition, some of these wish list initiatives might be within the city's grasp.
Yesterday, the EBC met with members of the school administration and faculty to discuss ways to reinvigorate the 21-year-old business consortium so it can help schools implement some of the cutting-edge 21st century learning methodologies teachers would love to incorporate into their classrooms.
The first of three scheduled luncheon brainstorming sessions, it not only provided an opportunity to look to a modernized, new kind of partnership, it also offered a chance to look back on what's been accomplished since a seed group of business and school leaders started the nonprofit organization.
"It's exciting to see all of the business people here who want to be a part of the school and the education of the children of Newburyport," said Angela Bik, director of curriculum. "I think we're really lucky, because I think that it's unique to this community."
EBC President Bill Heenehan said, "This grew out of the schools with Francis Bresnahan reaching out to the visionary business leaders in the community to talk about how the business community could enhance education. The schools have always embraced us."
And in return, the businesses have offered students invaluable opportunities like the ones discussed yesterday by Newburyport teachers.
Sheila King, an NHS science teacher, has received support for her students from EBC founding member Mike Strem of Strem Chemicals, who has provided one-on-one experiences with scientists for her students.
"As a kid, I didn't know any scientists," she said. "They're able to see that science is happening in our community."
Betsy Scott spoke of how similar relationships have changed the lives of her students, who represent a group of kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks if not for the hands-on experience.
"They need to get enthusiastic and learn to love to be educated," Scott said.
And that's just what the EBC program has done for them, through partnership grants with Wentworth's Greenhouse, where the kids throw themselves into the work of creating flower boxes and barrels in downtown Newburyport and beyond; Parker River Boat Works, where they learn to construct a dory, showcase it at a regional expo and develop a business plan; and the Country Manor nursing home, where they learn to tend to a struggling segment of the population in a way that no other group could have.
"I enjoy seeing the students grow from their timid first introduction to the world of health care to the caring, confident young people they become at the end of their two years with us," wrote Tracy Tibbets, activity director of Country Manor, in a letter to Scott. "Also, these students can reach this frail population in a way that we cannot — the smiles and the effort that they extend have produced some amazing results."
The company Parametric Technology Corp., where students learn CAD technology, was touted as a shining example of the kind of partnership that helps students engage. And longtime EBC member Cindy Johnson told the story yesterday of a Newburyport school math class that took a trip to the Cheesecake Factory, and while taking the tour, one of the main baking ovens broke down. The incident forced staff and the students to put their thinking caps on to figure out how to transfer the workload of the one oven to two smaller ovens. It was a real- world experience in how math skills are utilized, and are essential, in the workplace, Johnson said.
"I think right now we're trying to make that more systematic," Johnson said. "One teacher had that experience, so how do we bring that to everyone?"
What's needed is a central clearinghouse that connects teachers and classrooms to the businesses that have a problem students can solve, several people at the luncheon said.
"That's what EBC will be, the clearinghouse," Johnson said. "We want business people who want to be part of our group to step up."
How the organization moves forward will be the subject for the next two upcoming meetings, where conversations will tackle the tricky subject of helping modernize a school model that's been outdated for decades, according to some.
"We need to get out of the 19th century model of learning, which was designed to put people in factories," Hill said.
If the model doesn't change to a more project-based, flexible program that focuses more on a mastery of skills as a means of progression over an A to F grading system, Hill doesn't think students can be prepared to be the innovators the world requires. He would like to see NHS kids tackle big problems, like students in Maine who are studying the high costs of home heating to solve a real problem for their state.
"What? Because you're 17 years old you can't work on that?" he said.