Forsyth Central High School Principal Mitch Young recently thought back to when he was a teacher at West Forsyth in 2008, dreaming of a school where history, journalism, art and language arts teachers would all work together to form ideas and help students.
The school system set a basis for a similar program nearly 10 years ago with its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy, or STEM, which they decided to place at Forsyth Central. Young said the program felt perfect because it allowed students from throughout the county to apply and take part in a program where the curriculum is interwoven between classes and students stay in a cohort together for all four years of school.
The program quickly became competitive, becoming one of the top specialty programs for students alongside the International Baccalaureate program at South Forsyth High School. After years of seeing success in the program, Young said he was interested in bringing similar opportunities to students outside of STEM.
“We said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this on the STEM side, but we’ve got a lot of brilliant kids who [are interested in] English, history, journalism, law,’” Young said. “We’ve got kids that are operating at just as high levels as the STEM kids.”
This idea led Forsyth Central’s administrators and a group of teachers to come up with the Humanities Institute, a program that brings students interested in English, social studies and art and together with their teachers.
The school piloted the program with a small group of students in 2019, and now they plan to open the institute up to students throughout the county for the 2021-22 school year.
Assistant Principal Precilla Saint-Jean, who helped to create and facilitate the program, said that they are excited to offer the program to students across the county because it offers those students who are considering a future as a lawyer, journalist, writer, politician or educator to delve deeper into subjects that will interest them.
A group of teachers put together a set course schedule for each of the students’ four years that they take alongside the usual classes. Some of these courses include AP Human Geography, Humanities, AP Art History, Journalism and Current Issues and AP U.S. History.
Going into their senior year, students will be able to choose between two set pathways depending on their interests.
One pathway is Global Issues and Politics where students who are interested in international affairs or political science can study U.S. and Global Affairs. The other is Publication and Media for those students more interested in writing, journalism and English.
Students can find these classes or similar classes in high schools throughout the county, but the administration, teachers and students at Central all agree that what sets the Humanities Institute apart from regular AP and honors courses is the experience.
“It’s different because it’s a package,” Young said.
Students first apply for the program as rising ninth-graders, and the group of students they meet and begin taking classes with in their freshman year is the same group of students they will stick with throughout their time in high school.
These students also all have the same teachers, meaning that throughout all four years, all of the students and teachers are collaborating with each other on assignments and projects.
Antonia Alberga-Parisi, a teacher and the Humanities Insitute program coordinator, has been working directly with another teacher, Matthew Thompson, since the start of this school year, teaching the same group of kids.
Thompson teaches AP U.S. History and Parisi teaches AP Language, but their curriculum is always meeting together and intermingling. At the same time Thompson was speaking with students about the revolutionary war and America’s founding fathers and early constitution, Parisi was also reviewing the musical, “Hamilton,” and analyzing it as a work of art. It led students to review the U.S. constitution and some of The Federalist Papers, looking at documents from the country’s early history through different perspectives.
“It’s this really interesting way of connecting art to history to linguistic analysis to culture,” Parisi said.
Thompson said that the kids understand and remember what they are learning much more easily when they have this extra context before walking into the classroom. They have the opportunity to have the full story behind a lesson instead of learning a lesson in segmented parts across classrooms.
Journalism and Current Issues teacher Johnathan Henderson agreed, saying that both learning and teaching tends to flow easier when all the topics relate.
“That’s really the mark of the whole humanities program is not teaching a subject in isolation so that students can see the interconnectedness of things,” Henderson said. “And the idea is it will create these habits of thought that will allow them to see relationships and be better thinkers and creative problem-solvers.”
With dedicated, collaborative teachers, the students also have received more opportunities to explore their areas of interest outside of the classroom. During the past two years, students have visited Shakespeare’s Tavern, they have spoken with Russian and Iranian students over Skype about their perspectives on current events and U.S. and foreign relations, and they have toured CNN with a news anchor.
Going forward, teachers collaborate to plan even more of these opportunities for students to show them more about the world and how disciplines come together outside of school.
Many of the humanities students also agreed that being within a cohort gives them a much greater sense of community and comfort than in regular classes. With all of them sticking with each other in the same group in multiple classes through the day, they said they quickly became a closely-knit group of friends.
Young saw this same community forming within the STEM program before piloting the Humanities Institute, and he described it as a “school within a school.”
“Being with a small group of people has been really nice because we’re kind of like a little family, as cheesy as that sounds,” said Addison Denney, a freshman at Central.
Others say the feeling of community also helps them learn better.
“It’s a lot easier to answer questions in front of them because we are so comfortable with each other,” Sophomore Gloria Longoria said. “And then it’s a lot easier to get something wrong and know we’re wrong, but nobody is judging you because we’re so close.”
Parisi said the institute has had a huge impact on students’ confidence in so many ways, allowing students that could not find the courage to speak in class to feeling comfortable sharing their thoughts.
Part of this confidence comes from students interested in humanities finding their place among each other and in school where they can find more opportunities.
With the STEM Academy’s success, many students felt pressured to join a program where they might be able to find a more rigorous course load.
“I feel like people tend to forget that history and literature are just as important as math and science,” said Eddy Delcroix, a sophomore at the school. “Literature and history have such a huge impact on our world and how we run society and how we keep culture and people going.”
Young said that when most think about the world’s problem solvers, they think of those in STEM fields. They think of curing cancer, finding a COVID-19 vaccine and all of these other scientific, mathematical and engineering solutions. But humanities experts can help to solve one of the largest issues facing societies throughout the world today — a lack of civil discourse.
“At the root of civil discourse is not knowing how to communicate with each other and not understanding that there are multiple perspectives for every problem,” Young said. “There’s not just red and blue. There are different variations of every problem we see that face our societies today. And so, having a group of potential leaders be able to tackle and go deep in those issues and come out and be able to disagree without demonizing. That’s the problem we’re wanting to solve.”
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Teachers at Central are already seeing their students in the Humanities Institute become these leaders even after only a year and a half in the program, and students have loved delving into these topics and discussions just as much as the teachers have.
Even for students who do not know where they want to go in the future, they hope they can take all they are learning and the experiences in the institute into anything they decide to do after high school.
“We went into education because we want to save the world, but we know we can’t do that,” Young said. “But if we can, for 30-60 students per year, change the way they’re thinking about things and that they can lead and go out and solve problems effectively and positively, then maybe we have made the world a little better. That’s what keeps us going.”