Northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith schools pursue new education models

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

It is no secret that education systems in the 21st century faces an ever-increasing pressure to keep pace with the pace of change. And while students and teachers have seen changes in technology in the classroom, it is nothing compared to what some area schools are starting to implement and on a wide scale.

Springdale Public Schools is getting closer to the fall opening of a new School of Innovation, which Principal Joe Rollins said is an idea that "is actually very simple."

"We're trying to deliver what we see as a 21st century education by delivering the tools to our kids and making it as personable as possible," he said.

The school will begin with a cohort of eighth graders in August and will use what Rollins called a "blended learning environment" to teach students in a new way. Students will have access to tutorials and online access to teachers and advisors, as well, even if the student happens to be out sick or away for an extracurricular activity.

"It allows for flexibility throughout the day, so you can spend more time on certain things and move at your own pace," he said, adding that students will also have online access to teacher lectures day or night.

With educators and guidance counselors so involved, Rollins said they will create "whole learner" profiles for students that will provide more in-depth advisory between the student and counselors they will begin eighth grade with following all the way through to graduation.

And even though the School of Innovation will be a high school, students will have the opportunity to earn college credit from NorthWest Arkansas Community College through concurrent classes, which Rollins said would lead to some students "graduating with an associates degree at the same time as their high school diploma."

The school, to be housed at the Jones Center for Families, is partially funded through a $25.9 million federal Race to the Top grant, which Rollins said has assisted in some technology acquisition necessary to outfit each of the school's incoming students with laptop computers to be used for project-based learning and out of class study.

And even though it will use methods not common in traditional learning environments, Rollins said the state testing requirements will be no different for the School of Innovation than to any other school.

The creation of the School of Innovation could also alleviate the need for the construction of a third traditional high school for the district in the near future, though Rollins said with the School of Innovation enrolling 200 students per year, it will itself be a large school once peak enrollment takes place in five years, maxing out at 1,200 students.

OTHER SCHOOL MOVES
Springdale is just one local district looking at ways to innovate for the 21st century. Rogers and Van Buren launched "New Tech" high schools within their respective districts that focus on project-based learning "heavily infused with technology."

And in Fort Smith, the school district is not waiting until students enter high school to introduce technology and project-based learning to the classroom. According to Dr. Barry Owen, assistant superintendent for instructional services, the district will introduce a one to one computer initiative with three pilot schools — Ramsey Junior High, Morrison Elementary School and Sunnymede Elementary School.

Owen said the program will place computers in the hands of every student at the three schools and would shift focus from textbook-based teaching to technology based learning.

Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Schools, told a gathering of educators at Thursday's (June 5) Partners in Education event that waiting until students were in secondary grades to make an attempt at innovation would simply not cut it when educating the leaders of tomorrow.

"The instructional use of technology is our future," he said. "Some who are pursuing initiatives like this are focusing on only high schools or only on the middle grades, but as you know, that may be a short-sighted approach because by engaging our youngest students, we position them for many years of life-long effective learning."

In making the case, he disputed assertions that what has worked or is being attempted in other districts should be tried in Fort Smith.

"Sometimes I am challenged by those who have read an article or saw a news clip on television or read something on the Internet about some new and supposedly innovative initiative and they tell me we ought to quickly adopt that and board the train to the future. However, anyone who sees what you're doing now must realize that you're on a steady pathway that's reaching students in every school to provide new and rich learning experiences to make them college and career ready."

‘CLOSE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE’
As a way of introducing the pilot program to be introduced next year, Gooden introduced Dr. Scott Smith, chief technology officer at the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, who literally wrote the book on one-to-one technology-based learning and whose model Fort Smith is largely based upon.

Smith said the introduction of technology to students at all levels (third grade through high school) had allowed the district to "close the digital divide," leveling the playing field and giving students access to relevant instruction, though he said what Mooresville did and what Fort Smith will do in the fall is not simply about using technology for technology's sake.

"We joke a little bit and say, 'OK, we drank the Kool Aid,' but we are all in because it's best for kids. What does it look like for us? Again, it's not a technology project. It's an instruction change effort in terms of changing that teaching and learning environment. We put that meaningful instructional tool in the hands of every student."

Smith said instructors can be precise and meet the needs of each student through the technology.

The cost for Mooresville is about $1.50 per student per day and Smith said test results show that the district is getting a good return on investment, adding that while the results are "not miraculous," they do show steady improvement.

He pointed to a variety of examples, though the biggest improvement came in terms of academic achievement, with Mooresville ranked number two in the state in the 2011-2012 school year, where before the one-to-one initiative the district ranked in the middle of North Carolina's more than 100 school districts.

Owen said past attempts at innovation in Fort Smith have included participation in the Western Arkansas Technology Center at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, which the school has participated in since its creation in 1998. He said that as many as 200 students are participating in the program from Fort Smith in half-day increments — attending a Fort Smith high school for half the day and UAFS for the other half of the day.

And much like how School of Innovation Students could earn an associates degree at the same time as a high school diploma, Owen said the same thing often happens for participating students in Fort Smith.

LOOK AT MODELS THAT HOLD PROMISE
Attempts by various Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith area school districts to innovate, whether it be by implementing the "new tech" program, creating the School of Innovation or focusing on technology-based learning with younger students, education advocates are applauding local efforts.

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"Innovative traditional school district leaders in Arkansas are finally acknowledging that public education is not either/or, but all," said Gary Newton, president and CEO of Arkansas Learns, a private sector alliance dedicated to excellence in education.

He said the continuing innovations in public schools proves that "one size or method doesn't fit all."

"When public education focuses on the best interests of individual students, instead of protecting the self interests of collective delivery systems, students, families and communities win."

As for what educators and administrators can do in other districts to innovate and adapt, Rollins said they have to figure out what being a 21st century school looks like for their communities.

"This particular model holds promise," he said of the School of Innovation. "I think this is something they should look at and see if it is something they can apply to their own districts."

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