Rural schools launch 21st century redesign

What characteristics, skills and abilities should a young person have in the 21st century to be successful? The Kansas State Department of Education set out to find the answer in 2015.

Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson and Deputy Commissioner Brad Neuenschwander went on a listening tour of the state that year. Jay Scott, KSDE secondary school redesign specialist, said they held community conversations at 20 different stops and invited families, teachers, local businesses and other stakeholders to participate in these focus groups. More than 2,000 people attended, sharing thoughts on what attributes a successful young person should possess by the time they leave high school.

Scott said most of the responses—over 70 percent—were not focused on academic skills.

“Young adults who have grit, who persevere, who can self-regulate—all these social-emotional factors were identified.”

He said that although academic achievement and math and English language proficiency are important and were represented in the responses, KSDE found that Kansas schools had an unbalanced focus on academic skills, to the detriment of developing critical social-emotional skills in kids.

KSDE also studied how successful Kansas students were following high school and how well their education prepared them for adulthood. What they discovered was sobering.

“We looked hard at how our Kansas high school graduates were doing at the postsecondary level,” Scott said. “What we saw is that we’re sending a lot of students off to two- and four-year institutions, but within a year’s time, many of them are dropping out or are not going on to be successful.”

Scott pointed to a study by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, which showed the percentage of jobs predicted by 2020 that will require education beyond a high school diploma, such as an occupational certificate or an associate degree or higher. The national average is expected to be 65 percent by 2020, and in Kansas the number is expected to be 71 percent.

“We found that on average if you start with a class of 100 freshmen, only 31 of those 100 would end up with a credential that’s in addition to a diploma,” Scott said.

“We’ve got a huge gap there,” he added. The need to close that gap undergirded KSDE’s push for a complete redesign of Kansas schools—“the fact that we’re out of balance on what we’re focusing on in K-12 and the fact that our students are not being successful at a rate to allow them to be competitive in the labor market and to sustain our economy in Kansas,” Scott said.

After considering K-12 public education’s role in developing those attributes in young Kansans and in addressing the gap in postsecondary education, the KSDE launched the Kansans Can School Redesign Project in 2017.

KSDE selected one elementary and one secondary school in seven Kansas school districts across the state to lead the way on the redesign project as the Mercury 7:

• Coffeyville USD 445—Community Elementary and Field Kindley High;

• Liberal USD 480—Meadowlark Elementary and Liberal High;

• McPherson USD 418—Eisenhower Elementary and McPherson Middle;

• Olathe USD 233—Westview Elementary and Santa Fe Trail Middle;

• Stockton USD 271—Stockton Grade School and Stockton High;

• Twin Valley USD 240—Tescott Grade School and Bennington Junior/Senior High; and

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• Wellington USD 353—Kennedy Elementary and Wellington High.

These demonstration schools were announced in August 2017. When announcing the state’s vision for its plan to redesign public education in Kansas, Watson declared, “This is our moon shot.”

The initiative was named after the Mercury 7—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton—the first team of astronauts NASA introduced. In keeping with the metaphor, the Mercury 7 school districts were assigned one of these astronauts to serve as a model of innovative thinking and action.

Twenty-one school districts will participate in the Gemini I redesign project on a smaller scale than the Mercury 7 districts, and an additional 19 districts will take part in Gemini II.

Like Stockton, population 1,297, many of these districts are located in rural areas of Kansas. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, rural students’ test scores and high school graduation rates tend to be higher than those in urban areas. However, ERS notes in “Rural Education at a Glance, 2017 Edition” that rural America still lags behind urban areas in educational attainment following high school.

Pockets of innovation

When Shelly Swayne, USD 271 superintendent and Stockton High School principal, and Stacey Green, Stockton Elementary/Junior High School principal, heard about KSDE’s call for applicants last spring, it immediately piqued their interest. They both wanted that kind of innovation in their schools at a district-wide level, not just in individual classrooms.

“These teachers have had pockets of innovation in their classrooms for the last several years,” she said. “The Mercury project from KSDE really took that out of the ballpark and to the next level.”

Green echoed that they already had teachers in the district who were comfortable trying new instructional techniques in their own room and sharing ideas with another teacher. But they had never made large-scale, system-wide changes.

“The model of education we use was developed around 1920,” Swayne said. “That model has served a great purpose, but it doesn’t lend itself well to the type of business, work, family, community that we have in the 21st century. This systematic change was vital to give kids the best opportunity.”

Swayne and Green visited with their school board members, who encouraged them to explore the idea. The KSDE application process required at least 80 percent of the teachers at the schools to agree to move ahead with the changes, and 85 percent of the Stockton district’s teachers said yes.

“We had a staff that was ready, and we knew that even before taking a vote,” Green said.

Swayne said the board supported the decision fully, and Stockton was soon chosen as one of the Mercury 7 school districts—the smallest school district to be selected. Stockton’s schools have been setting goals ever since, testing pilot projects and preparing to launch their redesign in the 2018-2019 school year.

“It’s been an intense, awesome process. It’s the only way systematic change can happen because it happens from the ground up,” Swayne said. “It is not a top-down change. This is not my change, this is not Stacey’s change—it’s our change, and it’s amazing.”

Countdown to launch

Scott and his elementary school redesign counterpart, Tammy Mitchell, traveled every other week during the past school year to coach the Mercury 7 schools on-site and help them develop plans for launching a completely redesigned educational system the coming year. The Mercury 7 schools receive no additional funding from the state for implementing redesign initiatives, and they still have to meet state standards.

“The schools set a vision. They set goals,” Scott said. “They tested some prototypes—different strategies to address things like social/emotional learning or career readiness, those kinds of things.”

Most of the schools incorporated pilot projects such as advisory time between small groups of students and a teacher, personalized learning time and project-based learning, Scott said. Creating more flexibility in the schedule was also a focus of many of the schools’ redesign prototypes, including Stockton’s.

Community collaboration

Involving parents, students and local community members in the redesign has been an important part of the process, Swayne said.

Scott and Mitchell helped Stockton introduce the redesign project to the community last fall. Swayne and Green have continued to host monthly community meetings at the grade school where parents and others can voice their questions and concerns about the redesign process. The schools recently held a Parent Ed Camp on a Saturday where teachers shared more about the pilot projects they have been working on in their classrooms.

“We’ve had our difficulties,” Swayne said. “There are always challenges because change is hard. The thing about school is this: Everybody out there brings a predetermined idea about what high school or middle school or grade school is like because they experienced it, and people have a hard time letting that go.”

Green said parental response has been positive overall, though.

“Some parents were initially hesitant, but once they gathered more information they were fine,” she said. The administration and teachers strive to be transparent and provide as much information as possible.

The local business community has also responded positively to the schools’ focus on cognitive learning and the development of critical thinking and evaluation, not just content, Swayne said.

“They want kids who know how to collaborate. They want kids who know how to communicate,” she said. “They want kids who know how to manage their time. They want to hire employees who have some initiative.”

One of the redesign prototypes Stockton High School piloted that will help students develop those traits is an internship component. The school is partnering with local and out-of-town businesses to give junior and senior students the opportunity to create an internship based on their personal interests and career goals.

Swayne said one student interned at the Rooks County Health Department because she’s interested in pursuing nursing and administrative work in the medical field. Another student works at a local nursing home and achieved certified nursing assistant accreditation as a junior. A student who plans to study journalism and broadcasting worked at a radio station in Phillipsburg and called several basketball games on the air. Because of the internship component and a more flexible school schedule, they were able to make that training and career exploration part of the students’ high school experience.

The internships don’t have to be strictly work-based, Swayne said. One student put together a college-bound internship and was able to take some college courses while still in high school.

She acknowledged it will be challenging to locate internship opportunities in a small town in rural northwest Kansas. They can partner with other towns in the area like Plainville or Phillipsburg so the students aren’t limited to Main Street in Stockton.

“Stockton doesn’t have world exposure unless we create it—so we are creating it,” Swayne said. The school can also use educational networks and technology such as Skype to broaden the opportunities available for students.

Individualized learning

The main component of what the school calls genius hour, or personalized learning, is for students to share what and how they want to learn, Swayne said.

“That’s the completely opposite thought of everything we’ve ever done.” They want the students to take ownership in a way they haven’t before, she said. “It breeds confidence and initiative. It breeds success.”

Students will still have the same number of required credits, Swayne said. As long as they are on pace to graduate, they can spend as much time as they want studying science at a deeper level or working on welding projects, for example. It ties in with the projects-based learning component of the redesign as well.

Green said K-5 communities will be a significant component of the redesign for the grade school, which will be divided into community groups with one or two adults and 12 to 14 students. Communities are based on the Ron Clark Academy’s house system, she said.

The community groups met on Fridays last year with a goal of building foundational, lasting relationships.

“The kids and staff have loved it. We carried it throughout school year and will start the day with it every day next year,” she said. Green said their recent spring music concert involved the community groups, and that reflects how teachers are thinking outside the box to incorporate new ideas.

Green and Swayne both know next year will be challenging as they adjust to a new way of doing school and transform into a more student-led system.

“There’s not a lot of research out there for some of these things we’re stepping forward in doing because we’re going to be the research—and that’s OK,” Green said.

“We’re still figuring it out while we fly the rocket we’re building,” Swayne said.

“It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, not at all,” she continued. “But as long as we’re doing what’s right for kids, nothing else matters—and we are. I know that without a doubt.”

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or [email protected].