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Sunday, 26 April 2015 22:00

Saugatuck Center for the Arts spurs successful first attempt at project-based learning

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Whitney Valentine of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, left, and Saugatuck High School’s John Green, right, worked with students from the high school on a project-based learning program that investigated child homelessness for area youths who age out of the foster child program. Whitney Valentine of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, left, and Saugatuck High School’s John Green, right, worked with students from the high school on a project-based learning program that investigated child homelessness for area youths who age out of the foster child program. COURTESY PHOTO

Saugatuck Center for the Arts may be best known for its eclectic mix of concerts and performances — many of which feature national headlining artists — but underneath that, the organization has worked to serve the community in other ways.

Over the last decade, the center has especially focused on working closely with local schools.

“I think, as an arts center, you realize that a lot of schools don’t have art programs and they might be cutting music programs,” said Kristin Armstrong, executive director of Saugatuck Center for the Arts (SC4A). “You must find ways to add value — and not just add value by giving students access to view things, but the better organizations are finding that there are other things they can do.”

After a wildly successful collaboration with Saugatuck High School on the pilot for a project-based learning program, Saugatuck Center for the Arts may have stumbled upon a new niche.

The 12-week program involved six students from Saugatuck High School, connecting them with Bethany Christian Services in a project that focused on child homelessness — more specifically, girls and boys that have aged out of the foster care system and are thrust into the real world to fend for themselves — often unsuccessfully.

The students were tasked with creating a short video for Bethany, and the finished product — and program as a whole — has garnered attention from organizations and professionals nationwide. Despite the trimester coming to an end, the students have continued on with the project and both the Center for the Arts and Saugatuck High School are exploring ways to expand on their first attempt.

“(The current students in the program) have extended their learning time and we’re already in the process — because this has gone so well — of talking about next year,” Armstrong said.

“Can we roll this out for more students and what will the topic be? We’ve built it, tweaked it and will replicate it. The dream is to have the whole senior class participate in a project-based learning experience.”


Project-based learning is arguably one of the hottest buzzwords in education right now. At a time when potential employers are clamoring for job prospects that depart from school with real-life experience already in place, most view it as a way to bolster the talent pool.

The venture between SC4A and Saugatuck High School proved a little different from traditional project-based learning programs, which are often focused on widgets.

“PBLs are often design-based,” Armstrong said. “It starts with questions like, ‘Can you build a better chair?’ or ‘What other applications are there for it?’ (Our project) is broader. We asked the kids, ‘What do you not know that you would like to know?’ or ‘What is a problem in the community?’

“The kids in this project, frankly, didn’t believe there were homeless kids in this area. They certainly didn’t know about this foster care mess.”

John Green, a social studies teacher at Saugatuck High School, approached Armstrong and her staff about the opportunity after collaborating with the center on smaller, previous projects. Green teamed with SC4A’s Whitney Valentine, the organization’s education and exhibitions manager, to write up the curriculum.

Green is a major proponent of project-based learning. He participated in a program last summer through the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District called futurePREP’d. The training walked him through the process of developing ideas and creating guidelines. He credited the training for fostering his enthusiasm on the concept.

“You can really see the buy-in (from the students) and opportunity to apply what they’re learning other than just answering questions on a test,” Green said. “All kids benefit from really good classroom teaching as well. Good teaching is good teaching. I think making room for (PBL) is important.”

Over the course of the project, the students certainly did receive real-life experience, from job shadowing and interacting with professionals in the workplace to interviewing homeless children, performing collaborative work on the video and participating in public speaking engagements for the community.

“It is all real-life experience, even small things like a conference call that we had scheduled but the other person couldn’t make it so we had to reschedule,” Armstrong said. “Those are things they will be facing in professional world.”


The output for the project — the video spotlighting the issue of child homelessness — was done exclusively on an iPad using free resources. Saugatuck Center for the Arts did bring a lot to the table to make the venture happen, though.

What the center offered was a piece that many project-based learning endeavors lack: a strong organization to connect students with other willing organizations. For that, Armstrong and her team were able to scroll through their crowded contact list to make this year’s program happen by making a call to Bethany Christian Services.

“One thing we do really well here is serve as a connector for the community,” Armstrong said. “We’re a social hub. We know a lot of people and serve a lot of people.

“Organizations like Bethany might want to utilize teen advocacy, but the problem they face is they need access to teens and don’t know where to find them. The high schools have teens, but don’t know where to find professionals.”

The other highly useful resource SC4A contributed was its performance art infrastructure, which gave students a venue and platform for speaking engagements and other components of the process. The center’s 400-seat theater was a far cry from the school’s gymnatorium.

“I would definitely describe (SC4A) as being instrumental in (the program),” Green said. “Part of the theory behind PBL is that, when you’re done, you present to an authentic audience, and they really provided the avenue for that by doing the intriguing discussion and hosting the event for the community later on.”

In regards to students, the sample size was small — senior students with strong grades that already completed their core work needed for graduation.

Armstrong said that she is optimistic that the project-based learning format would work for all types of students.

“I’m excited to get maybe a ‘C’ student in there that thrives,” Armstrong said. “I think it could be life-changing — he or she will finally be able to realize what they can accomplish.”

Read 3804 times Last modified on Sunday, 26 April 2015 22:32
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

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