081518-cr-schools
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Pictured are the five school principals in the Woodland Park School District. In the bottom row, from left, are Ashley Lawson and Katie Rexford; top row, from left are Kevin Burr, Yvonne Goings and Veronica Wolken. Photo by Pat Hill

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It’s a new day in the Woodland Park School District. With a new superintendent, Steve Woolf, and a reorganized staff, the year is starting off on the right foot.

A chat with the five WPSD principals highlights an educational philosophy intended to trickle down to the students. To be sure, testing continues, but the district is working to make marking the answers, if not enticing, at least more educationally palatable — and effective.

“If we continue to head down age-old pathways that are no longer relevant to kids then we’re not handling our role as educators very well,” said Kevin Burr, interim principal at Woodland Park High School.

Burr compared the disruption to a white board. “If you can imagine erasing a board and starting over, we’re just making sure we don’t let prior paradigms or prior restraints control how we act,” he said. “That shouldn’t be considered in any way, shape or form disparaging to anybody, because in 35 years as an educator, I’ve changed a whole bunch.”

But the goal is to re-engage the students. “We really do want to put kids in charge of their learning,” Burr said. “Our job is to make sure we are meeting the students’ needs, not forcing them to adapt to a culture that may not be comfortable for them.”

Recognition took off last year when Woodland Park Middle School was one of 12 middle schools nationwide to be honored as a Summit Learning Spotlight School for its use of personalized learning practices. “We’ve been chosen to be a spotlight school because of our performance and the growth mindset of our staff,” said Yvonne Goings, the school’s principal.

Summit Learning Platform focuses on collaboration among students and learning through projects with auxiliary benefits. “It’s about what we need to be a good citizen, a good person and what habits of success we need, not just in math or English class but in life,” Goings said.

Along with the award, Goings and her staff can offer feedback on the philosophy. “We have a voice in changing education nationwide,” she said. “While we’re still holding true to standards and high expectations, behaviorally and academically, the kids are passionate about what they’re learning.”

While “mindset” is the new buzz word, the implications of allowing students to be the educational drivers are far-reaching. “We really want to get to a place where kids demonstrate what they know, that real experience is much more relevant than the traditional academic homework/test,” Goings said. “We are willing to take risks in our learning, willing to fail, knowing that we take that failure and grow from it.”

Like the middle school, Summit Elementary earned national recognition as a National Title I Distinguished School, a reflection of the educational seeds planted in previous years by Principal Katie Rexford.

To implement the strategy of collaborative learning, the school has combined its third and fourth grades, decreasing the number of students in each classroom. Also, Summit’s curriculum includes Project Learning Tree, an extracurricular study of natural and environmental science.

Ashley Lawson, principal of Gateway Elementary, views the new model of collaborative learning, the growth mindset, as an educational incubator. “This is what’s going to save the nation,” she said.

Gateway’s Think Tank curriculum reflects the move toward personalized learning, a project Lawson launched three years ago. “Every year the projects get a little more sophisticated as students become more adept at research,” she said. “That’s where we really see the difference.”

Supported by data, Lawson has implemented a testing program based on the individual student — unlike historically, when all students took a test on the same day, ready or not. “We’re going to start (students) where they are and move them as far as we possibly can,” she said.

Along with enhanced academics, Gateway has new flooring, murals and furniture. “The improvements physically reflect the excitement we feel,” Lawson said.

Known for its environmental programs, WPSD offers hands-on outdoor classrooms at Aspen Valley Ranch in Woodland Park. Columbine Elementary enhances students’ education with master classes given by various professionals in the community.

With a trail on the school grounds surrounded by trees and vegetation, Columbine provides an outdoor classroom for teaching natural science. “Columbine has everything to brag about,” said Principal Veronica Wolken.

Perhaps the most apparent change is at the high school where Burr has appointed a new leadership team: Cindy Gannon will continue as one of two assistant principals, with Karen Hamlow recently hired as the other assistant principal.

Dean of student services, a new position, is filled by Sara Lee, who will also serve as the school’s activities director.

Joe Roskam joins the leadership team as athletic director while continuing to coach football and teach. Tina Cassens continues her position as the director of secondary schools.

“We’ve restructured the team to move intentionally toward an emphasized approach to changing instructional models,” Burr said.

School begins Aug. 22.

Pikes Peak Courier Reporter

Pikes Peak Courier Reporter

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