District 16 awaiting word on becoming an innovation zone

Spring Lake Park District 16, along with the Farmington Area School District, has applied to the Minnesota Department of Education to become an innovation zone.

Spring Lake Park District 16, in partnership with the Farmington School District, has applied to become an innovation zone. The application to the Minnesota Department of Education included a video titled “A New Design for Education,” calling for a redesign in today’s education model.

Spring Lake Park District 16, in partnership with the Farmington School District, has applied to become an innovation zone. The application to the Minnesota Department of Education included a video titled “A New Design for Education,” calling for a redesign in today’s education model.

“We both are really wanting to look at how can we do a better job of personalizing learning and improving engagement for kids…,” said District 16 Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg in a recent interview.

What the zone is really about is a collaboration between districts approved by the Legislature last year, involving a five-year commitment to partner with another district to look at different ways to improve student learning, Ronneberg said. The pilot project is unfunded.

The project, with state approval, would offer more flexibility and free up the partnering districts from some state mandates, some on the books for years, now outdated, and at times hampering learning, Ronneberg said.

The districts’ application included a video titled “A New Design for Education,” calling for a fundamental redesign in today’s education model.

In a world growing smaller, faster, more competitive and more connected, children are not prepared for today, much less for tomorrow, the video states. “We need a new design, one that customizes learning… connecting learning to our students’ passions” and ensuring excellence and equity for all.

As an innovation zone, Spring Lake Park and Farmington school districts would design a continuous progress system, allowing students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow for more creativity among staff and an increase in meeting the unique needs of each student.

Early stages

Ronneberg and Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, are already collaborating on transforming learning through personalized, digital learning initiatives, such as giving nearly all students access to such technology learning devices as iPads.

Back in about December 2010 when Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was superintendent of East Metro Integration District, an east metro consortium of schools, Cassellius, Haugen and Ronneberg started looking more deeply into education innovation, according to Ronneberg.

To date, District 16 has made no decisions on innovation zone initiatives. The district is in the beginning stages of planning.

But should the application be approved, the move would allow for more flexibility for districts. Still, the district would need state approval.

An idea being discussed is implementing a continuous progress model for kids struggling in their learning.

For example, a pilot program of about 20 students could be offered. The program would be voluntary. The district would work with parents.

As the system sits now, a student who hasn’t met first-grade requirements still goes on to second grade.

“Kids learn at different times, with different family situations,” Ronneberg said.

But in the innovative and small pilot program of, say, 20 students, instead of passing a non-reading student on to second grade, the pilot would allow for a pull out program, giving the student more personalized instruction. Staff would work with the student to accelerate his learning with the goal of having him ready for intermediate school at the end of third grade.

More benefits

Among other benefits of the innovation zone:

• Teacher licensure requirements would be eased in approved cases. A licensed teacher with a passion and skill for a certain subject, but not licensed in that particular subject, would be able to work with students.

• Compensatory resources based on free and reduced lunches would go where needed. Now, resources must go to specific sites, despite needs in other schools.

• Title I special education funding would be dispersed where needed. Right now, two schools in the district might have 200 children living in poverty, but the Title I services only go to schools above the district average for those on free and reduced lunches, according to Ronneberg. “We just want to use the money where we need to use it,” Ronneberg said.

• Technology courses could be taught online and offered to both school districts. This could be especially helpful for courses with low registration. Combined classes would make the courses more financially feasible.

Ronneberg emphasizes the innovation zone would be teacher driven.

“What we want to do is create the conditions for our teachers to really think creatively about how they can improve the personalization and engagement of kids and improve learning,” Ronneberg said.

Applications to become an innovation zone were due in the Minnesota Department of Education last month.

LeRoy-Ostrander School District is the only other applicant for the innovation zone project, according to Ronneberg. The K-12 public school, located in southeastern Minnesota, has an enrollment of 300 students.

Nationally, the New York Department of Education offers iZone, with some similarities to Minnesota’s innovation zone goals. West Virginia’s Department of Education also offers an innovation zone to provide more flexibility to districts and to encourage community partnerships. Both programs are funded.

State approval for District 16 and Farmington District’s innovation zone application is anticipated for the first week in April.

To view the video “A New Design for Education,” visit http://youtu.be/4We08G2teak.

Elyse Kaner is at elyse.kaner@ecm-inc.com

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