J-Term offers intensive, focused learning for Roland-Story students

Jerry Gallagher Donovan Group Associate
Three Roland-Story High School students spent J-Term painting the walls of their Spanish classroom. Photo by Jerry Gallagher

Anyone who has played the game Connect 4 knows what a suspended grid looks like.

Imagine that game built into a putting green, with channels carved out under the surface to direct the golf ball into the board. This creative design was one of the many impressive student projects on display last week at Roland-Story High School.

The Roland-Story Community School District features a J-Term that gives students four days to work on a project of their choice. They then present their projects on the fifth day. While the J-Term is a somewhat common model at the postsecondary level, it’s rare to find it in the K-12 world. It provides a truly innovative way for students to work both independently and on teams, taking on projects that interest and engage them.

Walking through the halls of the high school over J-Term put me in a world where technological innovation meets artistic expression — with a touch of Iowa flair. I saw how one student had refurbished his father’s old tractor seat, now affixed to a milk can. Another student fixed up a piano while covering it with symbols depicting both Roland and Story City. There was a fireplace built from scratch, a potato launcher, a fresh coat of paint on the walls of the Spanish classroom and a project designed to extend the battery life inside cell phones.

“Being able to sit down at a desk and program for seven hours a day, and then do that for four days straight, was actually thrilling to me because in school, we’re supposed to switch every 40 minutes to a different class,” said Matthew Mehrtens, a Roland-Story junior who has programmed an app for J-Term in the past. “To be able to sit and focus on one thing, it was exciting. That was the biggest thing I learned from it. I said, ‘I can’t wait to get a real job and be able learn something and specialize in it.’”

During this year’s J-Term, Mehrtens took a music theory class.

“Our teachers here are very passionate about students and letting us pursue our dreams and goals within a school setting,” he said. “I love music and I want to write music. We don’t have a [regular] music theory class, and [the choir teacher] was able to help me pursue that. I feel it’s the teachers’ focus on the student and making sure we can achieve these big dreams and goals that sets our high school apart.”

While J-Term lasts one week, students begin planning their projects days, weeks or months in advance. TJ Hocraffer designed a computer program that he compared to the old arcade game Space Invaders.

“It is time consuming and takes a lot of patience, but it’s fun to sit down in one spot and delve into the depths of coding and create different programs and learn what different commands do,” Hocraffer said.

One of Roland-Story CSD’s core principles is “passionately pursuing learning.” This mission becomes clear in the halls of the high school during J-Term. It’s a terrific opportunity for students to take control of their learning in meaningful and engaging ways.