Colorado Springs D-11 selected to help develop ways to meet new graduation guidelines for 'next generation learning'

July 13, 2014 Updated: July 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm
photo - Kindergartners at Trailblazer Elementary School participate in video conferencing. Courtesy photo.
Kindergartners at Trailblazer Elementary School participate in video conferencing. Courtesy photo.  

Along with mastering shoelace tying, kindergartners who do activities like Skype with students in a classroom in another country, exchange emails and figure out their similarities and differences will be more ready for college or the workforce after graduating from high school.

At least that's the thought these days, as policy makers push for changing the familiar teaching and learning landscape and moving to new educational models.

"It's our responsibility to make children employable when they graduate, and not everything we did 20 years ago is necessary now," said Denise Rubio-Gurnett, principal at Trailblazer Elementary School in Colorado Springs School District 11.

D-11 is one of three districts statewide selected to help develop ways to meet new graduation guidelines the State Board of Education approved in May 2013.

"D-11 was included because of our vision work around personalized learning and change management," said Jason Ter Horst, assistant superintendent of instruction curriculum and student services.

In the future, instead of passing a series of classes to graduate, students will earn a diploma by demonstrating their competency or mastery of certain skills. Along with academic knowledge, there will be personal, professional, entrepreneurial and civic competencies for students to attain.

The system still will be tied to common academic standards and testing. But schools will need to adopt a more personalized learning approach, which Rubio-Gurnett says makes students responsible for their own learning.

"It empowers students to learn what they're interested in and be more engaged," she said. "They're more of the driver and the teacher the guider. It's teaching them to learn how to be a learner."

The new guidelines won't take full effect for a while; the class of 2021 will be the first to be impacted.

To gear up for the changes, D-11, Adams County School District 50 in Westminster and Thompson School District R2-J in Loveland received grants under the 2014 Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools.

In addition to the districts, the Colorado Department of Education and The Colorado Education Initiative also are involved in the Colorado coalition, which was one of nine groups selected in January - out of 50 candidates nationwide - for grants.

This funding phase is about $14,000 per school, said Scott Fuller, Next Generation Learning coordinator for D-11.

Each of the three Colorado districts will test programs in two schools when the new academic year starts in August. The goal is to design "next generation learning."

Teachers and administrators from all six schools are meeting in Denver Monday and Tuesday to get to work.

After a rigorous tryout process, D-11 officials selected Trailblazer and Holmes Middle School as the guinea pigs. Schools had to have at least a 40 percent of students receiving the free or reduced lunch program. A dozen D-11 schools applied initially.

"They had to do a readiness survey and assess where they are now and put together their vision for teaching and learning for their school five to 10 years down the road," Fuller said.

Five finalists gave presentations, and an independent panel chose the two winners in May.

"Trailblazer and Holmes clearly came to the front," Fuller said, "because they've been engaged in personalized learning for the past few years and have been making subtle changes. It's great to now accelerate it and have a catalyst to push it forward."

Part of the concept is removing grade levels and ages from the equation and letting kids progress at their own pace, Fuller said, compared with the current system where "if you show up for nine months of school, you typically go through to the next grade."

Instead of the teacher as lecturer, the format is collaborative, inquiry-based and incorporates problem solving, where kids work with and learn from other kids.

Students also will be able to plug in their own interests and goals, Fuller said.

"You can tell the student-led classrooms," he said. "The teacher is not the almighty giver but the manager."

Classrooms also will be free flowing and include different work stations rather than rows of desks. Technology will be a key component.

Students will start building competency portfolios in elementary school, to demonstrate their knowledge as it relates to the real world, Fuller said.

"It's all about preparing students for college and careers," he said. "It's about figuring out how we let kids self-pace and move toward areas of their interests and passions."

The Colorado coalition will find out in January if their designs are approved and schools get funded, about $300,000 per school, to carry out their ideas and share them with other schools.

"We think this is a real game-changer opportunity," Fuller said. "We're really trying to take this to the next level."

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