Embrace the ‘beta’

September 7, 2016
SAI September Report

West Des Moines Community School District

Article contributors: Lisa Remy, Laurene Lanich, Justin Miller and Sheila Hudson, West Des Moines CSD

The 2015-16 school year ushered in exciting changes at four schools in the West Des Moines Community School District. These schools joined the New Tech Network and began a Project-Based Learning approach. The shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning environments has presented opportunities and challenges. The student outcomes and opportunities brought about by PBL has WDMCS excited about what the future holds for their New Tech learners and facilitators.

Our journey started by collecting and analyzing data. The district conducted a vision survey with students over several years. We found that as students progressed through our system, their level of engagement decreased. The superintendency looked for ways to directly address this issue. In addition, we began conversations with business and community leaders. Through these conversations, they shared a need in the workforce for independent thinkers with a growth mindset about themselves and others, and who are able to work collaboratively and problem solve in the work environment. After the data analysis and these conversations, exploratory groups from the district including parents, business and community leaders, teachers, board members, and district and building administrators went on several site visits to New Tech schools around the country. It became apparent that if we wanted to execute PBL in WDMCS, a partnership with NTN would help achieve this goal. Two elementary schools and a 7th grade team at each junior high joined the work of NTN and shifted into the PBL environment.

In a rebranding process, Clive Elementary became Clive Learning Academy and Crestview Elementary became Crestview School of Inquiry. At Indian Hills and Stilwell Junior Highs, we created a school within a school model with one team per grade level
as a New Tech team. This school year we added 8th grade teams at both junior highs. We will expand the New Tech program by one grade level each subsequent year, keeping the school within a school model. Over time, we will have the New Tech PBL option available to learners in Kindergarten through 12th grade.

We realigned our resources to commit to PBL and student engagement. We looked at creative ways to align our limited resources to our priority areas including PBL. Administrators, district leaders and teachers took part in a multi-phased pro- fessional development program set by NTN. Training is critical to the success of PBL. The result of committing to ongoing professional learning for our teaching and administrative staff sent a message that WDMCS is invested in PBL not only in dollars, but through continued support and professional learning that focuses on collaboration, problem solving, creativity and student learning outcomes. The climate and culture necessary for the success of PBL began with clear and consistent communications from the superintendency, school board, and district and building administrators. We created an environ- ment which made it safe for teachers, administrators, and students to take risks in their teaching and learning. PBL implementation is a journey, not an event. It takes a cultural shift and a team approach at all levels to make it work.

We invested in technology. Students in the New Tech program have 1:1 access to devices. We discovered this past year that students are no longer limited to the technology knowledge base of their teacher(s) and are now functioning in a beta state because we are no longer able to keep up with the array of authentic 21st century learning and the technology avail- able to assist in that learning. Teachers have learned to jump in and embrace the “beta” while creating a framework of learning and focus. Professional learning, technology, and connections with businesses and community have supported a transformational educational shift that includes moving from teaching to facilitation, and the increased opportunities for students to own their learning in authentic ways.

Moving students through increasing levels of independence and self-direction while addressing critical knowledge, problem solving, creativity and skills development are our goals. Students from our schools reflect, “I feel like we’ve grown so much as students and people,” said Joe Maxwell, a seventh-grader at Stilwell Junior High School. “It helps you find your talents and what you’re good at and enjoy, and your group helps you find a way to make that successful.”

Seventh-grader Levi Janssen said he retains information better through the New Tech program by applying what he has learned instead of memorizing facts for a test. He said it’s effective because “students are tasked with finding the answers to a problem or situation themselves, instead of being told what works. Plus, it’s fun, I feel the projects are something that would actually matter or change something and make a difference.”

We will continue to accomplish our goals through authentic PBL. We are excited to continue our journey through New Tech Network and project-based learning.

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