Newton's Chisholm Middle School is testing the waters this year. As part of the Gemini I project — the second group of Kansas schools to participate in the statewide redesign initiative with help from the Kansas State Department of Education — Chisholm is expected to officially launch its new look in the 2019-2020 school year, but the Newton middle school is getting a head start by implementing a pilot program this year.

One pod (or 25 percent of the student body) are participating in this year's pilot program focusing on four core areas staff chose to highlight as part of the redesign — exploring (personalized learning), engaging (school culture/family engagement), growing (social/emotional learning) and serving (community service and civic identity). Now halfway through the pilot project, members of the CMS redesign team reported to the school board at its most recent meeting on the progress they are seeing.

Some of the goals outlined by redesign team members — including teachers Kimberly Tate, Monty Graber and Micki Fryhover — include improving Sharing Power and Advocacy survey scores (engage), providing a minimum of two project-based learning experiences for all students (explore), limiting chronic absenteeism among students (grow) and offering all students the opportunity for at least five hours of community engagement during the school day (serve).

Already, the redesign team noted students in the pilot program have taken to many aspects of the educational restructuring — whether it's buying into one of the engagement elements (establishing flex seating in the cafeteria to address numerous issues and help build positive relationships among students) or the enthusiasm they have shown for project-based learning opportunities like Graber's Social Studies class creating artwork to express lessons they learned about the Civil War. All of that was pointed to as evidence that the redesign is doing what staff intended and resparking that interest in learning among students.

"I have seen, throughout my years of teaching, the students become less and less engaged. It's harder to get them excited about school and this was a way for them to see some relevance in school and to make it more personal to them," Tate said. "It wasn't just me talking in the front of the room and telling them what to learn. They're choosing what to learn, they're choosing how to learn, they're making projects, they're being creative and so that's making school a lot more relevant for them. I would do anything I could to make school more relevant to the students."

One of the elements that continues to be honed to best serve students is the social/emotional aspect, as the redesign team noted mentoring time continues to be tinkered with so staff can reach every student, though that is something they expect will be easier when the entire teaching staff is roped into those efforts.

Efforts are also continuing to address another goal of reducing office referrals among students, equipping staff with the training and tools they need to help limit those situations.

"We are really working hard to come up with solutions for our students to stay in class," Fryhover said.

Some of that ties back to mentoring, Graber said, as he noted personally he tries to check in with students each day and monitor their stress level to help curb any issues that might lead to a referral.

Getting the students involved in the community poses some challenges (in terms of limited time and transportation), but given the results staff have seen already through the pilot opportunities — the first such opportunities for some students —they have confidence that will help further promote the personal involvement tied to the redesign.

"Even our toughest kids melt when they're reading to a kindergartner, and that's community service," Graber said. "It doesn't feel like we're stopping for community service, it's just something that we're doing."

Redesign staff continue to look for bigger and better opportunities to engage students in the new system, with a five-year plan lined out to keep that progress going. That will include continued training for staff in certain areas — namely in the social/emotional and personalized learning aspects — as they realize change can be difficult.

Chisholm, like Santa Fe 5/6 Center, is implementing the Summit Learning model as part of its redesign. With that drawing feedback from local parents, board members asked how CMS is preparing the rest of its teachers for that transition next year. The redesign team stated there will be a weeklong training over the summer on Summit, while the pilot pod has also hosted a number parent nights this year explaining the new learning model.

Adapting to a different way of learning — for all involved — will be a challenge throughout CMS when the redesign goes building-wide, Tate admitted. With the positives staff are seeing in the pilot, though, she is hopeful the redesign will lead to the goals and outcomes being realized and creating a deeper investment in education among students.

"It's a little bit different for the kids to learn this way. They are not used to having so much of their learning be on them. They are in charge of their learning more than they ever have been before, so that's a hurdle for them to understand the importance of the education and how they're a part of it; they're not just watching, they are actually a part of their education," Tate said. "My hope for the redesign, and the whole reason we did the redesign, was to make school relevant to the kids. I hope that kids want to come to school every day, they see why it's important to come to school, they see that they're part of their community and their community is invested in them. I would love for that just to continue to grow throughout the years."