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Posted: November 15, 2021

Genius Hour Is a Recipe for Success

Los Padillas Elementary School is one of several APS elementary schools that incorporate extra time in the school day for electives.

A fifth grader builds an electrical circuit powering a motor in his Electricity and Magnetism Genius Hour class

A fifth grader builds an electrical circuit powering a motor in his Electricity and Magnetism Genius Hour class

Note: Staff who support New Mexico lawmakers visited schools as they prepare for the 2022 legislative session. We are featuring some of the APS schools and programs they learned about.

At Los Padillas Elementary, “genius” ideas and community involvement are a recipe for success.

Genius Hour comes at the end of each school day and is a program that allows students to choose STEAM activities that suit their interests and goals. Each elective Genius Hour class lasts for six weeks and finishes with performances or presentations in front of students, teachers, families, and community members. Students then choose the next class they want to take.

The performances and presentations provide a more immediate and tangible sense of accomplishment than test scores for some students. “For some, a number is not meaningful, because you don’t know down the road that’s going to get you a better job, or opportunities for something,” says César Hernández, Principal at Los Padillas. “But for the kids, they know if Grandma is going to come in two weeks, if Mom is going to come in two weeks, they’re going to see what the kids are making—the drawings, robots, whatever—then it’s meaningful to them.”

The presentations and performances are organized so that all students and their families have an opportunity to see each one, which Hernández, who has been a dancer since he was in middle school, sees as a critical component.

“Everyone has to have a speaking role because, to me, language is so important to success in our society,” he says. “If you don’t know how to sell your craft, you can be the smartest person, but not have success. So it’s very important that we learn how to talk, how to present. It doesn’t matter if you’re special ed or gifted, everyone is presenting and performing at the best level they can. No one is left behind.”

Genius Hour classes at the school include electronics, origami, martial arts, broadcast journalism, sewing, dancing, mariachi, painting, American Sign Language, and more. “The students are engaged,” says Hernández. “It’s super simple and fun for them, but they don’t realize how much of the four areas of language arts they’re practicing: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.”

The students communicate problems and explore solutions as a group, writing down steps as they figure things out, with teachers coaching them through the scientific process. “The kids don’t see it that way, but it’s happening, and it’s happening in an informal way,” Hernández adds.

“A lot of people pay big money for what the Genius Hour provides these kids in terms of access to violins, mariachi, dance, karate,” says Dr. Antonio Gonzalez, Associate Superintendent for Leadership and Learning for Zone 2. “We added time for more math, we added time for more reading, but it’s an asset-based enrichment approach that has led to positive results, celebrating the very best from within the community.”

Among those positive results is something that caught the school’s administration by surprise—disciplinary incidents experienced a sharp decline. The Genius Hour classes are more integrated across grade levels than standard classes, which are normally grouped by one or two grades. “The students start talking to each other, they start knowing each other,” says Hernández, “and then all of the sudden you see kids in fifth grade and third grade playing basketball together outside because now they know each other from the karate class, or the cooking class, or the dance class.” Suspensions have dwindled to almost zero.

Hernández says fostering community isn’t limited to students at his 132-year-old school, as Genius Hour, along with its presentations and performances, cultivates community involvement, too. Parents have a chance every semester to voice their opinions about what types of Genius Hour activities they would like to see for their kids, as well as accompany their students to view the performances and presentations every six weeks.

The sense of community is so strong at Los Padillas that several parents and community members have joined the faculty and staff, or become active volunteers in Genius Hour classes. This involvement has played a part in reducing truancy and the need for disciplinary action, and an increase in the student population from 189 students to 248 in just a few years. Hernández says the community model has been so successful that visitors have come from as far as Australia to view its outcomes firsthand. “It shows you that it’s working. The community is trusting us to provide the students with better opportunities for learning.”