Earlier this year, dozens of tenth graders scattered across the cafeteria at the Energy Institute High School near downtown Houston.
When the school bell sounded, few students budged from their seats.
“So that was the class bell and no one’s changing classes because we’re actually in our cohorts,” explained engineering instructor Raul Alanis.
This was one massive class that brought four groups of sophomores together. It lasted four hours and combined world history, English, chemistry and engineering into one project.
Alanis roamed the room, checking in on different groups.
“Have you started thinking about how some of this chemistry is going to connect to what you’re doing to engineering?” he asked one group.
The two-year-old magnet school in the Houston Independent School District combines that engineering focus with hands-on projects and a high-tech environment. It steers away from the traditional teacher in front of the class, lecturing from the textbook.
It’s the kind of school choice some educators want to see more of.
“What we liked about that school is we thought they’re doing a great job, it’s focused on something that’s important to that community and it’s based on local control,” said David Anthony. He’s the former superintendent of the Cy-Fair Independent School District and is the CEO of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas.
Schools across the country recently celebrated National School Choice Week. But there are different ways to interpret that choice. Some teachers and parents think of private and parochial schools. Others point to more charter schools, which receive public tax dollars but have independent management. Then there’s yet a different kind of choice: more options and innovation within the whole public school system.
Anthony said that he wants to broaden this kind of choice in public schools.
“We’re educating a 21st century child and in many instances, we’re using a 20th century, or even 19th century model for providing and delivering instruction and having students learn,” Anthony said.
In the Houston Independent School District, most students from kindergarten to 12th grade attend their zoned school — about 68 percent. About one-third transfer to a different campus or magnet program, according to HISD data.
Anthony believes that more districts will experiment, thanks to some new state laws. They now have the option to become so-called “districts of innovation.” That gives them more freedom in how they operate.
Some districts have already started to explore that status, including El Paso and Spring Branch.
At the Energy Institute, students said that they enjoy the hands-on style.
“It’s giving us real-life experiences, such as group work,” said tenth grader Alexandra Hernandez. “We have guest speakers sometimes and adjusting to different things and different people all around you — just like if you were in the real world.”
For the real world, many students at the Energy Institute have set their eyes on careers in science or engineering.