Village Schools

More money needed for 2020 strategic plan

McKinney students in Jeff Collins’ science class are currently building their own model vehicles and testing them in a wind tunnel provided by two research and development mentors from the Honda Corporation. Yellow Springs High School students built a trebuchet in their physics class. And the second graders in Ellen Guest’s class made a book about the process of photosynthesis.

The project-based learning at the heart of the school district’s Class of 2020 strategic plan is alive and kicking around all kinds of ideas to achieve the goals of the plan, which was set in motion two years ago this month. An update on the implementation of the plan and the successes, failures and challenges that have emerged was presented to the school board and the 2020 Steering Committee at last week’s school board meeting. The bottom line, according to Superintendent Mario Basora, is that while the activity is on track, it needs more financial support and increased capacity in order to reach its goals by the year 2020.

“The 2020 Plan needs more investment to succeed in the future” and make “Yellow Springs schools a demonstration center,” he said. “Invest now to save later.”

Specifically, Basora estimates that the district will ultimately need to increase its annual general fund budget of $3.01 million by $200,000 a year to fund its strategic plan.

But according to Yellow Springs High School junior David Butcher, who just recently returned from a visit to model PBL school High Tech High in San Diego, the effort to transform the local school system is worth it.

“Kids at High Tech High are enthusiastic, and that’s an environment we have to create here,” he said after the presentation.

And even with challenges still at hand, board member Aïda Merhemic and teachers Beth Lutz and Aurelia Blake championed the path toward project-based learning to combat student apathy and elevate students to drive their own learning — “that’s the real value of education,” Merhemic said during the meeting.

McKinney language arts teacher Blake vouched for the power of PBL to cultivate a culture of committed, passionate learning where students are invested in their work and help each other make their work better by sharing and talking about it. Lutz also trusts that PBL will teach problem-solving and critical thinking, which is much more important than the “facts they will forget later anyway,” she said during the meeting. “The transition is difficult, but eventually it will happen,” she said.

According to board members, PBL is an adequately compelling part of the strategic plan to keep supporting it into the future.

“Tonight is the two-year anniversary of the adoption of the 2020 plan,” board member Sean Creighton said. “You’ve done incredible work, and our job is to ensure you have the resources [to make] PBL something that permeates the [school] culture in 2020.”

2020 successes

Two years into establishing a more applied, multidisciplinary, student-driven educational model, Basora told the board, it’s the district’s 51 teachers who have been doing the heavy lifting to ensure their students’ success. And small improvements can be seen in work on the plan’s six priorities to (1) ensure student success in life, (2) create an innovative teaching/learning model, (3) develop high performing and diverse staff, (4) fund the future, (5) improve the learning infrastructure, and (6) explore new institutional structures.

Specifically, in alignment with student success, the district has increased both intervention and enrichment efforts by providing daily academic labs for all students, the impact of which was reflected in a small increase in Ohio Achievement and Graduation Test scores in some content areas for students in grades 4–12. The district has also seen an uptick in graduation rates for 2011 (95.3 percent) and 2012 (98 percent), as well as advanced placement course offerings and improved AP test scores in those courses, Basora showed in a chart tracking standardized test scores of Yellow Springs students in AP English, biology, U.S. History, physics, calculus and art portfolio.

Toward the development of civic engagement skills (for life success) and creating a new teaching/learning model, teachers have used PBL to foster group collaboration and provide peer feedback on draft work. Teachers have modeled the behavior as well by collaborating with each other, sharing ideas and providing constructive feedback on new teaching methods. Teachers have been no less busy implementing the federally mandated Common Core standards into their PBL projects, particularly as the new state teacher evaluation system will now be based partly on student achievement. The district must find ways to give teachers more time to help each other to develop strategies to meet all of these goals at once, Basora said.

“Teachers are collaborating at high levels … It’s one of the most effective things we’re seeing, and we need more time for this.”

In search of better technological infrastructure, the district applied unsuccessfully for a grant that would help purchase new lap tops for students, and is still seeking to move toward one computer for every student. The district also launched its Massively Open Online Course offerings this year with electronic courses on business strategies and microeconomics.

Regarding student culture, the high school established a student review board to address disciplinary actions and held all-school assemblies to work on group collaboration. Mills Lawn created a new social inclusion policy to further an anti-bullying environment.

Challenges for the 2020

The district has encountered some challenges in implementing the strategic plan. The district’s intervention effort for struggling students has not been as robust as planned and will need money for professional programs to yield results, Basora said. The achievement gap based on racial divisions has been a stubborn thorn to pull, and finding strong candidates for teaching positions who represent the ethnic diversity of the student body has been a challenge. Finally, more parent engagement events to publicize PBL are needed.

Also, the ultimate goal to become a demonstration center for outside teachers and schools would require that the district hire a half- to full-time advancement director ($25,000–$40,000), a full-time internship coordinator ($40,000–$60,000), a half-time PBL instructor/demonstration center leader ($30,000–$40,000), and additional tech support staff with additional funds for tech purchases ($80,000). The district already uses the services of part-time PBL teacher-mentor Kate Cook from the Dayton STEM School, but the position is currently supported by YSCAPE, the district’s private advancement fund.

Taking the plan day by day

The district accepts that failures are a necessary part of the curricular transformation, and both the board and the administration encourages teachers and students to keep trying new things. Basora intoned a quote from playwright Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” he said, also pushing the board to see the initial hurdles as stepping stones to a more effective and contemporary education system.

On the bright side, Basora said, the district has a balanced budget, with salary and benefit costs under the target 80 percent of revenue, and expects to remain cash positive through the 2016–17 school year. And he calculated a formula that could possibly bring in more revenue: $45,000 annual growth through YSCAPE, $160,000 annual increase if local property values increase by 5 percent rather than the currently budgeted 3 percent, and $130,000 annual revenue from user fees if Yellow Springs manages to mold itself as a demonstration center.

According to board President Benji Maruyama, who attended a demonstration high school as a youth, becoming a demonstration center could also motivate students and teachers to do better work and to value their work more highly, generating a “virtuous circle” of sustained improvement.

“The more you set yourself up as a demonstration center, the more you try to improve yourself, and the more you attract parents and faculty who are engaged,” Maruyama said.

The invigoration will work to attract strong students as well, Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh said.

And students are already excited about some of the projects they are engaged in, according to fifth-grade teacher Sara Amin, who said that on the most recent snow day, she received much of their work submitted online through Googledocs.

“Kids are excited about what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re learning through their experiences and their failures.”

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