Venture HS and Newcomer Center settle into new home

Newcomer Center sign at the front of Ferguson Education Center

Newcomer Center sign at the front of Ferguson Education Center

“It’s like an arranged marriage, but it’s working out well.”

That’s how Venture High School Principal Beverley McReynolds described what it’s like sharing a campus with Newcomer Center. Both schools, Venture and Newcomer, moved to Ferguson Education Center over the summer following the 2014-2015 school year.

The Ferguson building had been home to Ferguson Junior High. However, a comprehensive district facilities assessment conducted prior to the 2014 bond package determined the AISD had two more junior high buildings than it needed. So the difficult decision was made to close Ferguson Junior High and rezone its students to nearby Ousley Junior High.

That opened up the Ferguson building, which was still relatively young and in excellent shape. So Newcomer and Venture moved in for the 2015-2016 school year, giving both schools better, newer facilities, and clearing up much-needed space in Newcomer’s previous location at Workman Junior High.

Venture, formerly located in a repurposed grocery store building, is an alternative high school that seeks to serve students who struggle in the traditional campus setting. Teachers spend a lot of one-on-one time with students, identifying their individual needs and structuring their education to best suit their learning styles. While the subjects of classes are the same as at traditional schools, the classes are smaller and students can move at their own pace.

Newcomer serves students in grades seven through 10 who are new to the United States, teaching them English so they can transition as quickly and smoothly as possible to their home campuses. All teachers are ESL certified and teach the same core courses offered at traditional schools. Students stay at Newcomer for up to two years, depending on how quickly they pick up English.

Though the newer Ferguson building sounded nice, faculty from both schools were apprehensive when they first heard they would be moving there, and they felt uncertain about sharing the same campus. For both school communities, maintaining their culture and educational model was and is very important. No one was willing to let either suffer.

“I anticipated there would be some fear of the unknown,” Newcomer Principal Christy Strybosch said.

But after a semester together, they had “worked out a good relationship,” McReynolds said.

“I’d say yeah, this is working,” she added.

In fact, it’s working quite well. Though moving entire schools was a huge undertaking – and the beginning was a little chaotic – the apprehension is now gone.

McReynolds and Strybosch give a lot of credit for the successful move to the AISD maintenance department, which moved all the books, furniture, technology and more last summer. Then Ferguson’s janitorial staff helped make all the logistics work out as smoothly as possible and made the school itself look great. And finally the teachers handled everything adeptly, worked together and turned a period of uncertainty into a positive transition.

The principals have been instrumental as well, setting a positive, collaborative example. The two meet weekly and keep each other on the same page. They have to check in with each other, McReynolds said, to keep everything running smoothly. The two schools operate on different schedules but in many of the same spaces, so coordination is key. When both held open houses on the same evening, Venture hosted in the cafeteria and Newcomer in the library.

For Venture, the step up in facilities is significant. Though they lost the smaller, more intimate setting they had in their previous building, “the gains exceed the losses,” McReynolds said.

Now they have the benefits of a traditional campus, like a full-working kitchen and cafeteria, a full-sized library with a full-time librarian, two gyms, a field and outdoor basketball goals. Many students like to play pick-up basketball during lunch, which is great for getting out some energy.

For Newcomer, the building offered an opportunity for a fresh start, Strybosch said.

After 19 years at Workman Junior High, the move has dramatically altered the school’s climate. Newcomer used to coexist with hundreds of Workman junior high students, but now most students in the Ferguson building are high schoolers. It’s quieter, calmer and more academic.

“It’s worked out better having more older kids,” Strybosch said. “We can conduct ourselves more like a high school.”

The adjustment to the new building occurred quickly for both schools.

“The unknown is now gone,” Strybosch said. “Now we can move forward.”

The two schools are now looking for ways to leverage what they have in common to provide even more opportunities for their students.

Faculty from both schools worked together to apply for and win a Transformation Through Innovation grant that will eventually lead to a community garden on campus. Venture welcomed Newcomer students to their Saturday tutoring sessions. A joint high school team competed together in the 27th Annual Cardboard Boat Regatta at Hurricane Harbor. And when a PAL (Peer Assistance and Leadership) group from Venture put together skits to perform at elementary schools, they used the Newcomer junior high students as a test audience.

“We’re just touching the surface,” Strybosch said about the partnerships in their first year together.

This year, they have bigger plans.

Instead of operating on different bell schedules like last year, now they share the same schedule to allow for more collaboration.

“We plan to use both of our strengths to increase opportunities for students,” McReynolds said.

The united schedule will allow for more class options. For example, a Newcomer student who needs an advanced math class not offered at Newcomer will be able to take it at Venture. And more electives, like photography and animation, will be available to students from both schools. Teachers will benefit from the new schedule as well, as teachers from both will be able to partner, work together and take advantage of a shared professional learning community.

While the two schools are and will continue to focus on serving their unique student populations with their own specialized methods and cultures, they both are taking advantage of their new location and the opportunities that sharing the same building affords.

“It’s two different cultures that have come together and we’re making it work,” McReynolds said.

“Sometimes the most unlikely combinations become the best combinations,” Strybosch said. “I think we’ve become a Ferguson Education Center family.”