Taking cues from tech industry, NeoCity Academy bucks normal school models

By Charlie Reed

For the News-Gazette

NeoCity Academy won’t have books or desks or even classrooms.

Tests won’t be given by teachers so much as presented by students.

The new high-tech STEM high school is eschewing traditional teaching methods and instead is creating a whole new approach to learning.

“We consider ourselves disruptors of the status quo and we’re proud of that,” NeoCity Academy Principal Michael Meechin said.

“Our school isn’t based on the comprehensive model we’re all used to. We’ve redesigned it from the ground up. It’s inquiry-driven and project-based, ” said Meechin, the former principal at Poinciana High School. “The idea that a teacher has a classroom you go to every day does not exist at NeoCity.”

The magnet STEM school (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opens this fall with one class of about 110 incoming freshmen at a temporary campus at Gateway High School. But when the permanent campus opens at Osceola County’s technology park NeoCity in 2019, the physical innovations will be on full display.

Glass interior walls will bisect much of the three-story, 45,000-square foot building. Small and large common-area spaces will replace traditional classrooms to foster the collaborative learning space. Science, design and fabrication laboratories will also be part of the small campus, Meechin said.

“The school is essentially wrapped in two essential concepts; that learning can happen anywhere and that you can see learning happening,” he said.

The school is being designed to look and feel like the unique work environments at companies like Apple, Amazon and BRIDG, the public-private technology consortium at the center of the county’s $120 million-plus investment in NeoCity.

The high school is among the first components of the new technology park that officials in Osceola say will shift the economic base of the county, now anchored by tourism and agriculture. The students will help create a local talent pipeline to fill the thousands of high-wage, high-skilled jobs that NeoCity is expected to produce.

The highly selective school not only will be an opportunity for its students, but it will also serve as a draw for individuals and companies looking to relocate to Osceola to work at NeoCity, said School Board Member Clarence Thacker, who is also the business director for NeoCity.

“I do see us being the East Coast Silicon Valley,” Thacker said.

NeoCity Academy has secured commitments from engineering and software development firms and industry experts to help mentor students and participate in peer-reviewed projects.

Much of the school work and assignments at NeoCity will revolve around solving real-world problems, with students and teachers using a variety of platforms and content.

The grading system will be traditional A-F scale, although it will rely on internal standards, unlike other schools.

“We’re going to be a place where failure is encouraged because that results in growth and innovation, which goes against traditional methods,” Meechin said. “Because when you look at companies like Apple, Amazon and SpaceX they don’t move innovative practices forward without failure. Our school is built on that same concept.”

And forget traditional electives, such as drama and TV production. NeoCity electives will include engineering, cybersecurity, biodesign and healthcare robotics.

And the same goes for sports.

“Instead of Friday night football games we’ll have live feeds of SpaceX launches and other events like that,” Meechin said.

Language and physical education requirements will be completed online, which other high schools also offer. NeoCity Academy will also offer dual-enrollment courses with the University of Central Florida – a partner with the school – and the University of Florida.

“While the School Board approved the school and supports its novel concepts, we have some folks still unsure about this model,” Meechin said. “We’re excited to show people what this learning will do. Our hope is that we’ll have kids with fully funded Kickstarter projects by the time they’re in college.”

These kids want to cure cancer and are driven by high-arching goals with global impact, Meechin noted.

“Our kids are operating with the goal of changing the world,” she said.

There are a few more spots available for the 2018-19 school year at NeoCity Academy. For more information, contact Principal Michael Meechin at 407-933-3903.