Central York High School Apollo program inspires students

Jessica Schladebeck

The student-made documentary "Trisomy-21: What I learned in 5 Days" opens with two girls seated side by side, one with her fingers curled over piano keys while the other looks on.

Central High School juniors Kate Castillo, left, and Kathryn Crenshaw share a set of earbuds while editing video with Kate's twin Ashley, right, in their Apollo class Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. In the program, students utilize English, social studies and art skills to complete four independent and one group project. The girls' project was to document the class. (Bill Kalina - The York Dispatch)

At the start of the film, Veronika Shuvalava, an 11-grader at Central York High School and creator of the five-minute film, is steadily counting out beats for her student, a 16-year-old girl with down syndrome, while observing her protege stroke each key with care.

Shuvalava's documentary, which details her process of teaching piano to a teen with a disability over the course of five days, is one of many projects created through Central York's Apollo Program —  the high school's interactive educational format tailored to students' needs and  interests.

"Here I learn what I'm interested in, it's nothing like coming into school and sitting in the classroom," she said.

Apollo: The Apollo Program, a course that begins at the start of the school day and ends at noon, fuses together three different subjects — English, social studies and art.

The 40 juniors and seniors in the program choose how they spend their time during the four-hour block, whether it be working independently or signing up for a session with one of the program's three instructors, said English teacher Wes Ward.

"Students can request of teachers what types of lessons they need or want, and we also develop sessions based on the Common Core standards," he said.

The lessons, which can last anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes, are also created with a focus on the standards assessed in each of the four required projects students complete throughout the semester. Each project is shaped around one of four themes outlined by the instructors, and it must connect to all of the three subject areas.

Central High School seniors Abigail Timperio and Tyler Colon work Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, on an Apollo program group project in which Abigail produced original artwork (foreground). In the program, students utilize English, social studies and art skills to complete four independent and one group project. (Bill Kalina - The York Dispatch)

Students during their project proposal create their own rubric in choosing what standards and focus areas they intend to touch on over the course of their project.

"In a regular classroom setting you don't get that," said Jim Grandi, Apollo's art teacher. In a traditional setting "we focus on the standards that we intend to teach, that are in the lesson plan. Here we can grade them on what they are understanding and what they're striving toward."

Scheduling: Grandi said the television in the open learning space, which features all the scheduled courses for the day, is like "an airplane flight schedule for mini lessons."

Students are able to sign up for their lesson of choice with a software designed for the program, said social studies teacher Greg Wimmer, adding that as a project, a student created an app, which in addition to allowing students to sign up for lessons, also allows them to rate their sessions.

The app also uses iBeacon technology, which automatically checks a student into a location if they have the app, Wimmer said, noting, "it's really good for accountability."

Outreach: Of the projects completed over the course of the semester, one must focus on community outreach.

Central High School junior Mohtaz Mahmuda works on a piece in her Apollo class while making a trophy for school police officers Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. In the program, students utilize English, social studies and art skills to complete four independent and one group project. (Bill Kalina - The York Dispatch)

Juniors Kyle Allen and Sage Sadak, along with two other classmates, put together an art gallery fundraiser at HIVE artspace on East King Street in downtown York City. The animal-themed show titled "All Creatures Great and Small" kicked off at the beginning of the month and will run through the end of January, with proceeds of their Facebook auction being donated to Animal Rescue Inc.

Over the course of a couple months, the group of students put together a gallery showing that included collecting donated art, creating contracts with the artists and setting up the space.

Sadak said she had wanted to focus on a charity element, while another group member was looking to focus on art.

"We're all artists and we all love animals, so we ended reaching this really cool compromise," she said.

But charity isn't the only type of outreach students experience in the program; many of them have reached out to different experts to better understand certain elements they're developing as a part of their projects.

Shuvalava reached out to a York WellSpan health system geneticist to learn about down syndrome and used the information while she was teaching her piano lessons, she said.

Teachers encouraged Allen to reach out to one of his personal heroes, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and he was able to enjoy several conversations with the physicist earlier this year.

"I never used to like talking to people," said senior Michele Jones. "The Apollo program helped me realize how important it is to communicate. Now I walk in and say 'hey' to everyone."

Appreciation: "I'm actually excited about the work I get to do here," said junior Kiara Colon. "I go home and talk about it, I think about it outside of class and I post it online. This is all stuff that I can be really proud of at the end of the day."

Central High School senior Magnus Grimes works on an individual project in Apollo class officers Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. In the program, students utilize English, social studies and art skills to complete four independent and one group project. (Bill Kalina - The York Dispatch)

Allen said he enjoys the creative aspect of the program.

"I'm very enthusiastic about this program," he said. "I've never experienced anything like this in a regular classroom, and I appreciate that I can do something I'm interested in. I like that they require creativity and it's not something where you just turn your brain off and do busy work."

Jones, who described herself as a fast learner, enjoys being able to work at her own pace.

"Here I don't have to worry about waiting for everyone else, and no one has to wait for me," she said. "I don't have to worry about asking questions other people think are obvious."

Shuvalava expressed gratitude for the dedication her teachers have shown.

"They work with you, they help you," she said. "They're not just teachers, they're friends, they're psychologists, they calm you down. If they had teachers like them everywhere, everyone would really grow."

It's the ability to collaborate, Grandi said, that allows the course to work..

"It's about groups working together on all levels," he said. "We can't force anything because then it becomes contrived, and that goes against everything we're trying to do here."

Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.