WEST UNION - Every other Friday this year, Doddridge County High School students have ended class two hours early.
The school's 374 students divide into groups and spend the rest of the day making their visions come to life. The school is filled with the sounds of power drills, sizzling grease and music composed by the students themselves.
These small groups work on projects that range from planting an herb garden to making a go-cart from scratch.
Community volunteers offer their expertise to the students. A local stonemason helps one group make concrete crates for plants in front of the school. A county commissioner teaches another group how to dress a deer and make jerky.
Learning at Doddridge County High School is expanding outside the classroom but still meeting state curriculum requirements.
The school has been designated as an Innovation Zone under a 4-year-old state Board of Education grant program.
In July 2009, the Legislature passed the School Innovation Zones Act as a way to improve student learning through creative and innovative curricula.
A dropout prevention program added in 2011 resulted in the current Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention Grant.
The act provided $2.2 million in grants, and any school could apply. Schools that received the grants also could obtain waivers on education policies if deemed necessary for their initiatives.
Schools can apply for up to $300,000 to use over three years.
"One of the best examples of changing high schools and how they impact students is the New Tech Network model at Buffalo High School (in Putnam County)," said Michele Blatt, executive director of the state Department of Education's Office of School Improvement.
The New Tech Network is a national nonprofit organization that promotes project-based learning and emphasizes the use of technology. All students are assigned computers, for example.
Buffalo High paid for the program with Innovation Zone and Dropout Prevention Grant funds.
"It's like students are coming to work every day instead of just sitting at desk," said Blatt.
Cindy Daniel, assistant superintendent in Putnam County, said the high school received $300,000 for its New Tech Model in 2011.
"It's centered around three key pieces. It's a one-to-one environment with students to technology. The second piece is that it's all project-based learning. The third piece is that it's really transforming the culture of the school," said Daniel.
Last year nine individual schools or counties school systems were awarded the grant, including Greenbrier West High School, Lincoln County, McDowell County, Nicholas County, Cabell County, Pocahontas County, Upshur County, Doddridge County High School and Wheeling Park High School.
Statistical trends indicate 7,000 West Virginia students will drop out of school this year, said Shelly DeBerry, student success advocate for the state education department's Office of School Improvement.
The department identifies six barriers to student success in West Virginia, and they include the lack of resources in rural areas; lack of funding for support staff such as counselors; lack of focus on career development in the early and middle grades; lack of technology integration; lack of engaging instruction; and late exposure to career tech programs. The latter currently doesn't come until the 11th grade in West Virginia.