One giant leap

Santa Fe pioneers of redesign in USD 373

Kelly Breckunitch Newton Kansan @KansanBreck
Students at Santa Fe 5/6 Center write clues about themselve in an interest-based study group — part of the redesign focused on helping prepare kids for post-secondary success.


Three district schools — Chisholm Middle School, Slate Creek Elementary and Santa Fe 5/6 Center — were included in the Gemini I group of the Kansans Can School Redesign Project, but only one of those schools has officially debuted its new learning structure as of this school year.

While both CMS and Slate Creek are in the midst of pilot projects, Santa Fe put its redesigned educational model into place this school year, though it wasn't required until 2019-2020. Santa Fe is the first to launch in the Newton school district.

Like the previous two schools highlighted in this series, Santa Fe's redesigned look is focused on similar key areas — personalized learning, relationships, social/emotional responsiveness, citizenship and shared investment.

"We kind of kept coming back to skills that will help them when they graduate high school and they're out into the work force — being able to work as a team, being able to overcome a problem that maybe doesn't have an easy solution — and we started looking at what we wanted to do from there," said Jennifer Duncan, sixth grade teacher and redesign team member.

A morning following one of Santa Fe's students helped highlight how those key elements are being implemented in the school, starting with the interest-based learning groups. These groups meet three times a week, with an extended session on Fridays.

Fifth-grade student Cooper Smith started his Friday in the Crimes and Investigations group — honing his detective skills as he interrogated classmates to find out their favorite animal, color, food and book, trying to match them to the set of clues he had received.

Group leader Maria Loewen noted as students progress in the quarter, they will analyze the evidence of crime scenes and try to solve the scenarios while honing their observation and science, as well as some psychology skills. The idea behind the groups stems from one of the overall Kansans Can goals of post-secondary success — with the interest-based group intended to teach life skills that will help students with career readiness after high school. Other groups offered cover topics like graphic novels, cooking and calculations, robotics, etc.

Returning to his homeroom, Smith and his classmates then launched into a lab with invisible ink that blended lessons on multiple subjects -- including math, science and social studies-- with a focus on the addition of fractions with equations traded between groups.

Both Smith's teacher, Kirstyn Pracht, and Santa Fe principal (and his mother) Jen Smith noted the Summit Learning model that has been implemented in the redesign helps facilitate that collaboration of subject matter and gets at the personalized learning that is another core of Santa Fe's new look.

"That's what we want," Jen Smith said. "It's helpful with this platform."

Student-directed learning, which followed the lab, was another part of that shift to a personalized learning focus. That has been streamlined through Summit, which pulls from multiple subject areas for learning resources — for both teacher and student. Having lesson plans already built-in — for example — was helpful for Pracht, who came to Santa Fe midyear.

New lesson structures have also created a new learning dynamic. While there are student goals and target deadlines for certain subject assessments, there is a fluidity to the grading as well. Classwork is broken into projects, focus areas and additional focus areas. The projects touch on the focus areas of each subject — meaning students are not completely, solely self-directed — and even once assessments are complete students have the opportunity to go back and enhance their learning in specific areas if they so choose.

"They can correct stuff from August all the way until the end of the year. So, any grade they don't like they can go back and change it," Pracht said. "We don't even teach towards a quiz or a test or anything."

Additional focus areas are also not required to be completed, meaning students can complete all of those lessons or none of them — depending on their progress in the core focus.

Currently, Pracht's class is working on a trading card project on the Revolutionary War. Focus areas under that project include the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and more. Progress on focus area assessments is monitored by Pracht and, additionally, she pointed out that if one is not passed, she will give the students additional guidance.

On top of that, that process of trial and error is something she said helped foster more skills among students — namely taking notes.

Duncan said she, too, has seen the students adjusting in the second semester when it comes to Summit. In her third year of teaching, she noted she is seeing a big difference in how students are reacting to learning under the redesign. Jen Smith heard that first-hand from her son, Cooper, as well — who admitted he preferred the tech-oriented Summit model as compared to traditional pencil and paper learning.

While Summit Learning has generated some feedback from parents — namely when it comes to screen time and the mentoring aspects — observation of a normal day in the classroom illustrated limited screen time (one out of the first four hours) and a teacher who was constantly working with and helping her students through self-directed learning time, encouraging peer mentoring as well.

As with any new learning model, there will be bumps and bruises along the way in implementation, but to re-engage students in their own education, so far the mission has been a success in the eyes of Santa Fe staff — and they will continue monitoring so it keeps benefitting kids.

"My feeling is if you're really looking at what you're doing, then you're going to be looking at how you can change things all the time," Jen Smith said. "Kids are changing, the jobs are changing; we should always be looking at what we're doing so we can change."

"Looking at the big picture, I think we made the right decision because kids today don't learn the way that I did. They don't learn the same way that they even did 10 years ago," Duncan said. "I think redesigning and meeting kids where they are, and preparing them for life after high school, is probably the most important part of what we're doing because they're going to be able to be successful later on, long after they leave us."