By Matthew Tungate
The Eminence Independent school district is trying to create an educational Disneyland®, and administrators embrace the comparison.
In fact, administrators spent three and a half days over the summer at the Disney Institute for Creativity and Innovation “to learn how they embed a culture of systemic innovation and creativity while engaging and personalizing it for every single person,” Superintendent Buddy Berry said.
It’s the kind of place where 3rd-graders take a fractions test by baking pizzas in the school cafeteria, 4th graders take a geometry test by building a birdhouse and high schoolers use their laptop computers on a Wi-Fi-enabled bus on their way to take free college classes two days a week.
In May, the school introduced its School on FIRE (Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education) initiative, which includes Apple MacBook Pro laptop computers for every high school student; a revised schedule with three days for core classes and two days for interventions and enrichments; and free college classes at Bellarmine University in Louisville for students who meet the state’s college-readiness standards on the ACT.
Berry said a central question guides the district’s actions: “How can we go and have a culture where every kid is going to be college and career ready, with all of the demands that come with that, and still go and make school the most exciting eight hours a kid could ever imagine as many times as possible?”
At the heart of the question is “‘surprise and delight,” which runs through everything we do. It’s our culture,” Berry said.
“We want every kid to be surprised and delighted every day that they’re at school,” he said. “So we want them to go home and be like, ‘Today was unreal at school.’ Is every day like that? No, but there are more days like that than not.”
To make sure teachers get the message, Eminence administrators try to model the technique to them. For instance, administrators asked district teachers to show up for a morning meeting. When they got there, administrators put them on a bus and sent them to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville. The teachers’ job was to ask the children how the hospital had made their stay more enjoyable.
After teachers disembarking from the bus, another bus pulled up – this one filled with 53-inch donated stuffed bears for the children inside the hospital.
“That’s the type of activity we’re doing to imbed systemic ‘surprise and delight’ into the school day,” Berry said. “We model for them, in our talks, exactly what we want them doing here.”
While the school is doing many innovative things, its foundation is mastery learning for college and career readiness, Berry said.
Berry said teachers have overwhelmingly supported the changes in the school.
“Who’s going to choose dull and dreary over surprise and delight? You’re just not going to purposely choose that,” he said. “I think the dilemma is how do you create that culture of both (including college and career readiness)?”
Travis Hernandez, an Eminence alumnus and special education teacher, said administrator modeling has helped him understand the kinds of changes he needs to make to his practice.
“You actually get to experience what ‘surprise and delight’ is, so it enables us to project that toward our students and give that same feeling to them,” he said.
Kristan Lively, a high school mathematics teacher, said she tries to use the technique on Fridays. For instance, she asked students to make a movie using their computers rather than doing homework.
“I would like to move into more huge ‘surprise and delight’ mode,” Lively said. “Now, I haven’t got there yet, but still, I think that the kids are engaged and want to have fun.”
Whitney Christiansen, an English and drama teacher in her first year in the district, said teachers wish students would look at learning as if it is fun.
“Hopefully we kind of instill that wish in them and connect those two feelings in their brain,” she said. “It takes some thinking. Not necessarily a lot of work, but asking, ‘What are they going to like?’”
Even before announcing the School on FIRE changes, Eminence had a history of innovation. Students already are required to achieve a B or better in their classes, even if they require remediation and retesting. The district also uses an extended calendar of nine weeks in session and two weeks off.
The schedule was originally designed to use the two weeks for remediation and enrichment, but that’s not often enough, Berry said.
“You can’t wait nine weeks to intervene with a kid in instruction,” he said. “We’re now trying to intervene within 24 hours.”
Under the Eminence schedule, students take their core classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for one hour and 15 minutes. On Tuesday and Thursdays, they have the opportunities for remediation and enrichments, including elective classes, for an hour and 43 minutes.
Instructional Supervisor Thom Coffee said students get as much or more time in their core classes as in a traditional schedule.
“But if they’re struggling, they get crazy additional minutes because we’ll pull them out for an intervention on Tuesdays or Thursdays, where instead of having 25 kids in math class, it’s the math teacher and five kids who are struggling with that content,” he said.
Christiansen has been very happy to have the intervention time. For instance, for the first half of her second period, she is able to provide one-on-one instruction to students who need extra help with reading.
“There’s no way they can slip through the cracks,” she said.
Christiansen said elective classes require higher-level thinking while giving students an opportunity to explore their interests.
Lively said the change in the schedule concerned her at first, but then she saw the benefits. In previous years, about 10 percent of her class might be bored at any given time because they already understood what she had taught while she worked with students who were taking longer to get it.
Now those students have a reason to not only reach mastery of material but to exceed it so they can become Bellarmine students.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, 35 Eminence students travel by bus to Bellarmine for English 101 and Human Geography classes.
Berry said students can earn 13 college credit hours the first year and 16 credit hours their second year in the program – and pay nothing. Eminence pays $100 per credit hour, which ends up being $1,300 per year per student plus books and transportation, he said. Bellarmine is reducing what it regularly charges for credit hours by 92 percent, Berry said.
Berry said the partnership with Bellarmine has increased the number of students interested in going to college and caused more to take classes to prepare them for the ACT than in the past.
To participate, students much achieve an 18 in English, 19 in math and 20 in reading on the ACT. Berry said 70 percent of the freshman class took the ACT in June to see how close they were to being eligible; traditionally, freshmen do not take the ACT.
“The college culture mindset shift has been crazy because there’s a very real goal on the table of going to school,” he said. “The future question will be do we let everybody go, can we continue to pay for everybody? How does that look in the future? I can’t tell you.”
To pay for the college classes and the 1:1 computer initiative, Berry cut two-and-a-half positions from the district’s budget through attrition and worked out a deal with Apple on the computers.
“It is a sustainable model,” he said.
But he’s not done yet. Berry said he wants to see learning personalized for every student.
“It’s a dream. It’s not there yet. It’s not K-12 every kid, every day,” he said. “But we’re sure trying.”