‘Courageous conversations’ about Kansas education

12/07/2011 5:00 AM

12/07/2011 6:17 AM

Envision a system where children start learning well before kindergarten, where they gather skills they need for the workplace, where ethnic and poverty-related achievement gaps are history and where families and policy-makers support education with time and funding.

That’s what participants in the Kansas In Question symposium at Century II on Tuesday hoped the future holds.

A few pointed to more specific, controversial changes, such as longer school days, year-round school, merit-based pay for teachers and consolidated school districts.

“We need to take action not just in this meeting, but where it goes from here,” said John Fast, superintendent of the Goessel school district.

“We need to take action not just up in Topeka but back to our communities. … It’s up to us.”

The symposium was held to explore the future of Kansas after celebrating its first 150 years.

Kansas Board of Regents president Andy Tompkins launched the discussion with a brief history of education in Kansas, which existed well before official statehood.

He launched the discussion with a few questions:

Should we continue to push students toward four-year colleges, or put a greater emphasis on technical education?

Are school districts wedded to the agrarian calendar?

How can our education system meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind act, which requires all students to meet proficiency standards in math and reading by 2014?

“We in this room have the potential to affect the education of our citizens for the next 150 years,” Tompkins said. “Keep in mind what the citizens of 2161 might say about you.”

About 150 participants spent most of the session in small-group discussions, talking about what matters most in education, what makes progress difficult and what signs of progress they’ve seen in the past decade.

Ryan Ausmus, director of the adult learning center at Dodge City Community College, noted that the Hispanic population in many western Kansas school districts has ballooned over the past several decades, but how to teach Hispanic children and serve their families is still a challenge.

“Twenty-five years from now, I don’t want that to be the conversation any longer,” he said. “Our future as a state is dependent upon their success.”

Skip Ward, an instructor at Fort Hays State University, said participants at his table “hope that we change the conversation that we’ve been talking about forever” and that schools learn to embrace and master emerging technology.

Speakers earlier in the symposium pointed to data that showed only one in five households in Kansas have school-age children.

“How do we sell that education is as important as it was … when I went to school?” said Fred Marten, superintendent of the Onaga school district in northeast Kansas. “How do we convince the Legislature that education is … not just a black hole they appear to feel they’re putting more money into all the time?”

Asked what “courageous conversations” Kansans need to have about education, Hillsboro schools Superintendent Steve Noble pointed to a perpetual dilemma:

“We tend to dump on public schools and say it’s their job to feed kids, it’s their job to provide dental care, it’s their job to provide day care, it’s their job to provide after-school care,” he said. “Yet, if we didn’t do that, then what? … So we’re in a Catch-22 as to some of those core issues.”

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