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MOONSHOT: Liberal schools get chance to reinvent education PDF Print E-mail

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ELLY GRIMM
• Leader & Times


Seven school districts in Kansas were recently announced to take part in the Kansans CAN school redesign project, and USD 480 in Liberal was fortunate to be one of those districts to be chosen. Liberal High School and Meadowlark Elementary School. 

The districts were announced Aug. 8, and there was excitement expressed regarding the project. 

“We’re getting ready to do something we don’t know of any other state having done,” Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson noted in an Aug. 8 press release. “We’re going to deconstruct the traditional school system and build what Kansans believe best meets the needs of today’s students — choice, and, we’re doing all of this with existing resources, no new buildings and the same educators.”

And Watson was not the only one who expressed excitement regarding the project, but USD 480 staff also were happy regarding the announcement. 

“Of course we were thrilled,” USD 480 Superintendent Renae Hickert said. “We were sworn to secrecy for almost a week and we couldn’t tell anyone, which was really hard.”

“Yeah. Maybe a little surprised, but thrilled,” Meadowlark Elementary School Principal Shawna Evans added. “Then came the ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’”

The project came about shortly before the end of the school year at the end of May when USD 480 staff saw tweets from Watson on Twitter. It was not a hard decision to apply for the project, LHS Principal Ashley Kappelmann said. 

“We quickly visited and they had, probably within a couple days of us seeing this tweet, they had a webinar for interested schools to take part in and hear more about it. So a few of us took part in it,” Kappelmann said.

“I think the bigger question was ‘why not?’ We always want to provide the best educational quality for our students, so why not look at doing something like this?” Hickert added. “And it seemed to be the perfect time because here we are at a very historic time in our district with going from 12 or 13 buildings down to seven, getting a fresh start, so why not have a plan like this?”

To begin the whole process, there had to be 80 percent approval from USD 480 schools’ staff along with approval from the USD 480 school board, Kappelmann said. However, the presentation and some other parts were completely up to the applicants. 

“It had a few questions we had to answer like ‘Why do you want to do this?’ and ‘What are you currently doing?’ We wanted to do something to stand out since we knew several schools would be going for this, so we took the approach of talking about individual students,” Kappelmann said of the application. “We talked about the various types of students we have, and that’s why this project is so important, we have such a diverse group of students with a diverse group of needs. So we talked about how redesigning would help us with that. We have students who would gain opportunities from having longer-term projects, we have students who are first-generation college attendees, so there’s so much to be gained from exposing them to those technical skills and all that. And not only the students, but the staff and community and parents as well because this is not just our schools doing this, it’s a community-wide and district-wide effort. We wanted to make sure we highlighted why we need this here. Then we talked about some of the things we’re currently doing, which we’ve been talking about for a while anyway.”

Representatives from the Kansas Department of Education will be visiting the district near the end of the month, which will help give staff more direction of what to expect with the project, and then will be visiting the district every two weeks to see the progress on the planning process. The planning process will take a year, and then the project will be fully put in place for the 2018-19 school year. Overall, staff is excited to put the project in place. 

“For me, it’s education by child. Every child is different, and the whole one size fits all, we’ve known for years that doesn’t work,” Hickert said. “I think this is our opportunity to really look at how are we meeting the needs of every student. For example, if one students wants to be an engineer and understands all the classes an engineer needs, they’ll see the value of taking all of them. And if it turns out that’s not the right direction for them, we can help them have those revelations in high school instead of all the way in college where there’s a lot more stake.”

“Here at the high school, there’s that passion to consider, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of USD 480 graduating students and graduating them to be successful for that next step, but now it’s a matter of are we preparing them for their passion and what they really love and want to do?” Kappelmann said. “Like if a student wants to go into politics, they understand it’s not just taking pictures and doing interviews, there’s research and all sorts of other work, and they’ll stand out since they’ve had those experiences a lot of students aren’t able to have.”

“And then bringing in the community, finding ways to involve them in helping educate our students depending on their passions,” Evans added. “We have a lot of community members who can contribute.”

Both Hickert and Kappelmann said that collaboration will also be a great tool. 

“We typically don’t get to have the opportunity to work so close together and bounce ideas off each other at the different levels, and I can’t wait to do that because there are so many things we would never think about and already ideas sparking,” Kappelmann said. “How often do we really all put our heads together just to think about what we can do for the students? Already when we’ve been talking to students, they light up, and it’s great we can provide that for them. I think it’s going to be really great in making people want to come work in Liberal because we’re doing something no one else is doing. It’s hard work, but if you want to be outstanding at what you do and have it make a different, USD 480 is the place to be.” 

“It’s not just a high school thing, not just an elementary school thing – by default, we’ll even be including the middle schools,” Hickert added. “Even though there’s no middle school redesign, we want to involve them because they’re the link between everything. That collaboration is something I’m very excited about. I would say stay tuned for our progress along the way.”

 

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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association and the Associated Press.

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