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Monday, May 9, 2016

Fort Thomas Independent Schools Embrace College and Career Readiness

Highlands High School students work at the technology-based Help Desk.

New state requirements have required Fort Thomas Independent Schools to make some subtle changes in recent years. In particular, there has been a change in focus from college readiness to college and career readiness. Teachers have embraced this change and the outcomes speak for themselves.

First, some history: In 2009, Senate Bill 1 passed, which called for a complete overhaul of Kentucky's assessment system, says Superintendent Gene Kirchner. The result: implementation of a new accountability system called Unbridled Learning: College and Career Readiness for All. "The goal of which," Kirchner says, "is to ensure every student in Kentucky graduates from high school ready to go on to the next phase of his or her life." 

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Highlands High School Principal Brian Robinson says this new approach means looking beyond post-secondary education. "The end goal isn't just college readiness," Robinson says. "It's making students prepared for what's next. Ultimately, they're all going to be citizens and they need to be ready for productive citizenry and the world ahead of them." Robinson says reasearch has shown that readiness for college equates to readiness for careers. "A lot of the same soft skills employers are looking for are the same things colleges are looking for," he says. "We want those skills to be really well honed." 

These skills are interpersonal in nature: communication, critical thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration. 

Highlands Middle School student Lara Fecher stands next to the new Fort Thomas Fire Department logo.

"An important part of our district's mission and vision involves providing students with relevant and meaningful learning experiences which connect to real-world outcomes," Kirchner says. "We want our students to create, design and collaborate with others to solve real-world problems." A perfect example of this is the redesign of Fort Thomas Fire Department's logo, which we covered here. "Students in Collin Shadwell's middle school art classes learned about the history and important symbols of the fire department, individually designed a new logo based on this information [and] shared their designs publicly with representatives of the fire department," Kirchner says. Top ones were chosen, refinements were made, and finally the fire department selected a winning design to be used for years to come. 

Northern Kentucky University Professor Wiley Piazza teaches a dual credit Highlands High School Sport Medicine class in the Highlands Fitness Center. 

Examples of how FTIS is focusing on both career and college abound. Examples include a dual credit course, Introduction to Education, offered through Thomas More College for seniors interested in becoming teachers. Kinesiology and Athletic Training dual credit courses are offered through Northern Kentucky University, with Highlands Fitness Center servings as a learning lab for students. "There are many other examples in the areas of business, family and consumer science, and industrial technology," Kirchner says. 

Here we offer four specific examples of how the implementation of SB 1 has affected FTIS students: 

• Moving from a teacher-based approach to a student-based approach: 

"As an elementary librarian, I place focus on ensuring that students have a solid foundation in digital and informational literacies," says Heidi Neltner, a librarian at Johnson Elementary. "It is important for students in the 21st century to understand how to select appropriate resources for a task, how to pursue their own learning and interests, how to adapt to new technologies, and how to function safely as positive digital citizens. I place heavy emphasis on helping students become self-directed as well as collaborative learners." 

To do this Neltner says she incorporates a heavy use of project-based learning and Genius Hour, which is based off Google's "20% Time" model. "These two models of learning place a lot of emphasis on student choice, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration," Neltner says. 

Currently Neltner's third and fifth graders are researching, through Genius Hour, everything from interior design, 3D printing and dog training to coding and 2D game design in Scratch. Fourth graders are developing aquaponics systems, building raised garden beds to help preserve Monarch butterflies, prototyping their own Google Cardboard viewers and writing a computer program to make a Raspberry Pi take a picture and tweet. 

"These kinds of experiences not only give the kids practical, real-world experiences, but it also gives them real practice in persisting through challenges," Nelter says. "They've had to revise their thinking and models, make modifications, throw out ideas and start over, and [learn] how to overcome disagreements with peers when they don't see eye-to-eye on things. It is really exciting to watch them and coach them through the process of learning." 

Seventh-grade Language Arts students participate in a Google Hangout with young adult author Edward Bloor. 

• Using technology to deepen understanding and connect with authors: 

"In addition to planning lessons based on the Common Core Standards, the nucleus of each lesson must include the crucial element of real-world application," says Amy Fry, Highlands Middle School Language Arts teacher. Recently Fry's students participated in a book discussion with Edward Bloor, author of the young adult novel Tangerine, using Google Hangouts. Prior to reading the book they used a program called SketchUp, often used by architects and designers, to create the main character's neighborhood and other specific elements. "We are teaching students the skills to be successful people, not just the content of a particular subject area," Fry says. "We are teaching students how to solve problems that haven't been determined yet. We are teaching students to prepare for careers that may not even be in existence yet." 

• Turning students into creators: 

"As a science teacher, one of the biggest changes was the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)," says Susan Anderson, a Highlands Middle School science teacher. "Mostly, the goal of NGSS is to create students who will be ready to head into college and become our future scientists. The aim is to ensure all students are successful in science with increased equity and opportunity. Critical thinking and exploration are stressed. No longer is there only memorization of facts but more the ability to use those facts in a purposeful way." 

Anderson, who has been teaching at FTIS for 15 years, says science classes have taken on a different look in many ways due to this change, and that change has been facilitated by FTIS's digital conversion. "Our students have become creators," Anderson says. "A lesson that was previously a written lab report has blossomed into an individualized investigation presented in a variety of ways." Students create podcasts, and make iMovies and infographics. They Skype and Facetime with faculty members from colleges. They work collaboratively with fellow students, both in FTIS and out—including students from other parts of the world. Anderson says the new expectations has re-energized teachers, and they way the approach teaching science. "I believe the way we are now moving to make them better thinkers, better at reasoning, [and better] able to utilize and create with knowledge is a positive start." 

• Providing high-end tools for media education and letting students lead: 

"I honestly believe our program is charting new territory in the area of high school media education," says William Poff, who has taught Filmmaking and Broadcasting at Highlands High School for seven years. "We are consistently providing our students with real-world experiences. They present live news shows, create commercials for local businesses and produce videos for various clients." 

Poff says his program is a project-based model in which students typically work within teams to plan, produce and present a content. They learn camera operating, video editing, lighting and audio engineering, and develop skills in storytelling, project planning and communication. (Check out the Highlands Filmmaking and Broadcasting YouTube channel here.)

District support has been key to students' success, Poff says. "They've provided our department with the most current tools available, from cameras and computers, to cutting-edge software used by today's media professionals," he says. 

Outside of tools, Poff stresses the importance of letting students lead. "We believe in giving students responsibilities that typically wouldn't be given until college, possibly, but more likely not even until their career," he says. Example: Students manage every aspect of home football games, from directing, running sideline cameras, and creating video content and graphics, to hosting halftime shows and doing play-by-play announcing. "These students are solely responsible for our community's experience on Friday nights," Poff says. "Providing students with the relevant tools necessary, placing them in real-world situations, giving them responsibilities over things that matter and an opportunity to lead, will make a lasting positive impression on them. They will, in turn, rise to a level rarely seen in high school." 

A major player in this change has been the ongoing digital conversion. "Our students and teachers do a lot of things well, but collaboration has to be one of the things we do best," says Jody Johnson, Instructional Technology Specialist currently assigned to Highlands High School in support of their first year of digital conversion. "The digital conversion has been very instrumental in pushing that collaboration well beyond the walls of our campus. It is not uncommon to find students web conferencing with an author, a subject-matter expert, or a foreign language speaker in another country. Students are no longer content being the target of information, they want to be the ones to synthesize and create the message. Students at Highlands have a strong voice and are commonly found on committees and presenting information to the adults in the room. Highlands students produce broadcast-quality video spots and print-ready graphical designs for inside and outside customers. Students truly get the message that learning isn't something that stops at 2:45 and ends at the border of our campus."

Student-run BEAM provides consumers with Bluebird embroidery, apparel and merchandise. 

Robinson says this approach has been less about changing gears—students pursuing additional education is always his goal—and more about extending what's being taught into real-world applications. More examples: The Highlands Physical Education class is designing fitness plans to help faculty and staff in a Biggest Loser competition. English 4 students are doing their own Capstone Projects. There's a student-run business called BEAM (Bluebird Embroidery, Apparel and Merchandise). Students run a Help Desk, designed to help fellow students experiencing problems with their MacBooks. Students run a preschool, developing curriculum and applying child-development lessons, for three weeks. Students serve as peer tutors and freshman mentors. And students design the costumes and sets for Highlands theatre productions. 

All of these examples require communication, critical thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration. And, hopefully, Robinson says, they internalize a desire to learn even more. Career readiness is the ultimate goal, Robinson says, but nurturing a desire to seek additional training and education also is important. "The overwhelming majority should pursue a four-year degree when they leave here," Robinson says. "If a student chooses a two-year program, apprenticeship or the military, [they are] still seeking and I still see that as a success." 

Kirchner agrees. "While most of our students do continue on to a four-year college, we realize that this is not the path for everyone," Kirchner says. "Students today have many different options, and there is not a one-size-fits-all model. Some students will leave high school and attend vocational school or a community college, some will join the military, and some will go directly into the workforce. Each is these is a noble choice. The goal of ensuring that every students is ready for college or career is meant to ensure that students can be successful no matter what path they choose." 

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