NESS CITY — In Ness City USD 303’s two school buildings, you won’t find many classrooms where students sit in rows of desks with a teacher lecturing at the front of the room.

In fact, some classrooms do not have traditional school desks at all.

But the approach to learning in this district of about 320 students in a town of about 1,400 people is gaining attention across the world.

The status quo is gone. Thinking outside the box? There is no box.

“As long as that box is there, it is hard for us to change because we can always slink back inside that box and get comfortable,” Superintendent Derek Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt emphasized that idea as the district’s staff prepared for the new school year. On Aug. 17, he had the teachers write on small boxes what they were comfortable with about their classes and also what they were afraid to try.

Then he took them outside, put the boxes in a 50-gallon barrel and lit them on fire.

“Those boxes don’t exist any more,” Reinhardt said. “That was the visual they need to say ‘OK, he’s giving us permission to do things differently.’ ”

Changes started happening three years ago, when Reinhardt came on board as superintendent. The former English teacher said he was the right person for a school board and community ready for change.

“They were doing good things here,” Reinhardt said. “This is a progressive community. It doesn’t want to be wiped off the map like has happened with so many small rural communities.”

One of those changes includes new science classrooms, completed this summer. But it also meant giving teachers freedom.

Ness City Junior/Senior High School industrial education teacher Brent Kerr is one who has run with it. Last year, his mass production class was challenged to create a product that has now gotten worldwide attention.

It all started with a presentation to the students about a year and a half ago. Reinhardt invited educational consultant Kevin Honeycutt of Inman speak to grades seven to 12 about their social media usage.

Honeycutt, a former teacher at Inman who now serves on the school board, is a published author and international speaker on technology, education and cyber-bullying prevention. He is a consultant with ESSDACK, a Hutchinson-based organization providing professional development for educators and services for schools.

“He gave a speech about being a better person and being careful about what you’re putting out on your digital legacy,” Reinhardt said. “We were having some kids make some poor choices.”

The immediate response was positive not only from the students, but from teachers — including grade school teachers who found others to cover their classrooms so they could watch Honeycutt’s presentation.

“It was amazing how that enthusiasm just grew,” Reinhard said.

Throughout last year, Honeycutt and colleagues from ESSDACK traveled to Ness City to work with the staff.

“I got addicted to going out there,” Honeycutt said.

What he found, he said, was a school where teachers were already doing great things and willing to do more. It was just what he was looking for.

“I was looking for a laboratory situation where we could try something new,” he said.

Becoming entrepreneurs

Something new was an entrepreneur class that could create and sell a product he had in mind.

“I was thinking like a modern day steamer chest. My job is on the road constantly and my luggage has to stand up to the airlines,” he said.

Kerr’s mass production class designed and built the GOdium, a cardboard trunk that stores its own sturdy, removable wheels and has room for a traveling speaker’s equipment and even clothes. Stood on end with its lid attached, it becomes a podium. The version Honeycutt uses now is made of plastic and includes lighting and an electrical system.

A map in Kerr’s classroom shows where the GOdium has been, with pins all over the United States and in Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. It even has its own Twitter account, @GoGOdium.

“People are fascinated by this student-designed product everywhere I go, from Hong Kong to Sydney to Canada to China to the UK. It’s a hit because it’s a real thing designed and conceived by students,” Honeycutt said.

Kerr and Ness City Elementary School math teacher Emily Keener even took the GOdium to the iOnTheFuture educational conference in Sydney just before the start of the school year.

“It’s pretty neat to stand by a product my kids have made,” Kerr said of the trip down under. “It almost gives you chills.”

Donations from school vendors covered the airfare, and along the way, the teachers visited Monte Vista Christian School, Watsonville, Calif., one of the top STEM schools in the country.

The GOdium did prove frustrating for some of the students, but that was part of the learning process.

“At first that was a problem because they thought they were done,” Honeycutt said. “School usually teaches kids that we do something and we’re done. But that’s not how business works. That’s not how life really works. Success is iteration — making it over and making it better.”

That’s the force behind project-based learning, the superintendent said.

“What it really comes down to is application,” Reinhardt said. “We’ve gotten so far in education of sit and memorize and here’s the facts and take your test, but we never have the kids apply the knowledge. So as soon as they take the test they forget everything.

“That’s where project-based learning comes in, actually taking the skills and making them apply them and put them in use,” he said.

Those skills will serve the students after graduation, Kerr said.

“What I’m after as the instructor,” he said, “is that the kids leave my class with the ability to go out and start up a business. This is from start to finish. We design a product. We come up with a business plan, we have to market the product. They have to figure cost of material, what their profit is going to be.”

That adjacent learning and letting the students have a stake in the process proved to be a success. After receiving the GOdium, Honeycutt asked the students for a stool that he could easily take apart and pack in the trunk. The students complied, and ESSDECK expressed interest in it. The students created prototypes and made a presentation to the group. ESSDECK ordered 40 of the stools for a maker space.

Reinhardt let the students keep the profits.

“We teach kids spreadsheets but we don’t put their money on them, so it’s not very motivating,” Honeycutt said.

The mass production class has now morphed into an entrepreneur class.

Juniors Blake Horner and Riley Tillitson, who were on the original GOdium team, have modified the stool design and will market the Stadium Stool for tailgaters. Another group in Kerr’s class is planning to sell button-up shirts with the customer’s artwork or photography printed on the fabric. The class as a whole is examining creating portable maker spaces to sell or rent.

Kerr’s construction class is also getting into project-based learning. After making a presentation to the school board, they got approval to build and market a tiny house. Kerr is hoping these projects will help double his class sizes next year and also attract girls to the classes.

Elsewhere in the junior/senior high school, science teacher Matthew Clay’s eighth graders are telling the stories of the country’s national parks. The students are researching the geology, ecology and history of their chosen parks, and designing and executing experiments to test information they discover. They will then share what they learn with fourth graders.

Social studies teacher Dawn Flax admits she is still trying to figure out how to use project-based learning in her classroom, but started last year with having seventh-graders create globes. The students drew grid lines on paper and used latitude and longitude to plot out the continents.

Choice motivates students

It’s not just at the high school where new ideas are in action. Across the street at Ness City Elementary, flexible seating lets students find their own learning space.

In Amanda Buethe’s third-grade classroom, there are none of the typical school desks. Instead, there is a couch and comfortable chairs where students can work on tablets or laptops, learning to code a game. At another table, a small group of students can work together on a craft project related to the day’s lesson, and at another, a student can work on a project with some one-on-one help.

It might look like chaos, but there is structure and a better learning environment, Buethe said.

“The students choose the way they learn. That choice is such a motivator to them,” she said.

Buethe has been teaching for 13 years, the last five here in her hometown. She started in a traditional classroom where she lectured to students sitting in rows. The students appeared to be engaged in the lessons, but Buethe said she now knows better.

“There’s a huge difference between engagement and compliance,” she said. “My kids were extremely compliant, not engaged. They didn’t have any buy-in whatsoever.”

With today’s technology, it’s not necessary for a teacher to lecture, Buethe said.

“They’re carrying around all the information they have in the world in their cell phones,” she said. “They don’t need me to push out information to them.”

Skills lead to learning

A look at state assessment scores for USD 303 might belie the success Reinhardt and the district’s teachers tout.

The Kansas Department of Education shows a drastic difference in assessment scores between the 2012-13 school year and 2014-15 in reading and math.

In 2012-13, for example, 25 percent of Ness City third-graders scored at College and Career Ready level. In 2014-15, that dropped to 16 percent. In third-grade math, scores dropped from 40 percent to 5 percent.

At the high school level in 2012-13, 88 percent of students scored at the College and Career Ready level in reading. That dropped to 39 percent in 2014-15. In math, the scores dropped from 85 percent to 18 percent.

Reinhardt noted the state assessment model changed between those years in how the test looked and worked as well as the curriculum tested. Scores dropped across the state.

“We aren’t measuring the same things so it is hard to compare one set of data to another set,” he said.

He also said he doesn’t believe the assessments are a reliable way of measuring what is happening in schools in the United States.

“Unfortunately, we have become a system that over corrected and wrecked the bus in the ditch labeled assessment,” he said. “This created a generation of test takers in our students and a generation of educators who only focus on the content.

“For students to be successful in their future, they must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn skills,” he said.

Honeycutt concurs.

“Most schools don’t measure skills. They measure whether or not students can regurgitate content,” he said. “We’ve got to have a revolution here. We’ve got to start saying skills lead to learning, and content rarely leads to skills.”

The consultant said USD 303 has a bravery that he admires and doesn’t see everywhere.

“Not every school could do this. It takes a school leader with some vision and it takes teachers with a willingness to try. I find that Ness City has a bunch of teachers like that. The potential is amazing,” he said.