A New Tech project-based learning model is 'changing every aspect' of this Fort Wayne school

American author Robert Fulghum wrote a poem titled, "All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten." Throughout the poem, Fulghum explores the idea that children learn everything they need to know within a short period of time: How to share with others, how to explore the world around them, how to ask questions—even how to start thinking for themselves.

While the poem is an exaggeration, data has proven the importance of high-quality early learning experiences filled with stimulating and supportive interactions between children and caregivers. These vital experiences can have long-lasting effects on children, families, and society alike.

But unfortunately in the U.S., many families struggle to find any affordable early childhood education programs, much less programs that foster and cater to emotional and mental health disability benefits. Many families and youth are just trying to survive, and challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic extend the number of families finding themselves at a loss for where to take their students for the best care suited to their personal needs.

Crossroad Academy, located at Crossroad Child and Family Services in Fort Wayne, is an alternative school that is stepping up and making sure these students don’t fall through the cracks of learning systems in Northeast Indiana. By offering smaller class sizes for students in grades 1-12, Crossroad facilitates learning and relationship building simultaneously, giving students a foundation to achieve their goals and become contributing members of society. The school specializes in serving students with emotional and behavioral disabilities and traumas.

Established in 1883, Crossroad Academy was originally an orphanage acting as a haven for children in need. The orphanage eventually grew to provide different services, including outpatient counseling, a mental health emergency center, and an eventual school, Crossroad Academy.

The school has undergone several reincarnations throughout its lifetime to ensure it can help its students in the most effective ways. This past year, however, it went through one of its most significant transformations to date.

Starting with a push from Principal Kirk Doehrmann and the continued support of the administration, Crossroad Academy took its first steps toward becoming part of the national New Tech Network, or a group of schools that promote project-based learning models as opposed to traditional, lecture-based learning.

While the New Tech Network is not new to the Northeast Indiana region (schools, like Wayne New Tech and Eagle Tech Academy, are already participating in it), the model is unique at an alternative school, which caters to the mental and emotional health of students like Crossroad Academy.

Crossroad is one of only a handful of alternative schools throughout the country in the New Tech Network, and so far, its model is jiving well with students’ needs.

Kyle Zanker, the Chief Development Officer, and Mackinzie Sharpe, the Gift Planning Director, at Crossroad Academy say many students are coming and going in the middle of semesters at Crossroad. So they aren't usually starting and finishing school there, unless they are enrolled explicitly by their parents.

The New Tech Network eases transitions by helping Crossroad onboard students quickly, without worrying about where a student left off at their previous school system, Zanker says. It also helps students integrate quickly into the new model by socializing them with classmates in project-based workgroups.

“By collaborating in assigned groups, students often make friends quickly, rather than trying to find their place at a new school on their own,” Zanker says.

Project-based learning is engaging students at Crossroad Academy.

The benefits of project-based learning extend beyond introductions, too. The work itself helps students implement the lessons they learn in the classroom, like collaboration, communication, and other skills, into their daily lives, setting them up for success in their careers when they graduate high school.  

To take things a step further, Crossroad Academy is also using its model to help students learn about entrepreneurship and the world of small business—in addition to more traditional career options. Zanker and Sharpe say they plan to have students leave with a strong business plan, which they can either create later in their careers or show to future employers.

“There are a lot of transferable skills in the business industry,” Zanker says. “If we can teach our students how to use those skills in different situations, then we know they can be successful however they proceed after they leave our school.”

Since many Crossroad students have struggled in traditional school settings, they often choose not to go to college and immediately enter the workforce. The hope is that through this new program, Crossroad students will have the skills, resources, and confidence to decide if they want to pursue a college degree, join the workforce, or to start a business venture of their own.

“Many of our students aren’t expected to go to college,” Zanker says. “However, we hope through this program we can help feel confident in whatever next step their choose to take.”

Faculty and staff at Crossroad Academy.

The fall of 2021 will be the first time that Crossroad Academy operates as a full New Tech School, but even operating as a combination of traditional and project-based learning models in the 2020 school year has given the school positive results, Sharpe says.

Anecdotally, teachers are more excited to teach, while students are more excited to learn, even amidst a global pandemic. Zanker points out that though the program was only implemented partially this year to train their teachers, they have already seen a change in student engagement.

“These students are actually excited to go to class,” he says. “They are interacting with not only each other but their teachers, staff, and even the principal.”

As Crossroad Academy takes on the 2021-2022 school year with a fully implemented New Tech model, the success of their students remains the top priority for educators.

“The culture is already changing every aspect of the school,” Zanker says. “The kids’ excitement gets passed around to every area of our staff, which lets the staff know they are making a meaningful difference in these kids’ lives.”