With t-minus 110 days to launch, staff at Santa Fe 5/6 Center are in the midst of making their final preparations, checking their manifest and making sure they're fueled up, as the school gets ready to boldly go where no Newton school has gone before.
Once the current school year comes to a close, Santa Fe will undergo the final stages of transformation in a redesign process that will see the building offering an entirely new learning experience when it opens it doors again to students on Aug. 16, 2018. To give patrons a taste of what they could expect, the Newton school held a relaunch party on Thursday.
"At the core, for us, it's just about making school relevant and a place where kids want to be," said Santa Fe principal Jen Smith. "More than anything, it's personal to us. These are our kids; these are our grandkids. We want what's best for them, too."
Part of the Gemini I group in the Kansans Can school redesign project, Santa Fe staff have been putting in work through the course of the current school towards shifting the educational landscape to align with the mission of the project — a more student-focused educational system that provides support and resources for individual success through collaboration, moving away from a "one-size-fits-all" model reliant on state assessments.
Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education, spoke to that at Thursday's relaunch party. Watson pointed out that in the history of Kansas, only two models of education (one-room school houses and the current grade/middle/high school hierarchy) have been used. The redesign project was an opportunity to try something new to the benefit of everyone involved in the school system.
"We're looking at maybe a different organization that will meet your needs as parents and grandparents, as well as the needs of kids," Watson said. "It's not that we're doing a bad job, it's that we think we can do a better job for your kids."
From a state perspective, five outcomes (social-emotional growth, kindergarten readiness, individual plans of study based on career interest, high school graduation and post-secondary success) were outlined as key factors in the redesign — though part of the shifting model was also having the students, school staff and community drive the focus from the local level.
Santa Fe staff were very involved in that regard. As part of the second group (after the Mercury 7) folded into the redesign project, there was not as much hands-on involvement from the KSDE (though virtual meetings were held weekly), meaning the ownership of the redesign was very much on the school. While Smith noted that guidance from the KSDE gave Santa Fe a playbook, it was the school's redesign team drawing up all the specific plays.
Members of that team spoke to the areas of focus in the redesign process Thursday night, with Santa Fe highlighting personalized learning, relationships, social-emotional support, personal accountability and citizenship in the restructuring of its learning environment.
Personalized learning will touch on several areas of the curriculum — from pre-testing within subjects to allow for quick advancement (or additional tutoring, if needed) to the opportunity to work in smaller, interest-based enrichment groups every nine weeks. The latter is aimed to engage students in multiple areas — including possible career fields — with potential activities ranging from cooking to sewing to robotics and more.
"What we're looking for is an opportunity for our students to try a variety of activities," said redesign team member Karen McCabe-Juhnke.
Additionally, working in those small groups will help build relationships among students, while Santa Fe is also focused on building relationships between staff and students' families. Trying to improve those relationships, the redesign will allow for "porch visits" prior to the school year so teachers can get to know their students before they come through the doors.
Offering more focused social-emotional support is something redesign team member Perry Winter noted has been in the works for a long time, and the restructure will allow for the entire school to focus on that — with the big goal of reducing office referrals by 50 percent next school year.
Allowing for more staff and more opportunities for check-ins with students is part of the reasoning behind the social-emotional support focus, while team members noted that change while also allow for individual counseling sessions for each student (on a rotational basis, at least three times per nine weeks) and that is an area where the school has seen a lot of community support — with outside agencies like the Harvey County Sheriff's Office and Safehope wanting to come in and talk to students about positive social-emotional behaviors.
Check-ins are not being lined out just for social-emotional support, but also as part of the implementation of personal accountability. Students will be given time each morning for student mentoring to discuss long and short-term educational goals with peers, as well as having that same opportunity to discuss the bigger picture within the school community.
"It's going to put a lot of the learning and accountability back on them," Smith said. "The things that they're learning, just content-wise, isn't necessarily changing. It's how their learning it. It's learning how to learn, learning how to problem solve, learning the things that they need to know how to do in order to be successful out of school and not being so dependent on us."
Like the idea of building relationships with students and families, the citizenship aspect is meant for the school to build a relationship within the community and encourage a sense of self-worth — through service projects — that the redesign team feels will be a great benefit to the students.
"Basically, the goal through citizenships is to increase their global awareness," said team member Jennifer Duncan. "Solving real world problems really helps develop the real world skills."
Feedback from the community (students, parents, local businesses, etc.) helped shape the areas the redesign focused on in creating more successful students better prepared for the changing cultural landscape, but it was the passion of the Santa Fe staff that really drove the project in getting it ready to launch in the upcoming school year — though the building had until 2020 to implement its changes.
Giving the power of learning back to the students, Smith expects it will be an adjustment for both the kids and the teachers, but Santa Fe staff felt strongly that the time to make a change is now and are excited to begin implementing that in the 2018-2019 school year.
"We are ready for liftoff," said assistant superintendent of instructional services Sheila Wendling.
"This redesign is going to change lives," said Santa Fe leadership team member Megan Nagel, "and we're excited to be a part of it."
Other USD 373 schools involved in the Gemini I redesign project include Slate Creek Elementary and Chisholm Middle School. For more information on the Kansans Can redesign project, visit www.ksde.org.