Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to the Kansas State Department of Education’s annual conference. This multi-day conference is essentially a convening of school and district leaders from across the state. They gather to discuss how they are using student data, how to better connect with students, and how to personalize student learning among other things. The event really highlighted how unified Kansas educators are when it comes to changing outcomes for kids.
I have to admit that I have NEVER seen school and district leaders be so transparent about their successes and their failures.
This year, the conference had a unique addition, there was a pre-conference where Kansas Mercury and Gemini schools could discuss the changes they made to their schools and the impact that it has had (thus far) on student performance. For those of you who don’t know, Kansas has an Education Commissioner that is shaking things up in the best way. Dr. Randy Watson, continues to push Kansas teachers, principals, and district leaders to strive for more in their service to kids. One major undertaking that he has in place is this Kansas Can School Redesign Project (see below for an excerpt).
In support of Kansas’ vision for education, Kansas leads the world in the success of each student, the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) launched the Kansans Can School Redesign Project and invited every school district in Kansas to apply for the first round, called Mercury 7.
To be considered for the project, districts had to designate one elementary school and one secondary school to be redesigned around the five outcomes established by the Kansas State Board of Education, the five elements identified as defining a successful Kansas high school graduate and what Kansans said they want their schools to look like in the future. Each district also had to have support of their local school board, their faculty and their local Kansas National Education Association or other professional organization.
The agency received 29 applications, and on Aug. 8, 2017, the seven selected districts were announced at a State Board of Education meeting. The seven districts – 15 schools – will serve as demonstration sites for others in Kansas to study, learn and visit.
The Mercury 7 districts had to agree to launch their redesigns in the 2018-2019 school year. Teachers, administrators, community members and students gave input to the districts, and then redesign teams spent several months developing a vision, mission and goals for their schools.
During that time, KSDE developed a Gemini I Project and invited the remaining districts that applied for Mercury 7 to take part.
Twenty-one districts decided to participate. In April 2018, KSDE announced that 19 Kansas school districts applied to take part in Gemini II: The Space Walk Begins, the next round of the school redesign project.
At the pre-conference I learned that Kansas Mercury schools were intentionally selected from a variety of regions across the state including urban, suburban, and rural districts. The thinking behind this I can only assume is to provide equitable opportunities for improvement to students no matter where they live in the state.
Schools were provided no additional funding but were given carte blanche to collaborate with their internal and external stakeholders to create something new.
The initial results of the redesign are promising. While this is not a comprehensive list, some school and district leaders have implemented the following:
- An emphasis on student learning. Twin Valley school district spoke about how they had changed their daily schedule to allow students more time to complete their work at school. They implemented a study block into the day and teachers have office hours where students can come and work with them one on one. At the elementary level, the community has come together to give teachers more time for professional development. The district hasn’t used any additional money but has used the human capital on hand to solve complex problems.
- An emphasis on parent interaction. Stockton School District wanted to better connect with parents. They partnered with Laura Gilchrist and Parent Camp to design safe spaces for parents and teachers to connect. To reference their words, it is a small school district but parent turn out has been encouraging. The district also focused on several other measures tied to student achievement.
- An emphasis on early intervention. Coffeyville School District has turned their eye to increasing access to early learning opportunities for three and four year olds in order to support kindergarten readiness. The district has also added a focus on mental health initiatives for early years and partnered with the Community Health Centers of Southeast Kansas to get the job done.
I know that these examples can sound unique. It is easy to read their stories and think “that is just ONE school district in the ENTIRE state of Kansas.” I am here to tell you that this is the new education wave in the state of Kansas. I selected three school districts out of the many that were represented. The point I am making is this, while we pontificate about education reform and create committees to study the problem Kansas is boots on the ground in the thick of the action. We don’t have to travel thousands of miles to get an eye on what is possible. We may just need to visit our neighbors, rethink the way we use our human capital, and ask our communities what they want from us.
Remember to lead is to constantly learn and while others may not tell you the truth, I always will. Change is a choice. The key to effective change then is having everyone on board willing to make the same choice. Who’s on your bus? – Dr. Kia
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