Innovations in Education

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Waco Schools Implement Creative Programs to Foster Learning

Pictured: Photos by Taylor Nicole Photography and Cecy Ayala

Innovation. It’s what drives the success and growth of any business, any industry. In education, innovation may be more critical than any other industry. After all, its product — students — will be the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow. From offering advanced degrees in high school and money-back guarantees for college tuition to empowering students to run high-profile STEM projects and conducting groundbreaking research on student engagement, five local institutions are on the cutting edge of educational innovation, with programs that promise to help students maximize their learning opportunities in creative ways.

Flexibility is Key

As companies like Google and Ben & Jerry’s have transitioned to offices with nap pods, on-site yoga classes and dog-friendly workspaces to produce happier, more productive employees, it only makes sense that a generation of students who may one day be employed by such companies could benefit from a similar experience in their education. That idea — a less extreme version, of course — is being tested in two Midway ISD elementary schools this year to study its impact on student engagement.

“These little kids have never lived a day of their lives without WiFi,” said Shanna Attai, assistant research professor in Baylor University’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER). “Much of the research out there on learning environments has been focused on colleges and the workplace. How our study is unique is that we are focused on how these environments impact students at a younger age and, if continued, will there be a higher academic engagement and achievement.”

About 600 students and 30 teachers at Spring Valley Elementary School and Woodway Elementary School will take part in a research study this school year, directed by a collaborative team comprised of Baylor University researchers; architects from Huckabee, an educational architecture firm based in Fort Worth; and educational specialists from Education Service Center Region 12. They’ll be studying the impact of flexible learning environments — specifically furniture — on students’ ability to communicate and collaborate with each other, as well as think both critically and creatively.

“One of the variables we know as designers is impactful for students and educators is furniture,” said Kerri Ranney, Huckabee’s vice president of educational practice. “This study is an opportunity for us to measure and articulate what gives students and educators more opportunity to move around, use different styles of instruction and engage in different ways. We developed this study as a collaborative — a team effort coming from multiple perspectives — to make sure we develop tools and instruments that really meet the definition of flexible learning environment.”

A flexible learning environment implements furniture that provides and supports students’ choice of seating, location, comfort and classroom peer interaction with the intent of fostering collaboration and empowering students to become builders of knowledge. What that looks like in the classroom: swivel chairs and wiggly stools replace traditional desk seating; whiteboard tables quickly convert into traditional instruction boards; and furniture stacks and stores easily to provide teachers a chance to reclaim their floor space for an activity that requires more freedom.

“We’re looking at all the ways in which furniture has additional functionality now than it did decades ago,” Ranney said.

The furniture itself is just one aspect of the study, said Truell Hyde, director of CASPER. His department is heading up the research component, along with researchers in the Baylor School of Education.

“You can do all these wonderful things with the architecture and flexible furniture,” Hyde said, “but if you don’t explain to the teachers how that benefits them, you get very little out of it.”

That’s where Judy York, educational specialist at Region 12, comes into the picture.

“What we bring to the table is outreach and professional development,” she said. “You can give [the materials] to them, but if they don’t know how to use it or they don’t have the confidence or the buy-in, it’s just going to be another piece of furniture sitting in the classroom not being used to its potential. Our professional development has to be strong enough to change the teachers’ philosophy of teaching.”

What educators want to know from the study is whether or not flexible learning environments have an effect on student learning and student engagement.

“That’s why we were excited to be a part of this,” said George Kazanas, superintendent of Midway ISD. “Does a flexible learning environment move the needle with students? What we wanted to determine from the pilot study at Spring Valley [in 2017] was whether or not our students are more engaged. We are excited that the Baylor researchers are developing a tool to measure engagement. We have a number of tools that measure student achievement; we can look at test scores. However, there had not been any research on how to maintain student engagement in a classroom, particularly in elementary classrooms.”

Through the year, researchers will interview teachers and students to determine just that. The preliminary results showed enough potential to launch the pilot study into this year’s longitudinal study, Kazanas said.

“Our school district is the laboratory,” he said, “and we can actually show our students, teachers and parents what research can do for our bottom line — the effect on our students, their love of learning and of being at school. That translates into higher student achievement.”

Flexible furniture is somewhat of a trend, and some schools already have moved in that direction, Attai said.

“Some teachers have even started to implement their own flexible environments with things like beanbags,” she said. “Our main question is: If we change a student’s environment, will their engagement improve, and will they have higher academic achievement?”

Student choice and student ownership of learning are a big part of that engagement, Kazanas said.

“When you have an environment like this, what we’re hoping to see is that when students have a choice in their environment — where they sit, how they work together — that leads to the feeling of ownership,” he said.

The study is being funded by each of the entities involved — Huckabee, Baylor, Region 12, along with Midway ISD — through money, time and effort, Hyde said.

“It is a unique collaborative effort,” Kazanas said. “It requires the support of the principals and the teachers. This study is the art and science of teaching and the art and science of learning. This study is merging those two. It’s bringing in both sides of the brain, if you will. It’s bringing in the scientific side to learning as well as the creative side and seeing how they work together to provide the best experience for our kids. That’s what motivates us as a school district and as teachers. We want to innovate, and we are committed to a process like this, even though it’s taken several years. We want to know the results of this study so that we can continue to improve.”


With the skyrocketing cost of a college education, bright and deserving students often view college as an unattainable goal. Perhaps they are working to contribute
to the family budget, or maybe they are responsible for financing their own education. Going to college might not be possible immediately upon graduation from high school — until now.

Four years ago, Waco Independent School District, along with local taxpayers, made an investment in students that could change all that. The Accelerate program offers students an opportunity to graduate with both a high school diploma and a college degree — and the first group of 27 students to complete the program walked across the stage last May. Savannah Vidana, 18, is one of them.

“I graduated from University High School in May, and I first started the Accelerate program the summer of 2016, so going into my sophomore year,” Vidana said. “I took a liberal arts pathway, which allowed me to cover all my basics and graduate with an associate degree in general academics from McLennan Community College.”

Accelerate offers Waco ISD students the chance to complete both their high school diploma requirements and their associate degree requirements through McLennan Community College at the same time, saving two years of college time and expense. Vidana is headed to the University of Texas at Austin in the fall with a big head start on her bachelor’s degree.

“Graduating with a degree has saved me a good deal of money,” she said. “I was allowed to take free college courses and not pay anything for books or online course codes. It has also saved me money by helping me to earn scholarships toward my bachelor’s degree. I got to see what I was capable of in terms of education, and I am more motivated than ever to continue furthering my education.”

Students in the program attend dual credit classes on their high school campuses as well as at MCC, the MCC Emergency Services Education Center or the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy. Accelerate is open to incoming ninth graders who agree to the terms of program participation. The program can save a family between $25,000 and $30,000, depending on the number of credit hours required by the chosen pathway.

“There are numerous benefits for students who earn an associate degree through Accelerate,” said Ashley Duncan, director of advanced academic services for WISD. “They include the reduced cost of college tuition to complete a four-year degree, a shorter timeline to complete a four-year degree after high school graduation, the ability to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the same time that a four-year degree would have taken or a direct path to the workforce with the outlook of higher salaries. Students have an enriched high school experience and an advantage when they move on to college or the workforce.”

The Accelerate program is funded by a portion of the 2015 WISD tax ratification election. Between the monies paid from Waco ISD and the tuition waived by MCC, the investment each year has increased to just over a half million dollars in the 2018-2019 school year.

“These costs include tuition, books, transportation to and from an MCC campus, technology to use within the classes and the fees to take the Texas Success Initiative assessment,” Duncan said.

The TSI assessment is a state-required assessment to determine college-readiness in reading, writing and mathematics that dual credit students must take and pass to participate in dual credit courses.

WISD currently has 46 students on track to complete the program in May 2020, Duncan said.

Accelerate empowers students who might not otherwise have college as an option, which in turn benefits the community.

“The Accelerate program provides students with learning opportunities that increase the possibility of higher education degree attainment,” she said. “Students experience a culture of high expectations while remaining in an environment that provides assistance in planning their future and succeeding in their courses. By bridging high school and college, the Accelerate program gives students the opportunity to not only join the game but be ahead.”

According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the difference between Texas median income for individuals with just a high school diploma and those with associate degrees is nearly $12,000, Duncan said.

“Therefore, the Accelerate program provides students with a $12,000 income boost straight out of high school, a difference that positively impacts the entire community.”

For a student like Emily Alvarado, also of University High School, that makes a big difference.

“Coming from a single-parent home, graduating high school with an associate degree will be saving us some money that would have been spent if the program was not an option. I’ll be able to start college as a junior and get ahead in my career.”

Alvarado plans to study child psychology.

The ideal Accelerate candidate, Duncan said, is a student who is willing to take on a challenging task yet feels comfortable to reach out for assistance when needed;
a student who wants an opportunity to get ahead and save money.

“Although Accelerate can assist those students who are economically disadvantaged more greatly than those students who are not,” she said, “the program is appropriate for every student by either offering better preparation for a university, information to help decide the right career path or a faster pathway to finish a degree and move into the workforce.”

Ivette Padron is a University High junior and liberal arts major with just 12 hours to go toward her associate degree.

“When entering the program, we were warned that it would not be easy,” Padron said. “We were told that the workload would be heavy and that our professors would have very little tolerance for late or absent work. But you’re not alone. We have strong support from the teachers here at University High who are very open to helping us, whether it be by reading over our papers or helping us with certain math or science questions we don’t quite understand.”

Padron said she plans to seek a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in higher education. She said she was inspired by all the people who helped guide her through her education and would like to do the same for others.

“I plan on working in college administration to help those incoming freshmen with the big transition from high school to college,” she said.

While she sees something special in just about all of the students who put in the extra effort to earn an associate degree in high school, Duncan said there’s one graduate who really stands out in her mind.

“She was a first-generation college student and the third-oldest of eight siblings,” she said. “She faced some incredible personal obstacles, including being homeless for a time. That didn’t deter her. She worked tirelessly, and, through Accelerate, earned her associate degree in allied health from MCC. But she didn’t stop there. This student also became certified as an EKG technician and a pharmacologist and went on to get her certified nursing assistant license. She definitely has a brighter future now. Accelerate is one part of that story, but more than anything, her hard work, perseverance and dedication put her a step above the rest.”

Digging deep certainly is one quality the Accelerate program teaches students. Going to high school and college at the same time is not always an easy path.

“It was incredibly challenging to juggle high school and college all at once,” Vidana said. “I had to be diligent with time management and scheduling, but it all worked out. I just made sure that I never sacrificed too much of my high school experience for college or vice versa. I found the balance that worked for me and stuck with it. It kind of allowed me to dip my toes into the college experience before actually being fully committed to it. I got to make mistakes and figure out what study and learning methods worked for me while I was still in high school.”


When Waco Pedal Tours — Waco’s multiseat, passenger-peddled party bike — faced a catastrophic parts failure in the summer of 2018, the owners didn’t send the bike back to China for repairs. And they didn’t hire a professional mechanic
to fit it with a new specialized part that can’t be duplicated anyway. What they did do: Turn the problem over to Rapoport Academy STEM education director Clay Springer and his team of students who designed and built a bigger, better bike that is now on a roll in Waco.

“Waco Pedals Tours is just one example of a business partnership that is incubating out of Rapoport,” Springer said. “Rapoport’s main focus is entrepreneurship, and we exist in four different pathways: modern design, engineering and mechatronics, business and hospitality, and health and wellness. The students choose one of those majors, but they all have that entrepreneurship focus. When we look for businesses to provide internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training, we look for businesses that can meet several students’ passions. So, we have students from different disciplines working in teams.”

Waco Pedal Tours’ problem was a perfect learning opportunity that fit the school’s mode of education. Springer got involved with the company a year ago when a friend referred the owners to him, thinking he might be able to help fix the broken part that put their business on hold for several months. Using his design and technology expertise, he was able to get them up and running again — but not before they basically changed the whole design of the bike’s mechanics.

“The whole experience made us ask ourselves, can we build a better bike?” Springer said. “I realized everything on this bike — from the robotics to the music to the branding to the hospitality — goes with what we are trying to teach students. I knew this was something we could do. I knew we could build a bike that is completely made with American parts.”

And so began the project of converting a 1998 Jeep Cherokee into Waco Pedal Tours’ new and improved party bike — and it took about eight months to complete.

“It was a five-month build time with three months of planning beforehand,” Springer said. “The team kind of came together because of the students’ available times.”

One of the students who took the lead on the project, Sydney Stallworth, had Fridays off and was able to spend that time working on the bike.

“Sydney was at TSTC for automotive,” Springer said, “and then another student said, ‘Well I have Fridays off because I’m
at MCC,’ so it all just worked out.”

The team eventually escalated to four students: Stallworth headed up the automotive aspect; Conrey Guy was the engineering and project manager; Victor Benitez worked as a general fabricator; and Ryan Starr provided electronics expertise.

“It was a really good combination of knowledge and skills,” Springer said.

Waco Pedal Tours rented a facility on Franklin Avenue and agreed to pay the students 10 bucks an hour while they worked on the bike. They used tools from Rapoport, so it was a true working partnership.

Springer said they operated under a state funding model where if students work 10 hours a week for $10 an hour, they get double class credit. They can earn credit for college, and they also earned their Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification.

“Even with the labor they paid to the students, it was still well under cost,” Springer said. “It was about a $30,000 build — $10,000 in labor and $20,000 in parts.”

But the real value may just be in the experience and confidence gained by the students involved. Stallworth said he didn’t realize the magnitude of his efforts until the project was almost finished.

“It didn’t really hit me until we started putting the roof on it, and I thought, Wow, this is really real,” he said. “Now, when I see it around town and I’m with other people I can show them pictures of how it was built. I worked on it. And I’m proud of that.”

Stallworth is no stranger to hard work. He said he worked at both Subway and Sears while going to school and beginning the Waco Pedal Tours project. But the hard work never scared him away. If anything, it inspired him.

“I never thought we couldn’t do it,” he said, “but there was a time when I thought, Hey, this is getting a little bit too big. But from January on, things started to get easier because we were geared to make our deadline.”

The new bike is a tricked-out version of the original, featuring better seating, cool lighting and even misters for hot weather tours.

Going to the junkyard and stripping old Jeep Cherokee parts was Stallworth’s favorite part, he said.

“How many students actually want to go to the junkyard when it’s 100 degrees outside and tear out axels?” Springer asked. “But Sydney loved it, and we had that in common. Sydney and I both love cars and our relationship grew from that. We actually took some of the same classes at TSTC, and so we got to share our college experiences. Going from the classroom to actually working alongside each other was one
of the neatest experiences.”

Stallworth said he enjoyed working with Springer, as well.

“He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever had,” Stallworth said. “He made the job fun, funny and interesting.”

Though he’s entering the U.S. Air Force after college, Stallworth said he would like to run his own automotive shop one day.

“My dream would be — because I love ‘The Fast and the Furious’ — to have a garage on the beach in Florida,” he said. “I love that idea. I want to do something like that. I’d also have a hangar where I could work on personal planes too.”

Springer said he thinks Stallworth’s future is bright.

“I think his project management skills will advance him in the military and in his career,” he said. “He’s already handled a project where he’s worked with real money and real timelines. When Sydney finishes up school and comes back from the Air Force, I could see us running a business together. I could see myself investing in Sydney’s business, whether that’s my time, tools or money. I think that relationship will last.”


If you buy a piece of exercise equipment, an anti-aging cream or an industrial-grade super glue, you might expect it to come with a money-back guarantee. If you’re not satisfied with the product, just return it and they’ll send back your $19.95. On a much larger and more meaningful scale, students at Texas State Technical College are now guaranteed to have a job upon graduation — or their money back.

“Knowing that I was guaranteed a job out of college gave me a lot more peace of mind and gave me a boost of confidence I needed to complete my courses,” said Clayton Gage, a 2019 TSTC graduate in the field of electrical power and controls technology.

The Money-Back Guarantee program kicked off fall 2016.

“This initiative helps address the public’s concerns of college debt and the relevance of a college degree,” said Adam Hutchison, TSTC provost. “We believe that higher education in competitive technical fields, like those offered by TSTC, is the best investment a student can make for their future. The MBG program gives students and their families confidence right from the beginning that they can pursue a great career through TSTC without worry that they’re paying for an education that won’t result in a job.”

Not all TSTC students are part of the MBG program. It’s a voluntary program targeted to five key associate of applied science degrees: electrical lineworker technology, instrumentation technology, welding technology, diesel equipment technology, and electrical power and controls technology.

“Students in these programs may choose to sign up for the MBG program, but it is not required,” Hutchison said.

Students who do choose the MBG program must complete a cocurricular pathway that provides additional skills for employment.

“Led by TSTC’s career services professionals, this cocurricular pathway includes specific activities like resume and cover letter writing sessions, interview practicums and other workshops,” Hutchison said. “Every student and graduate has access to the TSTC career services office. Staffed with trained career professionals, it’s located in the center of campus in the Student Services Center. They host job fairs with 100-plus
employers specifically hiring TSTC graduates twice a year.”

Hutchison said the job fairs are one of his favorite TSTC events because it’s the perfect snapshot of the TSTC mission.

“Hundreds of high-paying, high-tech Texas employers competing for TSTC graduates because of their technical skills,” he said. “We’re confident that with the support of TSTC’s career services, a quality technical education in these programs will lead to a great-paying job in Texas, and we guarantee it.”

Proof: Gage was hired by Oncor Electric Delivery before his graduation last spring.

“When I started at TSTC, I was aware of the program that allowed me to get my tuition back if I did not get a job,” he said. “I thought this was a bold statement, considering I understood it is difficult to get a job straight out of college. By making this promise, it made my decision a lot easier to go to this college and made me feel a lot more comfortable.”

That’s Hutchison’s point, exactly.

“I believe it allows students to focus on their education at TSTC without as much concern about what happens next,” he said. “If they participate in the MBG program, they don’t have to worry about the investment they are making; their biggest decision will be which great-paying job offer to accept when they graduate.”

If a student deserves a refund, the MBG program is supported by TSTC’s general operating budget, Hutchison said. To date, they have not had to refund any MBG student monies, he added.

But even among all TSTC graduates — not just the MBG students — TSTC placement rates are impressive: electrical lineworker, 97%; instrumentation, 92%; welding, 84%; diesel, 81%; and electrical power and controls, 99%, according to stats provided by the TSTC career services office.

“TSTC has a single mission: Placing more Texans in great paying jobs,” Hutchison said. “With that as our sole focus, we constantly and rigorously review our programs and curricula for relevance and value to Texas employers, and we maintain an extensive network of placement opportunities for our graduates statewide.”

The need for quality technicians continues to grow in Texas.

“We’re a big state with diverse industries that require technical skills to thrive, and as more technically trained baby boomers reach retirement, the skills gap between employer needs and qualified workers continues to widen,” Hutchison said. “The qualities that make technical education worth a guarantee are the relevance to the Texas workforce and the value of that education at public institutions like TSTC. For example, the tuition for an electrical power and controls degree at TSTC is less than $12,000 and takes about 20 months to complete. The average first-year earnings for that program in 2016, which is the most recent state data, was over $67,000, and the average graduate salary after five years was $94,000 per year. That’s a great investment for the student and the state of Texas.”

And an educated workforce is simply good for Waco.

“Waco is a wonderful place to live, study and work,” Hutchison said. “TSTC has been a part of this community since 1965 — 54 years. Our mission today is the same
as it was in 1965, and the MBG is evidence of our firm commitment to support the regional workforce. I’m privileged to meet people all over our community on a regular basis who share the great stories of how they or someone they know has a great career because of their technical education at TSTC in Waco. This program will make sure those life-changing stories continue for many more years.”

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