The lockers are gone. The paint is fresh. And Reynoldsburg's new 9X freshman experience is ready to make an impact.

The class of 2023 started school Aug. 19 as the first freshmen to start their high school careers together at the district's new 9X Impact academy, housed on the second floor of the Livingston campus, 6699 E. Livingston Ave.

Rather than choose an academy pathway at the end of middle school, incoming freshmen will have an entire year to decide on a focus for the remaining three years of high school:

* (HS)2: a STEM-based approached to health and human services

*BELL: a college-prep course focusing on business, education, leadership and law

* e-STEM: science-, technology-, engineering- and math-based learning

* Encore: focusing on performing and visual arts

About 560 ninth-graders are divided into five groups for team-based learning centered around the school's four pillars: high school readiness, choosing an academy pathway, and focuses on the future and the social-emotional needs of students.

The year will be spent primarily on project-based learning, which combines multiple disciplines into a single lesson or unit.

Much of the work will be collaborative but with an emphasis on "exposure to each of the academies so they see what those pathways are, what they feel like, what type of work they'd being doing and then making the decision," said Chris Brooks, 9X Impact principal. "This ninth-grade experience is going to help them make a better informed and inspired decision."

Reynoldsburg has partnered with California-based New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization that works with over 100 schools nationwide on professional development and curriculum design. More than 25 staff members attended a national conference in Orlando, Florida, in June, Brooks said.

All incoming 9X students will receive a Google Chromebook, which will help transition the high school to "one-to-one" technology, Brooks said.

"They can keep the Chromebook throughout their high school career, and we're doing a program for students who don't have Wi-Fi access at home. We have mobile hot spots that they can check out through the office," he said.

The year also will include a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning, officials said.

A district survey of eighth-grade students in 2018 found that more than 40% said they needed help with stress or depression. More than one-third cited anxiety.

Brooks said he is most looking forward to the spring, when the efforts of 9X will be fully realized.

"When we get to the spring and they're making decisions on which pathway they go into based on their interests, that's what I'm most excited about. It's about making a good academy choice so that 10th and 11th grade are meaningful," he said.

Backing up the new educational program is a $1.6 million renovation completed entirely during summer recess by Hilliard-based Summit Construction LLC.

Work included moving lab space and knocking down walls and replacing others with roll-up-style doors for collaboration space.

It also included lots of painting -- with colors including bright greens, teals and "Reynoldsburg purple" chosen by the incoming freshmen, said Chris Reed, director of operations and services.

Every room and doorframe in the building was repainted, replacing the purple and cream coloring that made the space look dated, Reed said.

Old, underused lockers that Reed called an "eyesore" were removed and replaced in some areas with bench seating.

Other work included such previously planned items as replacing an old elevator.

The 9X Impact also has its own entrance, signs and office.

Nearly 500 students attended orientation Aug. 12, when they picked up schedules and T-shirts bearing the 9X logo, said Superintendent Melvin Brown.

"They're excited about coming to school," Brown said.

In total, 34 teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators will work with 9X Impact students this year, district leaders have said.

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