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From Outlier to Innovator: Bass plans new vision for Middle College

Photos by Kerri Bartlett

BayLee West, student class president, and Tanya Jackson chat with Middle College High School Principal Dr. Brain Bass. “We are like one big family. There are a lot of different kinds of people here – very loving and accepting,” West said. Bass is leading students to channel their creativity in innovative ways.

Aside from the traditional three “R’s,” students at Middle College High School in Franklin in the Williamson County Schools district can be seen playing guitars, singing, writing, creating, planning community projects and making a difference.

Maddie Medley practices songs on her guitar at Middle College High School.
On any given day, the tall, lanky casually fresh-faced, yet seasoned principal Dr. Brian Bass looks excited as he bounces through the halls and chats with students about their concerns of the day as well as their future hopes and dreams. 
A bright future and great, exciting things is everyday conversation at Middle College. And Bass, an educator for about 18 years, doesn’t doubt that his students’ dreams will come true, and he will help build the groundwork to make it happen. 
He compares Middle College students to great thinkers and innovators, just like the collage that adorns a wall in his office of John Lennon, Amelia Earheart and Mahatma Ghandi. 
During Bass’s second year leading the school, he has diligently been working to create an environment where students’ creativity is supported, innovation is encouraged and the capacity for learning is pushed to the limits.
The momentum for his vision has begun, but he says that the complete “redesign” of Middle College, established in 1998, will be unveiled in February to the WCS Board of Education. 
Bass recently delivered a sneak-peek presentation to the board about his vision for the school, titled “From Outlier to Innovator: A new vision for WCS students in need of a unique high school experience to unleash and meet their creative and innovative potential.”
Bass has previously described students at Middle College “like square pegs in round holes,” who do not thrive like many in a traditional high school setting where student bodies are large and athletics and intellectuals are heralded – a place where some creative types might be overshadowed.
“Some students might feel like they don’t fit in for a variety of reasons. Our students may have diverse passions or interests that aren’t being cultivated, may feel disconnected or disengaged from traditional learning, or may must feel like they need a smaller, supportive environment where they can grow and be accepted,” Bass said. 
When the traditional high school setting doesn’t work for some, it becomes a negative experience that equates to a poor self-concept Bass said. Decreased self-confidence can lead to an avoidance of difficult tasks and abandoning innate creative abilities that could flourish. 
However, he said that it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Some might have felt like they didn’t fit in before or that their creativity was a hindrance instead of an asset,” Bass said. 
Bass also quoted Sir Ken Robinson during the board presentation: “Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they are not – because the thing they were good at school wasn’t valued, or it was actually stigmatized.” 
During the first day of school last year, Bass played the song “Home” by Phillip Phillips for the student body, planting the seed that Middle College is a safe and positive place for them to learn, grow and make mistakes. 
With a student capacity of 150 consisting of grades 10-12, Bass believes that Middle College’s smaller environment is ideal to promote the new vision and foster an atmosphere of close-knit camaraderie between students – a process that has already begun.
Recently as part of a Project Based Learning (PBL) assignment that focuses on critical thinking, students raised about $3,200 for the Oasis Center, a nonprofit organization that helps struggling teens. 
The project began with the question: “How can you create and sustain change in the world?”
Student Samantha Starr headed the Run for Relief 5k project with the purpose of promoting running as a healthy way to relieve stress.
“Before at school, I did what I had to do and my heart just wasn’t in it,” Starr said. “It felt like a circus. Here I feel like I am doing work with a purpose with a faculty who cares. From the project I feel like I Iearned skills like collaboration and communication and how to approach sponsors.”
The PBL methodology is building the groundwork for what Bass refers to as the predominant 21st century workforce skills – the four C’s, which could be trumping the traditional 3 R’s. 
“It’s not just about a 5k or a courtyard [to be built in the spring by students], it’s about incorporating the four C’s – creativity/innovation, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. In order to be successful, that’s what you have to have in the 21st century workforce.
“It’s kind of like the movie Karate Kid, Daniel paints the fence and waxes the car and doesn’t realize until later that he is learning the skills of karate.”
Also, the grading system at middle College is intentional and delivers “undiluted accurate feedback” in which meeting all learning targets is emphasized, not just getting a passing grade and being compliant Bass said.
“We don’t want to assess how well they played school, but how well they mastered learning targets.
“It’s the intentionality of how we are engaging students in authentic learning that goes beyond PBL but is incorporated into daily instruction, not just compliance in turning in work.”
MCHS currently accepts students in grades 10-12 from across Williamson County at the beginning of each semester.  However, Bass encourages a proactive versus a reactive approach to identifying students.
Rather than waiting until students struggle or become disconnected at a larger high school, MCHS will be accepting up to 40 freshmen as candidates for Middle College beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.
“I think that some students who need a smaller, more unique learning environment can be spotted as early as middle school,” Bass said. 
Bass plans to present more about his vision to the WCS board in February including elective academies, internships and practicum opportunities for students within the areas of their interests and passions.
The school will host an Open House Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m. for sophomores and juniors who might be interested in attending Middle College in the spring. Middle College is made up of students throughout Williamson County, and interested candidates must go through an application process for admission.
“I feel like we are moving students from passion to purpose,” Bass said. 

Posted on: 12/8/2013


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