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Friday, March 9, 2018

National Education Leaders Gather Ideas for Fort Thomas Schools

Assistant Principal Peter Winkler and teachers Megan Boimann-Hennies and Karen Kampschmidt share what they learned at High Tech High

Fort Thomas schools' mission states that the district will provide learning experiences that "foster creativity, curiosity and innovation, while inspiring all students to pursue lifelong learning and become productive members of the global community."

The mission statement, developed in 2013, is still a good one, says Superintendent Karen Cheser, but more work is needed to identify a measurable and actionable "portrait of a graduate."

The district needs to take a step back and ask "What is it that is very important to us?" she asked.

With that in mind, 10 teachers, counselors and administrators attended the annual EdLeader21 event in October. EdLeader21 is a global network of high performing school districts who come together to share ideas and explore best practices aimed at ensuring students are ready for the future workplace.

The Fort Thomas contingent came back excited to explore the topic further. In December and January small teams of teachers, counselors and administrators visited some of the country’s most innovative districts to learn more about what works, what doesn’t and what makes sense for Fort Thomas schools.

At the February school board meeting, the teams reported on what they learned on visits to schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Ohio.

Highlights and Takeaways

Pewaukee School District in Wisconsin

"One thing I took away was that information alone is not enough," said Moyer Elementary teacher Kara Yates. "We have to create problem solvers…we need to nurture powerful learning, not merely just what they [the students] are doing but can they prove their learning?"

She said the students at the school she visited took ownership of their school and of their learning. Each child could tell her where they were in their progress, what they were good at and what they needed to work on.

The contingent was impressed that the learning space included flexible seating and group gathering places throughout their buildings.

"They used alternative models such as a school within a school," said Assistant Superintendent Bill Bradford. "The students had learned to self-navigate from content to content. We also saw a business model at the high school in which students attended classes half a day, offsite in a business setting."

He added that the students took full advantage of project based learning in the classroom and at the businesses they attended. The business option was not confined only to the most advanced students, he noted. The school used a lottery system, and students could opt if they wanted to learn in that way.

Fort Thomas teachers and staff who went to Pewaukee with Yates and Bradford included Lee Gatens, interim assistant principal at Highlands High; and teachers Stephanie Perkins (Johnson), Amy Fry and Melissa Trimbach (Middle School) and Nina Kearns (High School).

High Tech High, San Diego, California

High Tech High is known as a public charter school but is actually a network of 13 schools serving approximately 5,300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The group visited two schools on the HTH campus.

"Kids were everywhere, no matter which way we went...and every one of the kids seemed to own that school," said Elementary Assistant Principal Peter Winkler. "Student artwork was all over the school. In fact, there was nothing there that was not created by the students."

He added that the students demonstrated many of the qualities business owners identify as important workplace skills such as resiliency and problem-solving. Overall, he said, "it was a very student-centered experience."

Middle School teacher Karen Kampschmidt said the cross-curriculum collaboration impressed her most. "I've been thinking ever since about how we can work better to be more cross-curricular at our schools," she said.

High School teacher Megan Boimann-Hennies said she liked the way students were encouraged to share their work publicly at the end of each semester. "They had an exhibition where students in all classes would present their long-term projects, their findings, artistic creations, whatever it might be…A showcase allowed the community to come in on a regular basis."

In addition to Winkler, Kampschmidt and Boimann-Hennies, participants in San Diego included Middle School Principal Michael Howton and teachers Angie Gintonio and Kris Donnelly (High School), Ryan Augustin (Middle School) and Annie Goetz (Moyer).

Marysville Exempted Village School District, Marysville, Ohio

Those who visited schools in Marysville, Ohio, said personalized learning plans helped students take ownership of their education.

"They start in kindergarten. They ask the child what are you interested in, what do you want to learn about, do you learn better in a group or by yourself?" explained counselor Patrick Richardson.

He said the space was set up like a university or a makers space with glass walls, white boards, dry erase markers and lots of community areas to meet throughout the buildings. Spaces took advantage of  universal design concepts of flexibility and accessibility. Rooms could be opened up or closed off easily to accommodate single or combined classes.

"It was not a sit and get atmosphere. You could sit and get just long enough to get up and go do some of the things we've been talking about. They were really setting up collaborative spaces to allow kids to do that."

Richardson was joined by Johnson Elementary Principal Ashley Dikeos and Sommer Rosa, director of early education and exceptional children, who shared a PowerPoint presentation about their trip.

The teachers visited an early college high school that had built a variety of partnerships with area businesses and local colleges. Students could choose one of three career pathways: healthcare, IT or engineering. Business leaders visited the schools, and in turn students could take internships at partner businesses.

Industry partner manufacturers and engineering firms provided students with technology at use in the workplace so students could learn those skills and graduate ready to go into the workforce.

Teachers John Gesenhues and Samantha Reynolds (Woodfill), Natalie Heilman (Moyer), Sally Brewer and Susan Anderson (Middle School), Sonja Fischer and Ahren Wagner (High School) and Moyer Principal Dawn Laber joined Rosa, Richardson and Dikeos on the Marysville trip.

Minnetonka Public Schools District, Minnesota

At the Minnetonka schools, teachers and administrators learned about "The Big Idea Hunt," a crowd sourcing activity that helped the district prioritize its needs.

The school asked all stakeholders including faculty, students and parents, to provide input on “big ideas” for the schools. The program was so successful, the district now uses the method to identify priorities and gather ideas every year.

Colleen Epperson, a teacher at Highlands High School, said she was very impressed with the ways the schools used information gathered in the big idea process to create learning spaces that kept students engaged on campus.

"The research facility was phenomenal. Students were working on their own research questions and published their own Minnetonka Research Journal…Their engineering program, Lead the Way, provides laser cutters and all sorts of equipment…Students in their Vantage business program present before parents and in front of their corporations."

Highlands school counselor Trinity Walsh said one takeaway for her was the idea that all decisions were based on what is right for the students, not necessarily what is convenient for the adults.

"They did a lot of reimagining spaces, taking old rooms that were for storage and turning them into conference rooms…tv’s in the hallways, thinking outside the box," she said.

Yet, one thing stood out that changed Walsh’s perspective dramatically. "I left there thinking very differently about online learning," she said. "I’ve been very resistant to what I’ve seen because what I’ve seen is prepackaged product that usually isn’t very good….What they’ve done with their online learning program is it’s all developed by their own teachers. Their teachers use Schoology, something we have here," she said.

In fact, Walsh and the others in her group said they are eager to explore what they can do at Highlands to enhance online programming.

"My takeaway is that it was the most impressive collection of educators I’ve ever been around," added Woodfill Principal Keith Faust.

He explained that beyond flexible spaces and impressive programs, it was the way the district addressed problems that stood out most. In Minnetonka they have developed a framework or system for solving problems.

"Everything is run through this system, this plan of attack, whether it’s furniture, curriculum, everything. They look for the smallest, most efficient way possible so they are taking a smart approach. This is something we can look into and do," he said.

Joining Epperson, Walsh and Faust in Minnesota were teachers Aimee Shadwell (Johnson), Maria Schuman (Woodfill), Kevin Nieporte and Stephanie Ewald (Middle School), Emily Haffey and Elise Carter (High School), and Assistant Superintendent Jamee Flaherty.

Toward painting a "Portrait of a Graduate"

"We are not doing visits for our educators to come back and try to replicate what they saw in our schools," said Cheser, but, instead, to get ideas about what Fort Thomas already does well and to generate ideas for going forward here.

Bradford agreed, "Our site visit teams were presented with a unique opportunity to experience the academic programming that high performing schools and districts have in place in different parts of the country….The intent of these excursions was to allow our teachers and administrators the professional learning necessary in order to inform our next steps as we continue to develop a portrait of a graduate and, ultimately, a district-wide strategic plan."

The trips were paid for through a combination of grant money and some professional development funds.

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