Today we continue with the Shawnee Mission Board of Education candidates’ responses to our general election questionnaire. Here’s question number three:
Over the past two years, the district has chosen Apache and Rising Star — schools with relatively high concentrations of free-and-reduced lunch students — as the pilot locations for a new “innovative school” model that stresses project-based learning and includes activities designed to prepare students for the modern workforce. What’s your assessment of the innovative schools model the district is using? Would you like to see it spread to other elementaries?
Project-based learning is an interesting approach to teaching but it is entirely too soon to determine whether this model should remain within the Shawnee Mission School District or be expanded to other schools within the district.
The problematic issues with the implementation of the “innovative school” model within Shawnee Mission School District goes back to core concerns with the prior administration which includes lack of transparency and a failure in communication. Open discussions were needed concerning the reasons Apache and Rising Star were picked as pilot locations. The district constituents wanted to hear the discussion behind the administration’s choice to move towards a project-based learning model. Parents and taxpayers that own property within those boundaries needed to have the opportunity to communicate with the district concerning the implementation of an entirely new learning model at their neighborhood school.
From the outset of this campaign, I have advocated to bring advisory boards back to our school district. The roll-out of a new learning model within our school district would have been an excellent use of an initiative-based advisory board consisting of parents, teachers and industry experts to evaluate both the educational component of transitioning an elementary school to a project-based learning model as well as evaluating the practical aspects of the implementation such as the type of training that would be required for teachers within that school, whether children within those boundaries would have the ability to transfer out of that school, and what type of curriculum was needed for success.
We expect our way of learning to evolve. Certainly, as society has changed we expect that the way our children learn must also change. But the expansion of our innovative schools to other elementary schools in the district should only be done with data-based evidence supporting that style of learning and evidence that our students at those schools are meeting, if not exceeding, the children at the traditional elementary schools within the district.
I believe everyone at Apache IS and at Rising Star IS is working with the intent of providing an excellent education to their students. However, I am wary of the program’s results thus far. The Innovative School Program centers exclusively on project based learning, that is, each lesson comes with a hands on approach to processing the information presented. For some lessons, this can be a concrete and visual way to process information, but for other lessons, or for some students, this may not be the best way to retain information. We ought to be able to retain the beneficial portions of more traditional teaching styles, while incorporating project based approaches, maximizing the positive results that can be derived from both.
Prior to the implementation of the program at Apache, every teacher in the building was given an option to move to another school in the district and were told they needed to reapply for their positions if they wanted to remain at Apache. The experienced educators who didn’t remain in the buildings were shifted to positions vacated by teachers who took the incentivized retirement package that was pushed by Dr. Hinson to reduce the staffing salary footprint for the district. Approximately 50% of the teaching positions at Apache were filled with brand new educators.
Reading scores at Apache after the first year dropped about 8%. I have spoken with some who feel that the implementation of any new program can cause a drop in performance scores within the first few years, as students and teachers learn how to use the new program. However, it is hard to parse out what caused the drop, as there were two variables to be tracking: (1) a different teaching methodology; and (2) new teaching staff. After the scores dropped, one would have anticipated the district would have slowed implementation of the program until it had determined which portions of the program were working, and which portions needed improvement. However, they rolled the program out at Rising Star using the same methodology as at Apache.
SM West area race
Craig Denny (incumbent)
I am familiar with both schools; my late wife was a staff member at both, first at Rising Star and then at Apache. My oldest daughter attended Apache and the others attended Rising Star. Based on my own experience and observations and reports from others, the implementation of the innovative school concept has resulted in positive change to culture and climate at both schools. There is a high level of staff collaboration and teacher leadership. School staff members focus on success for all students. Teachers connect with one another to share strategies that help students. Many concepts (collaboration, looping, project-based learning, open classrooms, etc.) are already being shared with other elementary schools.
I toured both of these schools, along with the other five elementary schools in the West attendance area. I had heard some concerns about the innovative school model and the way it was implemented so I wanted to see it for myself. I was impressed with what I saw at both Apache and Rising Star. I think the term “innovative school” conjures up images of students running the classroom, but that is not the case at all. In every classroom I visited – which was most of them in both schools – students were being taught math skills, reading skills, science, and social studies by their teachers. The students were attentive and engaged. The flexible seating arrangement at these schools was mirrored in many other classrooms in the other conventional schools. I was impressed by what I saw. I am still concerned about a drop in reading scores in the first year of the innovative model at Apache, however. I would want to hold off on adding any more IS schools until we assess again and make sure that the scores are back up and that there is no academic downside to the IS model. If the measurements for these two schools are encouraging, I would suggest we consider if other schools can add an IS program as an optional classroom in each grade level. It might be the case that the IS model works especially well for students who are gifted or for students who have a hard time concentrating in a traditional classroom.
SM East area race
As the old adage goes, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. To pick an elementary or two and concentrate all the innovations there is the mark of a publicity grab rather than a real attempt at innovation. Many of the “innovations” being touted have been around for a long time and most teachers have tried many the innovations. Project based learning, small group and individualized instruction all have their place in instruction, and it is not just in an “Innovative School”. We can and should innovate as best suits the needs of all our students. So, would I like to see the “innovations” spread, yes. With designated innovative schools, no.
First, I believe it is important to recognize that an innovative and engaging learning environment is likely a shared expectation of every Shawnee Mission school. By way of example, an elementary teacher at Rosehill and her students successfully applied for a grant to purchase flexible seating furniture for the classroom, which noticeably enhanced the level of engagement and students’ investment in the learning process over the two years I volunteered in the room. Many evidenced-based practices associated with relevant, academically challenging learning have been adopted or prioritized by the district with varying degrees of implementation. These practices include one-to-one technology, maker spaces and project-based learning, instructional coaches, genius hour, inquiry, professional learning communities, departmentalization of instruction in upper elementary grades, signature programs and more.
The role of the Innovative School sites may be more about the scale, combination and degree of application. Many of these approaches to teaching and learning are not new to education, but were unintentionally pushed aside in districts across the county by the demands of No Child Left Behind. I am grateful that chapter of public education is past and support the stated goals of the district’s Innovative Schools “to develop an innovative elementary school setting for students intended to achieve a school culture resulting in increased student achievement, while also enriching the social and emotional experience for all students” (IS proposals, 2015-2016). I am also interested to learn more about the impact of Shawnee Mission teachers who actively choose their schools, an effective characteristic of the magnet school models intended to create a better fit between shared interests in building culture and student population.
Changes in teaching and learning can be difficult, but the priorities of Shawnee Mission parents and patrons is a quest of excellence for all students. The districts has created multiple paths to grow and bring innovation to scale. One of the biggest challenges for the board and the incoming superintendent is to work with the Kansas legislature and community stakeholders towards state policies that will provide all our teachers with the required time and resources needed to fully implement engaging and rigorous teaching, with fidelity for all target students.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item four: The English language learner population in Shawnee Mission has grown sharply since 2000, with around 10 percent of all students now qualifying for ELL status. Two years ago, the district eliminated the ELL center schools that had high concentrations of specially credentialed instructors, instead shifting to a model that attempts to facilitate ELL support in students’ home schools. Do you support the decision to close the ELL centers? Why or why not?