Seven Kansas districts – including one led by Wichita’s previous superintendent – plan to overhaul two of their schools as part of a state effort to redesign education.
Officials announced the participating districts Tuesday during the Kansas Board of Education meeting in Topeka. The Kansas Can School Redesign project is seen as a first step toward transforming the way public schools work.
The participating districts are Coffeyville, Liberal, McPherson, Olathe, Stockton, Twin Valley and Wellington. Olathe, the state’s second-largest school district, with about 30,000 students, is led by former Wichita superintendent John Allison.
Officials are referring to the project as a “moonshot” to revamp schools, with pilot-project schools serving as models for other districts.
“It’s really going to turn this whole thing we think about school, and it’s going to invert it,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson.
“It’s a very ambitious time frame. It’s fraught with all kinds of problems. … But we have to do it,” he said. “We’re not producing enough students with the skill set that allows most of them to seek middle-class employment.”
As part of the pilot project, each of the seven districts will redesign one elementary and one secondary school around five outcomes established by the state board: social-emotional growth, kindergarten readiness, individual plans of study, graduation rates, and post-secondary attendance and completion.
The vision emphasizes non-academic skills such as problem-solving, collaboration and communication as much as or more than traditional academics and test scores.
Twenty-nine districts applied for the project. The seven selected represent a wide range of public schooling in Kansas, Watson said, including large districts such as Olathe, as well as Stockton, which has about 320 students.
Two full-time Kansas Department of Education officials will shepherd the project, Watson said. Other than that, changes will happen with existing resources.
Allison, who addressed the state board Tuesday on behalf of Olathe schools, said redesigning schools is critical to preparing students for the future.
“If we’re going to be successful moving forward, our schools can’t look tomorrow like they did when I was in school,” Allison said. “Because if they do, we’re destined to fail our students.”
Watson said redesigns could look vastly different depending on the schools and districts.
Some could change the way students are grouped, abandoning the traditional age- and grade-based model for more of a “one-room schoolhouse” approach, he said. A secondary school might overhaul the way it offers math or language arts credits, letting students meet requirements through more project-based courses.
“We’re getting ready to do something we don’t know of any other state having done,” Watson said. “It’s a whole-systems change, very radical. …. But we’re doing it because we know it’s the right thing to do.”
To be considered for the project, districts had to get approval from their school boards and 80 percent of teachers in the proposed schools. They will develop plans this school year with the promise of launching them for the 2018-19 year.
“When concerns happen we have to listen, we have to adjust, or we have to do something slightly different,” Watson said. “Because schools are innately whatever the parents and communities want.”