Every year, students are increasingly over-scheduled and academically burned out. In order to combat this, the high school offers a unique program for juniors and seniors that gives students more agency over their work. The Evolutions program is an interdisciplinary program where students study art, English, science, and social studies through project-based learning.
Most students at the high school partake in multiple classes with different teachers and expectations. However, teachers in the Evolutions program work together to create an enriched and unique environment for their students to learn. A notable project includes “Design with a Why,” where students were tasked with bringing awareness to a social issue through fashion. Eventually, students partnered with New Balance to pitch their ideas for a new shoe line in support of their social issue of choice.
“The skies the limit when it comes to students and empowering them to pursue their learning. We [Evolutions teachers] have a dual mission of inspiring students to do that and learn some new skills and apply them in a new way,” said English teacher Mr. William Henes.
In the Evolutions program, students are encouraged and guided through a different approach than how they might have “done school” in the past.
“Sophmore year was the first year where I started to feel like everything we were learning was just for the test. It was feeling increasingly repetitive, and I felt like I wasn’t learning much anymore. [I joined Evolutions because] I wanted an opportunity to gain a new set of skills,” said Skye Jacobs ’24.
Evolutions students learn through projects, with many of the assignments catered to individual students. Twice a year, students create projects based on their own interests.
“They have to develop a topic and a research plan. ‘Do I want to do a photo gallery, do I want to stand up and do a ted talk, do I want to create a big installation?’ [Students] have to think about how they can show their learning the best,” said Henes.
Project-based learning encourages students to think critically and gain ownership over their learning. Students learn essential skills like creativity and innovation, and are able to find their work more engaging and meaningful. Students are also able to explore their interests and create products of which they are proud.
“I’ve never really super-applied myself into [traditional] school…With Evolutions, especially recently with my milestone project and community joy, I’ve really loved the work I’ve been doing. I really put my all into it, and I’m definitely seeing the results. I’m a lot happier during school. I just feel better when I’m doing schoolwork,” said Oliver Kilgore ’24.
In 2021, 42 percent of students felt persistently sad or hopeless, according to Mental Health | DASH | CDC. Henes, Principal, Jamie Chisum, and a number of teachers reflected on the growing trend of adolescents’ poor mental health.
“We had a lot of kids in Wellesley high who would say to me that school was not meaningful to them…Kids would say things like, ‘I just want to survive high school,’” said Chisum.
The Evolutions program began at the high school in 2013 with the hopes of creating a program that allowed the individuality of each student to shine through.
“We were looking at the mental health crisis, but also students that were really disengaged with their learning. We had to say if we’re a school with means, and we really believe in empowering students, how do we create a place where students can explore that, and they can do that more?” said Henes.
Henes, Ms. Emily Giddings, Mr. Craig Brown, Mr. Laurence Lovett, and Mr. Brian Corey took the brave task of teaching the first Evolutions students: Generation One. Henes has taught in the Evolutions program for eight years.
“It was much more open-ended [when Evolutions was first created], and that was good in some effect,giving students a lot of freedom and choice. Over the years, we started bringing in more real-world concepts…So we got a lot more structured, which opened up students to really be creative. They knew a method to go about that creativity,” said Henes.
This year, Henes, social studies teacher Ms. Crystal Bartels, art teacher Mr. Brian Corey, and science teacher Ms. Mindy Hoge worked together to create the Evolutions Generation Eight program.
“What I thought good grades were and what defined a good student was, was dependent on teachers for validation. Now I have a lot more confidence in my own ability to enter a space and contribute meaningful things,” said Jacobs.
The Evolutions program spends four blocks every school day together. This has allowed a close bond to grow between the students.
“Especially with community joy [the most recent project], everyone went out of their comfort zone and performed up on stage with a bunch of people. We’ve definitely grown a lot closer as a program, and it’s just a good community in general. It gives you more of a social outreach,” said Kilgore.
In Evolutions, most assignments emphasize skills like collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and more.
“It’s a really hard class, it’s just hard in a different way,” said Chisum.
For students interested in adventuring through a challenging but rewarding new way of learning, think about joining the Evolutions program. No prerequisites are required, and students receive honors credit for the course in their GPA. For more information, look at the Evolutions website – Project-based Learning | WHS Evolutions | United States or email firstname.lastname@example.org.