Tyson Jones, a Howard student, participates in discussion in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Contributed)

For a group of students from Howard School, an end-of-year subject test wasn’t administered on paper.

Instead, the students were graded as they communicated goals for Howard’s future to top officials at government agencies in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, members of Mason West’s Talented Tenth leadership program spoke and debated before panels at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education. The group also participated in discussion and debate at the Howard University School of Law and Sidwell Friends School, the private school attended by President Barack Obama’s daughters.

The weeklong trip was the culmination of a yearlong project in which the students devised a plan for transforming Howard into a K-12, year-round, career-technical school. Down to the curriculum goals for each class, the group said they dreamed of a school where students could transition smoothly between grades and discover ways to turn ideas into realities.

“We want each student to create a vertical alignment for themselves, because as we go through school, a lot of times we don’t fully master a subject,” D’Angelo Foster, a sophomore, said. “We want to create a seamless connection for students so that there won’t be any gaps between kindergarten and graduation.”

For many in the group, the trip was their first to the nation’s capitol. It almost didn’t happen, though, as funding was $5,000 short weeks before departure.

With the possibility of missing the chance to apply their learning in a setting outside the classroom, the students found themselves pitching the trip to members of the Chattanooga business community as an opportunity for investment rather than charity. In a matter of three days, the final dollars were raised.

Jessica Cummings, a freshman who plans to attend law school, said that although she had felt prepared to discuss her plan with government officials, the process of dialoguing with donors helped prepare her even more for experiences the trip would bring.

“We got to present our goals in front of local people who were important, so when we got there, we were prepared to answer questions from people who were very important,” she said. “I believe that standing in front of them helped us get prepared for that.”

West, who champions “expeditionary learning” as part of his teaching philosophy, said he hoped the trip would provide an applicable, real world experience for his students, of which many come from cycles of poverty or are members of marginalized families.

“At this age, you have to give them a real world example of how far this can take them,” West said. “It’s less about what you memorize than what you can apply. Everything they learned about how federal, state and local government works, they can apply that in a plan. I hope when they present their plan, people invest in it.”

Updated @ 10:54 a.m. on 04/24/12 to add more information as it became available. Read More: Nooga