“Want to see something cool?” Matt Hysell asks, popping his head into a classroom.
He’s marching down the hallway almost before I can answer.
Hysell teaches seventh grade language arts and social studies at Dominion Middle School in Clintonville. He actually went to Dominion himself—“I have been a Blue Devil since I was about 12 years old,” he says—and when it comes to the school’s new set of smart phone VR goggles, you can tell. It’s hard to say who’s more excited: him or the students.
“They’re looking at whales,” he says with a wide grin, as a handful of students laugh on the other side of the room.
Hysell’s original idea was to give students a chance to see the places they’re studying in his Ancient to Medieval History classes. But already they’re looking for additional uses.
These students, for instance, aren’t in a history class—they’re in pre-engineering.
“They’re designing houses with Tinkercad,” Hysell says pointing to a row of computers. “And we’re going to try to meld those to the virtual reality viewers so you can actually tour the house you created”
Dominion received the VR headsets thanks to Clintonville Go Public, a local nonprofit that encourages parents in the Clintonville area to keep their kids in neighborhood schools.
“We support the Whetstone pathway in a couple of different ways, and one avenue that we focus a lot of our energy on is fundraising,” said Tasha Weaver, head of Clintonville Go Public.
Weaver’s organization has raised almost $100,000 since its inception to help pay for classroom materials, beautification projects and scholarships for students who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend an eighth grade Washington D.C. field trip.
Those efforts center on the Whetstone pathway—a group of six elementary schools and Dominion Middle School, which all feed into Whetstone High.
As students get older, enrollment in the elementary schools steadily declines. But then in middle school, enrollment falls off a cliff. Over the past 10 years, pathway elementary schools averaged a combined fifth grade enrollment of about 300 students. By sixth grade, it’s just 186 students.
Headcounts spike again in ninth grade, but decline with each successive year.
Columbus City Schools spokesman Scott Varner recognizes the pattern.
“Columbus follows a very typical pattern for the most part when it comes to elementary enrollment dipping at kind of that middle school level and then going back up at the high school level,” Varner explains. “That’s very similar to many urban districts.”
He says there are many reasons for the dip—some parents move, others might choose a private school or another public school in a different part of town. Still others could decide a specialized charter program is best. Weaver says it’s great parents have so many options on the table, but she wants them to know their kids can be just as successful at the school down the street. That’s where Clintonville Go Public outreach efforts come in.
“We’ll go to community events, like we’ll probably have a table at the Clintonville 5K this spring,” Wever says. “We do a lot of posting on social media about kids at Whetstone that are getting full rides to college and things like that. Because I think in years past maybe all those things were going on, but the community just didn’t know about it.”
In their first set of grants, Clintonville Go Public provided a new digital camera for animation projects at Whetstone High School and a set of math games to for kindergartners at Weinland Park Elementary.
Stacy Piper teaches seventh grade math and science at Dominion, and with her winning proposal, Clintonville Go Public bought a handful or unique desks.
“I compare them to a pear on its side with the top chopped off,” Piper explains.
Because of the shape, the desks can fit neatly into different arrangements for group projects.
“You can do groups of three, they fit together in a circle—you can fit seven or eight in a circle—for a Socratic seminar,” Piper says. “But the piece that I like the most is five of them fit together very nicely to create a larger table.”
For some projects, students are juggling a laptop, a circuit board and a notebook, and Piper says a little extra real estate goes a long way.
Meanwhile, Dominion’s principal Dotty Flanagan is already thinking in terms of students’ employability, and she says putting them in a variety of groups helps build skills they’ll need in the workforce.
“For us in four, five and six years, we know that those soft skills that there’s no curriculum for—collaboration, communication, organization, planning, self-regulation—are huge,” she says.