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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Why This Struggling School District Is Reviving Creative Electives

Daniel Funk’s construction technology classroom at Sto-Rox High School is literally buzzing with activity.

Students are confidently working with heavy duty power tools as they finish building small hanging display cases.

“Right now we’re working on the drawers,” said senior Asa Powell. “The drawer fronts are probably the hardest, because they have the knobs and whatnot."

Powell said he regularly looks forward to Funk’s class.

“It’s very relaxing in my day,” he said. “(It is) a break from the traditional classroom. I get to be in the shop for a little bit, just relax, cut wood.”

It’s hard to believe that, less than two years ago, this room was a disaster, according to Funk.

“It took a lot of work,” Funk said. “The area had been completely taken over as storage. There was lumber just everywhere, piles of it. I didn’t know where to start, so I started out with just cleaning it.”

Funk said the construction technology classes were slashed years ago, and the wood shop had been all but forgotten before he took it over.

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Daniel Funk

“I didn’t really even know what I had yet,” Funk said. “We found all the industrial tools, our planer, our joiner, our table saw. Got all those out, and then of course the next problem was, do we have any electrical to run these? And we didn’t.”

"The kid that doesn't do well or never takes calculus is the guy that can fix every engine in the neighborhood, and that person’s important."

Sto-Rox School District serves two of Pittsburgh’s poorest suburbs: McKees Rocks and Stowe Township. According to 2010 census data, nearly 20 percent of children in Stowe were living in poverty. In McKees Rocks, that figure was nearly double. More than three quarters of high school students at Sto-Rox High School qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

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Jeff Hackett

The school district was not doing much better than the families it served, so beginning around 2009, according to video production teacher Jeff Hackett, electives started to get cut. But a couple of years ago, Hackett and Funk decided it was time to start bringing electives back.

“It was just something to get a few kids interested in coming to school again, that maybe normally wouldn’t want to come to school,” Hackett said.

On a recent morning, students in Hackett’s class were busy producing their daily television show to deliver the morning announcements and showcase their production work. Hackett said when he first floated the idea, he was met with skepticism.

“A lot of people said I was nuts, you can’t do this, we have no money,” Hackett said. “I said, well give me a shot.”

Teaching high school isn’t Hackett’s only job; he’s also been doing video production work for the Penguins on game nights for the past two decades.

“I have lots of connections in the video industry and basically called in 20 years' worth of favors,” Hackett said.

With a little funding from the district — and a whole lot of donated equipment — Hackett first offered the video production classes during last year’s spring semester. He said they quickly filled up with seniors.

After seeing how popular the class was, the school district’s former superintendent, Michael Panza, urged Hackett to expand the school’s digital media offerings.

Hackett and Funk worked together to apply for a $20,000 grant from the Center for Creativity, a collaboration of two regional intermediate units, state agencies that support local school districts.

Their application was successful, and they used the money to transform the school’s under-used library into the Creative Media Technology Learning Center.

“We’ve got kids editing videos, we got kids writing scripts, we got kids shooting, we got kids taking pictures for their Photoshop class, so it’s controlled chaos,” Hackett said as students milled about. “Noise is a good thing in here. Kids should be interacting. They should be working together."

In addition to advanced video production and construction technology classes, Sto-Rox now offers courses in digital photography and computer game design.

Junior Chase Dunham took Funk’s photography class last semester and is now in his gaming class. He said he’d like to see more electives at Sto-Rox.

His classmate, junior Melissa Fowkes, said electives can give stressed out teenagers a chance to relax.

“Not everyone is good at academics,” she said. “So having something like this that relieves stress and gets away from math and reading is good for students.”

But Funk said the effort to bring back electives isn’t just about relieving stress or giving the kids a break in the day. He said an over-emphasis on standardized test scores and traditional academic subjects leaves some kids feeling like they’re not valued.

“The kid that doesn’t do well or never takes calculus, is the guy that can fix every engine in the neighborhood, and that person’s important,” Funk said. “We kinda just shove those people to the side. I think it’s something wrong that we do in this society.”

Funk said that when kids feel pushed aside, they’re less likely to try in school or to even come to school at all.

But on the flip side, said Hackett, the more options a child has in school, the more likely she is to find what she’s good at.

“Different people are good at different things, and you’ve got to give them every opportunity to showcase those skills,” Hackett said.

In a school where fewer than three quarters of students actually graduate with their diplomas, Hackett said making kids feel like they are successful can often be the key to getting them through the door each morning.

“In a lot of schools, that isn’t an issue, but here, poverty is definitely a problem with getting kids to school,” Hackett said. “A lot of them don’t have good home lives, so we need every possible reason to make them want to come here, make them get out of bed in the morning to get here on time and be prepared for learn.

In 2013, Sto-Rox school district ranked 487th out of 498 Pennsylvania school districts, based on the results of three years of standardized testing.

In reaction to shrinking budgets and pressure to bring up test scores, Hackett said many schools feel the need to focus on traditional academic subjects at the expense of electives.

But that approach might be hurting some students more than it helps by taking away their reason for coming to school in the first place.

Hackett said the big challenge facing the Media Center now is long-term sustainability.

“For a district like ours, this really isn’t sustainable without grants,” he said. “Most of the equipment we have is donated, (and) it’s not going to last that much longer. So every few years, if we get one of those grants, we can keep this running.”

Hackett and Funk said their current funding will take them through at least another year, so for now, they’re focused on the day-to-day work of teaching in a high school that still offers creative electives.