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Schools open to a new future

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Especially when it comes to the education of the community’s children, change is scary. But according to McKinney Middle School teacher Aurelia Blake, it is also an enormous opportunity to turn the things in the Yellow Springs schools that currently don’t work very well into academically stimulating experiences designed around the strengths and interests of individual students.

Blake is one of the 13 teachers, parents, school staff and community members on the district’s 2020 strategic planning committee who this month will initiate a community-wide process to design the future of Yellow Springs schools. The aim is to define values and mission and then create a curriculum that meets the needs of a fast-paced and high-tech generation of youth who are now beginning to populate the school system.

The 2020 plan started last fall with a series of workshops by KnowledgeWorks, whose researchers presented contemporary education models. Over the winter the schools sponsored a series of films and speakers to expand villagers’ thoughts about education. Now it is time to craft a new foundation for Yellow Springs schools.

“We’ve seen other communities’ version of the future, and now it’s time to design our version,” school board member and 2020 committee member Benji Maruyama said.

Many factors contribute to the decisions that get made, including the financial limitations of a small district, committee member Steve Conn said last week. But with that also comes the huge advantage of being nimble and bold about what kind of schools the community wants to support, he said.

“To what extent to do we want the school to continue offering a comprehensive K–12 education,” he said, for instance. “Do we want a particular focus? To what extent can the rest of the community take ownership of this process…and in more integral ways, how do parents help take charge of their children’s education?”

Blake sees that regardless of our level of preparedness, today’s students are forcing change on an education system that is based on the antiquated notion of a one-room school house with a common bell schedule and uniform lessons for everyone, she said. The current system is problematic because it is based on a “paradigm that says this is what students are expected to know, and this is the timeline from beginning to end, like an assembly line,” Blake said.

But today students have so many choices and immediate access to people and ideas across the world, that learning in a box may no longer make sense, she said. The exciting thing to Blake is that with the right use of technological tools, a teacher in Yellow Springs could help a student to learn Mandarin online, perhaps with the help of a community member who speaks the language. Or instead of reading the expensive paper textbooks students were reading 20 years ago, a self-guided student interested in Sufism could instead get language arts credit for reading Middle eastern poetry found online, she said.

The goal, Blake is clear to add, is certainly not to replace teachers with computers.

“The fear is, you say it’s all tech and forget human contact…but the heart and mind have to connect, and that’s the value of having good teachers with insight in their area of expertise,” she said. “It takes those kinds of people to turn on the brain and turn students onto the possibilities.”

Greater technological capacity could also allow students to learn in the manner that best suits them, Blake said. Multiple intelligences is not a new concept, but public schools haven’t yet found ways to teach successfully for a variety of learning modes. But with greater flexibility about how education occurs, students could go from reading Shakespeare (“Who wants to READ Shakespeare?” Blake said) to putting on a stage production, that would touch students on multiple levels and allow them to learn not only literary skills but also presentation, art and leadership.

Of course, the scary part is that students could be given credit for work or an unfamiliar online course that doesn’t fulfill part of the curriculum, Blake said. But the system needs to be designed so that students are supervised to create a well-rounded curriculum for themselves.

None of these scenarios are in the future plan, but they are all possibilities to include in a new curriculum to be shaped this spring by the community. All of the possibilities are on the table for debate, Conn said, starting in April with a flexible process facilitated by Wright State’s Center for Urban and Public Affairs. For the initial meetings, according to CUPA project manager Jack Dustin, his staff will randomly select from the school and wider community three groups of 12 parents and teachers to talk about the foundation of a local education. They might discuss, for instance, how participants see the schools changing, or how they feel children learn best. Other questions could be, what do parents want their children to have learned when they finish school? What kinds of skills does the community want its youth to acquire?

From those meetings, the committee will shape more questions and discussion points for a second wave of three small discussion groups, followed by a large group public forum in May, and a community-wide random-selection phone survey. The process is flexible, and can change in response to the information collected, Dustin said. But the principle is to reach as many people as possible to generate a truly public pool of values on which to base a strategic plan for the schools, he said.

The end result should be a draft of the district’s goals, principles and objectives submitted by late May, Dustin said, which are the components the school community will need to make the strategic plan operational. The cost of CUPA’s management services is $17,000, which includes 20 trips to Yellow Springs and a written document.

To put the plan into action, school board member Benji Maruyama said, an additional 100 people have volunteered to create committees to guide the actions identified, such as possibly a treasurer committee on finance or raising revenue, or a committe to shape teacher recruiting, retention and compensation, or to look at particular education models.

“I hope this process gathers a diversity and density of stakeholder perspective, as well as expectations to help inform the development of a plan that sets goals and actions for the future,” school board President Sean Creighton wrote in a recent e-mail. “I hope that the process enables us to create a culture of teaching and learning that is equitable, achievable, measurable, and worthy of significant investment and serves as a model for sustaining public education.”

For Conn, the school administration deserves a lot of credit for taking the initiative to plan for the future in a difficult fiscal environment.

“In a lot of places it’s the budgetary tail wagging the curricular dog,” he said. “But we want to get in front of that and turn it into something more forward thinking.”

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