Film crew returns to Swift House

By Katrina Gibson
Observer correspondent

Students at Swift House in Williston Central School got a taste of the movies when a film crew came to videotape them earlier this month.

With a microphone overhead and two cameras pointed in their direction, students presented projects they had been working on as a part of Swift House’s student-centered learning environment.

This was the third time in 10 years the film crew has videotaped the Swift House team. The crew returned this year to document the 10-year progress of Swift House’s transformation to a “21st century school,” where the teaching philosophy is geared to students’ individual needs and incorporates life and career skills.

“Back in the early ’90s we transformed from a traditional school to a 21st century school,” said Al Myers, facilitator at the Swift House. “The learning environment is kid-centered and based on the students’ needs. Every kid is doing a different project and each child can learn from the other.”

In most traditional settings everyone in the classroom is learning the same topic. In Swift House, each student is able to focus on topics he or she is interested in while also learning from peers.

During the transformation in the early 1990s, a film team from the University of Indiana visited the school to document the change and created two videos called “Student Voices” and “Gathering the Dreamers.” In 1997, the team returned for a second look at the experience and created a third video called “Reaching for the North Star.”

Now, 10 years later, the film crew, led by Dr. Leonard Burello, professor of education at Indiana University, returned on Dec. 6 to look at how the change in the education model has evolved.

“We want to recapture the work we did in the ’90s,” said Burello.

After reviewing the older videos and comparing them to the present ones, Burello said the school is at approximately 80 percent of where it was when the change started.

“You have to be consistent and do it over time,” said Burello.

He suggested the team take a look at the older videos and try to reinstate some of the practices that may have been dropped throughout the years.

In Swift House, “teachers take the roles of learning facilitator and manager, rather than just information givers,” according to the school’s Web site. Students as well as teachers take responsibility for their education and spend time learning about topics that they are interested in and sharing them with their classmates.

Burello first began videotaping in Swift House in the early ’90s to document teachers as they began implementing the project-based learning approach. Swift House was chosen because, at the time, former Williston principal Lynn Murray was working in a graduate program with Burello, who was interested in learning more about what the school was doing.

In the late 1990s, experts created national educational standards and required schools to incorporate the standards into their curriculum. Though this did create guidelines as to what students were required to learn, it didn’t seem to adversely affect the work that schools with this new approach were doing.

“We don’t reject the standards,” said Burello. “We embrace them. You just make them work for you.”

Burello used a colleague’s example of how schools were adhering to the standards yet still utilizing this progressive teaching style by saying, “If the destination is Denver, we all will get to Denver, we just may take different routes.”

According to Burello, there are schools in approximately seven states throughout the country participating in the project-based learning style. Although there aren’t any statistics yet on how this way of teaching and learning compares to the traditional classroom, Borello said, “For the most part, the performance is above average.”

The educational style gives the students the opportunity to learn about themselves and take accountability for their education, which is a shift in traditional education, said Burello.

The videos are designed for professional educators and are intended to document examples of effective practice.

For copies of the video and more information on this curriculum visit