Kyrene officials moving full-speed ahead SanTan Sun News

Kyrene officials moving full-speed ahead

March 21st, 2017 | by SanTan Sun News
Kyrene officials moving full-speed ahead
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By PAUL MARYNIAK

Kyrene School District officials are losing no time in starting to reshape the way elementary and middle school students learn over the next five years. And if they succeed, students won’t just be sitting behind a desk in a classroom listening to lectures.

Instead, students could:

  • Have more personalized learning with lessons customized to their individual needs, get real-time feedback and have easy ways to track progress that their parents can follow as well;
  • Learn from more flexible, engaging, collaborative, authentic and “fun” teachers, as well as more online resources;
  • Enjoy flexible classroom environments where they control their learning;
  • Get to do more projects, have more at-home learning tools and experiences and greater choice of subjects.

Those ideas were produced during a day-long “visioning” exercise last month that involved about 43 people – including district administrators, teachers, parents and other interested adults, along with 16 students.

The group was put together by Superintendent Jan Vesely as she began creating a district vision and five-year plan to address gaps identified in a massive audit of Kyrene’s curriculum, operation, structure and other components that affect students’ learning. It was led in a variety of exercises by education strategists provided free of charge by computer giant Dell Corp.

Dell has committed a team of nine education experts to help school districts develop more responsive systems that address student needs in the 21st century, said Adam Garry, a former teacher who directs the unit.

Driving that urgency in reform is an awareness that by the time they enter the job market, today’s elementary and middle school students will face a very different world than the one their parents and grandparents encountered.

One major factor is the belief that tomorrow’s workers likely will not stay in the same job their entire lives, but will have to change careers several times. That requires students to develop skills that help them adapt to those demands, Garry said.

For example, Dell education strategist Leah Rogers said the group had “a big acknowledgement that technology has had a huge impact” and that 35 percent of core skills needed to succeed in life will change by 2020.

“We need to prepare these kids for a future that we don’t know what will look like,” Rogers said.

During the initial phase of the visioning exercise, the group came up with a series of traits students need to begin developing so they succeed in college and the workforce. They included resiliency, determination, adaptability, passion and perseverance.

But those traits can’t be taught the way math principles might be taught today, Rogers and Vesely noted. They’re developed through a system of education that encourages their development in every student.

That means moving toward a system based on “blended learning,” an approach toward education that focuses on individual students’ needs and abilities instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

The group began looking at the education system through four lenses:

  • How time currently impacts learning and how it could be altered to improve academic results;
  • The places where students could learn more effectively beyond conventional classroom settings;
  • The paths needed to tailor education to individual student needs and abilities;
  • How the school day can be made more flexible in recognition of the fact that every student succeeds at a different pace.

Both Rogers and Vesely said the students who participated in the program made invaluable contributions to the discussion.

“The kids were awesome,” Rogers said. “One of my biggest takeaways was that I didn’t know how valuable the student voice is in this. Why do we forget them? We think we have these kids’ best interest at heart and then we don’t even consult them. They were phenomenal.”

Vesely agreed, adding: “The students really have an important role. If you hold high expectations for what kids can do, they deliver. Oftentimes, we don’t hold high expectations for them. We told them, ‘You are working to create the future of this district.’”

She said it was also important to get the students’ explanations of what impacts them in today’s society.

The visioning exercise was only the beginning of months of work for Kyrene administrators, teachers, the school board – and likely parents and their children.

The ultimate goal is to come up in the next few months with a vision because it “drives everything you do,” Vesely said.

Then comes a strategic plan for implementing that vision.

Although the students had to return to their schools before the day ended, the adults who remained were also asked to identify the three most valuable things they learned through the exercise.

Rogers noted the group “learned a lot from students,” learned about the different approaches and tools that can support blended learning and “that Dr. Vesely’s vision and commitment are key to move this work forward.”

They also said the challenges to moving forward included maintaining momentum, “getting buy-in from other staff and parents and how to handle pushback if/when it comes,” according to Rogers’ notes on the day.

As to what steps need to be taken now, Rogers’ notes indicate the group felt the district needs to “identify priorities of focus,” then get “more people involved in this work” and provide “training/support for teachers.”

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