In Cynthia Banks-Andrzejak’s fifth-grade science classroom at Ann Arbor Trail Magnet Middle School, students dressed in gray plaid with yellow shirts and maroon ties recently huddled together over their science projects.
Their expertly-crafted mini solar systems were made from a variety of creative materials, including fruit (with the sun as a grapefruit) or balls (with a baseball serving as the solar system’s largest star) and even candy and cereal (with a delicately-painted blue and green Cheerio as Earth).
In Sakina Burch’s Science and Math classroom, students tied their learning to real-world concepts by recycling over 95% of the containers used for breakfast to minimize waste, weighing their recycling using a Kilogram scale, and being challenged to accurately measure the bags of waste using a traditional scale.
Down the hall in one of the school’s four pre-kindergarten classrooms, some students were busily using their creativity to learn how plastic gears work (a pre-engineering concept) and build 3-foot-tall buildings out of wooden blocks as part of the district’s research-based High Scope Curriculum.
In room after room, students displayed creativity through hands-on projects and exploratory learning at the PreK-8 application school located on Detroit’s west side.
But this was just an ordinary day in what Principal Darron Jackson calls an extraordinary school.
When asked if the school mimics the feel and curriculum of an elite private school, where students are often dressed in uniforms and in which high academic standards are a must, Jackson utters a passionate “No.”
“This is not like a private school, a traditional public school or any other school,” Jackson said. “We are a trail-blazing school. Ann Arbor Trail is an extraordinary school with extraordinary classrooms.”
Indeed, Ann Arbor Trail Magnet Middle School, whose students are known as the “Trailblazers,” backs its lofty moniker with a unique STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) curriculum in a small school setting offering advanced and challenging coursework.
The teachers follow an educational philosophy known as “School Without Walls” in which students are constantly exposed to experiences and places outside of their traditional classrooms to help reinforce learning concepts and expose them to living and breathing examples of real-world learning.
For instance, a staple of Ann Arbor Trail’s offerings is the annual NASA Space Camp trip to Huntsville, Alabama for grades 4-8, where students are exposed to the rigors of preparing for space flight, simulated missions and mission control.
The school also offers students the opportunity to participate in an annual two-week-long Honors Trip for students who maintain a 3.2 grade point average, which has included visits to Washington D.C., New York City, Atlanta, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Kentucky, Virginia, and Philadelphia with stops at Ivy League colleges and universities such as Georgetown, Yale, Clark Atlanta, Spellman, Morehouse, Tennessee State, and Howard University.
Through the trip, students have been able to experience visits to landmarks across the country, such as the Juilliard School, the Apollo Theater, Times Square, the Coca Cola Factory, Plymouth Rock, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, five Smithsonian Museums, Old Coast Guard Station, and the Eastern State Penitentiary.
They have watched Lobster and Crab fishing, and visited the Dinosaur Museum, where they made a cast of an actual dinosaur footprint and brought it back to the school.
As a classic part of the “Schools Without Walls” philosophy, Jackson seeks to ensure that students who don’t participate in the trip are able to learn alongside their classmates through modern technological innovations such as Skyping.
Along the trip, students are expected to constantly research their stops, report on their visits and communicate lessons back to the school through daily photos and postings on a website, “creating a virtual journey for hundreds of students,” said Ms. Burch.
“The advantage offered here is that we are able to expose students to so many experiences they would encounter in their adult lives,” said Burch. “We want them to be successful and competitive. And we don’t want them to have to wait until high school to be able to experience careers.”
One of the latest projects offered at Ann Arbor Trail is the LiveMath Project where students explore, develop, build and maintain a solar-powered green house to plant and grow healthy food.
Students say the experiences offered at the school are inspiring and life-altering.
“It was a chance of a lifetime,” seventh-grader Oscar Sanchez-Martinez gushed about a recent Honors Trip. The trip exposed him to Specs Howard School of Media Arts, where he now plans to attend college, after achieving his first goal of attending Renaissance High School and becoming the Valedictorian. “I didn’t know there was a school that had all those offerings,” he said.
Seventh-grader Malaya Hopkins, who transferred from a charter school this year, agreed that Ann Arbor Trail is a school like no other.
“We learn in fun ways here. Instead of the teachers just talking to us in front of a board, they have us help them,” she said, adding that students are encouraged to constantly analyze and challenge in class.
The experiences to which students are exposed encourage them constantly to be engaged in their learning, which in turn helps students to achieve, Jackson said. That’s reflected in the school MEAP scores where they have achieved achieved 15.6% increase in Grade 3 Mathematics, 6.8% increase in Grade 5 Mathematics, 6.1% increase in Grade 8 Science, 39.8% increase in Grade 3 Reading, 21.8% increase Grade 5 Reading, and 34.9% increase in Grade 7 Writing.
Jackson says he is proud that DPS offers such a trailblazing school.
“Ann Arbor Trail is a wonderful place for any parent to bring their child because it’s a nurturing environment, and it’s an environment in which the students are pushed to achieve anything life will hand to them,” Jackson said.
Something you didn’t know:
Every student in the school knows the Trailblazer Creed and Affirmation entitled, “I am a Trailblazer.”
“I am a Trailblazer
I am determined, self-motivated, and intelligent;
I am a leader
I am not ordinary, I am extraordinary
I have exceptional ability, I am above average;
I am first rate
I am powerful beyond measure,
And I am not afraid to let my light shine.
I am a trailblazer.”