Newton USD 373 is heading in a new direction. That direction has taken definitive shape over the last few years following strategic planning initiatives — with meetings and work sessions involving the board of education, staff and community members helping line out the school district's mission and guiding principles (officially revised this school year) for the next 10 to 20 years.
As it turns out, the Newton school district is on the same path as the Kansas State Department of Education, which led administrative staff to pursue a new opportunity being offered this year — brought to the board for approval at a special meeting Monday night.
Through the Kansans Can School Redesign Project, the KSDE will select seven school districts across the state (one elementary and one secondary school in each) to be redesigned around the vision, five outcomes — social-emotional growth, kindergarten readiness, individual plan of study, high school graduation rates and postsecondary completion/attendance — and definition of a successful high school graduate as identified by the Kansas State Board of Education.
Having principles that stress education be student-centered, promote creativity and collaboration, be technology-rich, promote good stewardship, create a balanced curriculum, ensure safety and security and be flexible, administration within USD 373 felt the district's philosophy already mirrored the state's. Participating in the Kansans Can project would only help further that as USD 373 works to implement its new strategic vision.
"We believe that the vision and work of the district in the past and present positions us for success in the mission to redesign schools and classrooms in Kansas," said superintendent Deb Hamm. "We are ready to accept the challenge and offer our commitment to the work necessary to achieve 'mission accomplished.'"
Applications for the project are due by Aug. 1 and board approval was one of three criteria — along with 80 percent staff support from participating schools and a letter of support from a local professional organization — needed for consideration, on top of a willingness to be a model site for other districts across Kansas throughout the process.
For USD 373, schools meeting the threshold included Slate Creek Elementary, Santa Fe 5/6 Center and Chisholm Middle School. Hamm noted all three will be listed on the application and would begin the first step of a five-phase process in the upcoming school year, with the new school design to be launched the following year before final, total implementation in 2021-2022.
Many of the five outcomes highlighted by the KSDE in the Kansans Can project are already reflected throughout the Newton school district, according to Hamm, from a decade long-commitment to all-day kindergarten to the 16 pathways offered in Career and Technical Education. Along with the implementation of a teacher mentorship program and focus on technological integration in the classroom, there is a certain symmetry to recent efforts by both Newton and KSDE.
"All of those things were added to or in alignment with what we see as our interpretation of the state's vision and outcomes," Hamm said.
Ultimately, the state's vision to lead the world in the success of each student raised some questions among board members. While an ideal goal, to be sure, Matt Treaster questioned how that progress would be measured.
"These are all nice platitudes, but where are we at and where are we trying to get to? It doesn't seem like any of that's in here," Treaster said.
Looking at the outcomes and goals for high school graduates is a focal point, Hamm noted, and where the district schools can look in trying different approaches to achieve better results.
With the district and board already agreeing to move forward with a new strategic vision of its own, given how similar it is to the state's remodeled approach, questions were also raised about why participation in Kansans Can is needed, with board member Renee Erickson asking specifically what the benefits are of having three schools involved as opposed to moving forward with efforts to rework the vision and goals across all district schools.
Resources would be provided (at no cost) by state staff, which Hamm noted would help fine tune the vision, while board member Steve Richards likened it to an engineering environment in that having additional perspectives involved may help trigger more beneficial ideas.
"I see this as being consistent with where we think we are going with our own strategic plan," Richards said. "It's a matter of looking at the issues, zeroing in on the design elements we want to focus on, setting our own goals and criteria within those, figuring out how we're going to measure (them); these are all classic engineering design methodologies that we're outlining here."
Engineering a new approach for district schools is a unique process and while it may be different for each school, Hamm noted there is an interest in having the selected schools (if chosen) share information with the district overall as work continues to implement a new strategic vision locally.
Questions remain about the specifics of that approach and how it will be applied at each school — especially as reconfiguration of the grade structure is still in discussion. While the redesign may not be uniform across each building, Hamm noted there will be a similar philosophy to stick with what works.
"It will be looking at our strengths as a district and working with those to redesign what we're currently doing," Hamm said.
The board voted 4-2 to approve the recommendation of administration and continue with the application for the Kansans Can School Redesign Project.