Concerned when transition was announced, many parents of students at Apache like what they’re seeing out of innovative school model

Principal Britt Pumphery chats with students working on a math program on their iPads at Apache IS.
Principal Britt Pumphrey chats with students working on a math program on their iPads at Apache IS.

Things were off to a bad start for the student at Apache Innovative School.

Not much more than an hour into the day, and he’d already been referred to the principal’s office. He took his first steps up the school’s central staircase with his shoulders slumped. He kept his eyes on the ground. An instructional coach wrapped an arm around his shoulder as she escorted him back to his room, one shuffling step at a time.

This was one bummed out kid.

“He’s not happy. You can see it,” said Apache Principal Britt Pumphrey, matter of factly. But then, with a smile coming across his face, he added, “I actually really like to see this. He’s heading back into the classroom. Because he’s learning that it’s okay, you can be upset, but that doesn’t mean you can’t participate. You can still learn.”

To the outsider, redirecting a student into the classroom shortly after being disciplined may seem like a smallish matter. But to Pumphrey and other school leaders, its a sign of a shifting culture that they believe is helping turn things around at Apache, a school that had lingered near the bottom of achievement measures among Shawnee Mission elementary schools.

In early 2016, Shawnee Mission announced that Apache would become the pilot site for a new “innovative school” model that would break away from many traditional classroom practices. The goal would be to give students more freedom and choice throughout the day in hopes of inspiring a love of learning and getting them excited about showing up.

The news was met with skepticism from many Apache parents.

“I didn’t like the idea of my kids being part of an ‘experiment,’” said Stacy Hetz, mother to two Apache students and an active member of the group Education First Shawnee Mission. “At first I thought they were using the lower socioeconomic families to try something new and that they knew the rich families wouldn’t allow it.”

Diom Ngeh, the father of two Apache students, remembered the meeting where the district introduced the idea for the IS model to Apache parents.

“Some people had a lot of trepidation,” he said. “There were hands going up throughout the room. People were asking, ‘So, what does this really mean?’ You could hear the fear.”

Teachers were dubious as well. After the transition to the IS model was announced, the district told teachers who wanted to remain at the school for 2016-17 they would need to reinterview for their jobs. Many teachers with decades of experience left, often replaced by teachers at the very start of their careers.

Such sweeping changes can be downright stressful. But there was an acknowledgement among Apache families and many staff members that something needed to change.

The years prior to the transition to the IS model had been tumultuous at Apache. The district opened a modern new building for the school in 2011, and then reworked elementary boundaries to address overcrowding at nearby Comanche the following year. Apache had 374 students for 2011-12; in 2012-13, after the boundary changes, that figure jumped to 566 — considerably higher than the size of around 400 to 450 the district currently states as its ideal for elementary building enrollment.

And it wasn’t just that the boundary change meant there were more students. There were more students with needs. The percent of kids qualifying for free-and-reduced lunch programs — a measure of the concentration of students in lower socioeconomic statuses — was already high before the new building opened in 2011 at 64.4 percent. The incorporation of new students did nothing to reduce that concentration. The free-and-reduced rate has actually ticked up in the years since, hitting 67.2 in 2016-17.

Discipline issues had become pronounced, with the principal’s office stacked with students some days. Learning measures showed no signs of improvement. After the shock of the news about the IS model wore off, many parents started to feel hopeful about the changes.

“The morale and energy was low, the kids didn’t enjoy going to school,” Hetz said. “Apache needed a change and that was something I was on board with.”

Two years into the innovative school experiment at Apache, and the transition is getting mostly positive reviews from parents and teachers — though concerns persist about whether the change in culture and approach will yield measurable improvements in learning.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how a typical day at Apache differs from most Shawnee Mission elementaries.