By Matthew Tungate
Imagine, if you will, a middle school classroom where students from 5th to 9th grades are using various Web-enabled devices to watch a teacher live stream his lesson from another classroom across the county. Their teacher, originally a middle school mathematics teacher but now integrating science into her lessons, is learning as much as the students, watching a demonstration of what she’d learned when her mentor teacher led their last professional learning community meeting.
Some of the students have only been in the class for two months but are completing their final projects and presentations to advance to the next class. Others are moving at a slower pace, which will have them in the class until well into what was once considered summer break. But with school year-round and accessible online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not everyone takes summer break anymore.
Across campus in a high school classroom, imagine 10th graders coming in at 10 a.m. for their first class, college-credit English. They share the room with students who traditionally would have graduated last year but needed a little more support to successfully complete college, so they stayed in school for grade 13.
These students all are looking forward to the day when the superintendent hands them their diploma, which no longer means only that they’ve earned the minimum required credits to graduate. No, imagine a day when a diploma means students have mastered required knowledge and, what’s more, they have the soft skills to put that information into practice whether their next step is college or employment.
Now imagine that happening in the next decade in Kentucky schools. Four districts – Danville and Eminence independents and Jefferson and Taylor counties – will take the first steps this school year to make that a reality. The four have been named state Districts of Innovation, allowing them to request waivers to state laws and regulations to improve student learning. Each plans to implement at least one aspect of the imaginary school district described above.
One aspect of the Jefferson County school district’s application included pairing inexperienced teachers from struggling schools with more experienced teachers who have shown success with at-risk populations. That could include the experienced teachers leading instruction for multiple classrooms, or the less-experienced teacher leading instruction and then reviewing with the mentor teacher. Both would be done via Web conferencing.
Chief Academic Officer Dewey Hensley said the plan could include three classes with teachers of varying experience levels.
“Additionally, it would provide a student who may have only had access to 28 classmates with two other classrooms of students,” he said. “That will increase their likelihood of hearing diverse ideas and different ways of thinking.”
Jefferson County focused its application on its 18 schools identified as persistently-low achieving or “priority schools.”
Hensley said the district also wants to move from focusing on “all children” to “each child.” One way to do that is through an initiative called Louisville Linked, where the district would connect students and families with community-based organizations to “mitigate identified barriers, support their well-being and promote personal resiliency.”
“I hope that 10 years from now large urban school districts in particular do a better job of connecting students to external organizations and agencies that remove non-cognitive and therapeutic obstacles to learning, which is what we are trying to with Louisville Linked,” Hensley said.
In Taylor County, Superintendent Roger Cook envisions “a one-room school house concept on rocket boosters.
Cook sees a school where students don’t follow a bell schedule, instead having a set of standards they must master. The students choose teachers they think can help them master those standards, whether those teachers are certified in the subjects or not.
However, Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) regulations don’t allow schools to put students from different grades in one classroom if the teacher is not certified to teach all the grades represented, Cook said.
“Who cares if a high school teacher is not certified to teach a 5th grader?” he asked. “The 5th-grader is ready for the content. What difference does it make if the teacher is not certified to teach a 5th-grader?”
He already has begun the process, allowing elementary students to take middle school classes and middle school students to earn high school credit. That’s because the district uses performance-based education where students are allowed to advance classes when they can prove mastery of subjects.
Districts have got to change from the traditional agrarian model, Cook said.
“I’ve got five grandchildren in this system; they don’t learn like I learned,” the 37-year education veteran said. “We have to make every classroom fun, innovative and creative. Quite frankly, that’s what I require out of my teachers.”
Eminence Superintendent Buddy Berry has a similar vision of classrooms with mixed-age students working on various schedules, but his includes postsecondary as well.
“We really see the high school diploma as not being enough,” he said. “They’re going to be an Eminence student until they get firmly rooted in the college as well.”
Eminence’s application continued its “School on F.I.R.E. (Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education)” plan to personalize learning for all students, Berry said. As a District of Innovation, that includes blurring the lines between high school and college, among other things.
Students should be able to earn college credits as early as their freshman year and be able to graduate high school with an associate degree – even if they have to be in the high school environment two extra years to do it, Berry said. That’s because too many students are accepted into college but are not prepared for success there, he said. Having the supports of the high school staff would help them get their degree rather than dropping out, Berry said.
Berry wanted to allow teachers to teach in areas outside their certification, allow the district to use SEEK money to pay for students to stay up to two extra years and allow students to use Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) money to pay for college classes while still in high school. However, the Districts of Innovation law did not give the Kentucky Department of Education the authority to grant those waivers.
Like in Eminence, Danville Superintendent Carmen Coleman believes a diploma should mean more than that a student completed 12 years of schooling.
After visiting the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, Coleman said it became a “moral imperative” to better prepare Danville students to compete in the domestic and global marketplace.
“The big goal for us in the work that we’re doing is to make sure that every student leaves us with a usable, viable ticket to a productive postsecondary path,” she said.
Last year the district introduced the Danville Diploma, which included the idea that graduates have certain skills – such as being good leaders and team members, being creative problem solvers and becoming good citizens – as well as academic rigor.
“Those Danville Diploma skills are just as important as content knowledge. It takes both,” she said.
And the Danville Diploma is rigorous, including expectations that students reach college-ready benchmarks by 10th grade and not graduate until they do. Coleman wants students to be able to demonstrate their knowledge by solving problems and being able to defend their work in presentations. Danville’s application included new courses and staff responsibilities to help students meet the new expectations.
It also included a request to waive state assessment requirements – which was denied because the Districts of Innovation law did not give the Kentucky Department of Education the authority to grant those waivers
Waivers deferred, not necessarily denied
David Cook, director of the Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education and no relation to Roger Cook in Taylor County, said the waivers that were denied may be as valuable as those that were granted.
“We now have, in essence, a database of the requests that districts have made, particularly the ones we couldn’t approve,” he said. “We now can say to the legislature, to EPSB, ‘Here are the things that districts think are important to them to move forward.’”
All four districts requested waivers related to state funding and teacher certification. Roger Cook said that should say something to lawmakers.
“If you want us to be different, you’ve got to be different,” he said. “If you want us to make a paradigm shift, you’ve got to make a paradigm shift.”