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American Canyon High School will open its doors in August, and everything about the state-of-the-art school will be brand new, including its educational method.

In some of its classrooms, the district’s latest high school will use project-based learning, an instructional model also used at American Canyon Middle School and New Technology High School in Napa.

Known among educational officials as “Student-centered Learning for the 21st Century,” or SC21, the system emphasizes multi-disciplinary problem solving — combining sociology and English, for example, by addressing a social question in an essay — along with the use of cutting-edge technology. The goal is to provide the student with skills needed in today’s workplace: communication, collaboration, self-motivation and critical thinking, along with knowledge of computers and their applications.

Advocates say the method is a sea change in education and a direct outgrowth of the program at Napa’s New Technology High School. The SC21 method is described as both “high tech” and “high touch.” Its supporters include not only the Napa Valley Unified School District and the Napa County Office of Education, but also Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Valley Education Foundation and New Technology Foundation.

One might assume that a revolution in education would originate in the academic community, but that’s not true in this case.

Vincent “Buzz” Butler of Lake Street Ventures, the developer of the Napa Junction Center in American Canyon, played a pivotal role in founding New Tech High, and by extension, the development of the new teaching method.

“If I had to pick one man as the father of SC21, it would be Buzz Butler,” said Napa County Office of Education Superintendent Barbara Nemko. Nemko became the director of the business and education collaboration committee shortly after her arrival in Napa in 1991. New Tech High School was an outgrowth of that committee.

Although Butler’s maternal ancestors had ties to Napa, he was born and raised in San Francisco and came to Napa in the late 1980s representing Pacific Union, corporate developer of the Gateway Business Park near the airport. The developers were trying to decide what type of businesses they should try to attract to the park, and technology companies seemed to be a good choice. The far end of the Bay was a hotbed of technology, and Napa offered wonderful quality of life.

But one important quality was missing, Butler said.

“Business people were unhappy with the quality of workers they were getting. The average schools weren’t producing graduates with skills needed in the workplace,” said Butler. “So I thought, ‘why can’t we grow our own employees? Why not teach these kids what these companies want?’”

That simple question led to a one-of-a-kind business-education partnership. Butler said the idea for an education-business collaboration came from his internship in his senior year at UC Berkeley with a professor who typically acted as a matchmaker between students and businesses.

To their credit, Butler said, local educators and administrators were open to the possibilities.

“There may be 42 SC21-type schools around the country, but we are the first to take it district-wide,” said Nemko.

One might wonder why it took so long to start teaching kids something resembling real-world workplace tasks in public schools.

“Why do we still run our schools on an agricultural model with June, July and part of August off? We teach the way we were taught, we parent the way we were parented,” said Nemko.

Because of the emphasis on computer technology — a computer for every student — and because of the cost of professional development, which includes training educators in a new teaching method, SC21 comes with additional costs at a time when schools can barely afford to keep teachers on the payroll.

Nemko said that to implement the program, there must be a demand.

“All our (SC21) grants are matching grants,” said Nemko, “because the grantors want to be sure that the community supports the program.”

American Canyon High School Principal Mark Brewer said he was familiar with similar project-based learning models from his time as an educator in Colorado.

“I think it’s a great instructional model,” Brewer said. “It emphasizes engagement and sharing learning responsibility with kids.”

American Canyon High is the first large school — planned to hold more than 2,000 students eventually — that will use the model Brewer talks about.

Is this the death knell for the old, lecture hall model of teaching?

“I think we’re slowly evolving away from it,” said Brewer. “There are certainly engaging, dynamic teachers who can capture and excite their students with lectures,” said Brewer, “but they find that they can’t do that every day without losing them, so they are employing a wide variety of instructional tools.”

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