STOCKTON — When students return to school in Stockton USD 271 on Jan. 8, they will be taking one small step into the future.

Through January and February, the district will implement pilot projects in the state’s “moon shot” redesign of how students will be educated in Kansas.

Next fall, when Stockton and the other six schools of the Kansas Can School Redesign launch their plans, the school day will look much different.

But, at this point, ask what a school day in Stockton will look like in 2018-19, and the reply is laughter.

“The most frustrating part is to say we don’t know,” said Shelly Swayne, USD 271 superintendent and high school principal.

“We get to build this as we go. It’s not canned. There’s not something that we can go say we’re going to switch to these resources and it’s going to look like this. It’s fun and exciting in that way, but it’s very difficult, also,” she said.

Scary and exciting also is the way Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education, described the project.

“We've only had two models of school in our history in Kansas — the one-room schoolhouse and the model we're now in,” he said during a Dec. 21 professional development day for Stockton teachers at the close of the semester.

“It’s been a hundred years since we’ve designed a new system. They’re going to change that model to what makes more sense today for our kids and for families today,” he said.

“We know that children learn differently than they did 100 years ago, and their needs on information are different than what they were 100 years ago. To meet the students’ needs of today, we need to rethink how we are teaching and what we’re providing,” said Sally Cauble, the District 5 representative on the Kansas Board of Education. Her district covers 87 counties in western and central Kansas.

Twenty-nine school districts applied for the Kansas Can project, and seven — dubbed the Mercury 7 after the astronauts of the first U.S. space program — were announced as demonstration sites.

Stockton is the smallest district selected and is also the only district where the redesign will be implemented district-wide. Districts were required to include only one high school and one grade school for the redesign, and USD 271 has only one high school and a combined grade school/junior high.

The remaining 22 applicants were added as the Gemini program and will launch their redesigns in the next phase of the project.

A successful 24-year-old Kansan

The redesign started three years ago as the Kansas Department of Education started to examine how education needed to change to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“We took a look at the economic demands of Kansas as related to workforce, and all the studies were indicating that 70 to 75 percent of our kids were going to need to graduate high school and go on to further their education,” Watson said.

“We were setting about 44,” he said.

In 2015, KSDE started tours and focus groups with 20 communities and more than 100 businesses to begin shaping a picture of what skills and knowledge a successful 24-year-old Kansan would need and what role education would play in shaping those abilities.

What they found was non-academic skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and communication are sought by employers more than academic knowledge.

“They said they (students) come into the workforce ready and know the information, they’re just not real good at all the other parts that are most critical,” said Stacey Green, principal at Stockton Junior High/Grade School.

“Academics is a strong component. There’s just a well-rounded individual we need to look at,” she said.

The redesign building leadership team at Stockton found much the same when they conducted a forum with area business leaders this fall, said Stockton High School math and English teacher Lee Lindsey.

“I think the businesses were pretty reserved to start with, but once they understood what we were looking at and what we're trying to produce as students, they were pretty excited about it,” he said.

While meeting state and federal educational standards will be a goal, how that will be achieved is what will take a different direction. That means recognizing individual students learn differently and success for each will be defined differently.

“Success isn’t always just a four-year degree. It could be a certificate or technical degree,” said Jenny Niblock, family and consumer science teacher at Stockton High.

Helping students on that path to success might include project-based learning where students identify a problem or need and create a solution that incorporates a variety of skills like math to determine the amount of supplies needed, and writing and communication skills to promote the project. 

During the teachers' professional development day, the building leadership team discussed long-term goals such as a student-run coffee shop downtown, and building a greenhouse or community garden.

“Their goal is every student will graduate high school and every student will plan after high school to be successful, whatever it is, whatever they want to do,” Watson said.

Ready for change

The students themselves have become involved in the process. At the grade school level, students took surveys through an app, answering questions about what they think a perfect day at school would be like and what they need from their teacher to succeed.

“It gives them a way of expressing themselves in an anonymous situation. At that age they need that,” said Andrea Dix, math and science teacher at the junior and grade school.

At the high school, students offer their ideas through weekly “change chats.” Eight groups of nine or 10 students were formed, and each group chose a teacher to join them.

Through the fall semester, Swayne took each group to lunch and asked them questions about their thoughts on the redesign.

“Enlightening information we got out of it,” Lindsey said. “Sometimes that’s kind of scary, but it’s a good thing to have their input.”

“The kids know change is on the horizon and they’re excited about it,” Swayne said. “They’re really excited about it because they’re getting to be a part of it. They don’t understand it fully and they’re going to hate parts of it. But they’re ready. They sense it.”

That uncertainty was illustrated during finals week when, at the high school, students were given 30 minutes of flexible modular scheduling after lunch. Flex-mod scheduling does away with the standard grid of classes and offers modules of 15 or 30 minutes for labs, group discussion or individual learning.

“They had no idea what to do with it. We had to coach them into playing. They’ll love it, but we’re going to need to reteach it,” Swayne said.

“They’ve been ingrained in this for so long. When the bell rings they know they have to be somewhere and they don't know what it's like to have to be at school but have freedom to pick and choose to go to Mr. Lindsey's classroom to read or hang out,” she said.

Students aren’t the only ones struggling with that concept, though, Lindsey said.

“Our brain is for 53 minutes we do this, for the next 53 minutes we do this,” he said.

Seeing the students were in the same mindset was eye-opening, he said.

“We’ll have to retrain them just as we are retraining ourselves,” he said.

Permission to dream

This week, teachers from Stockton will get to see how that retraining has worked at other districts. Seven secondary teachers will travel to Oakes, N.D., while elementary teachers will go to Liberty, Mo., to learn about schools that have incorporated such ideas as project-based learning and blended learning into their classrooms.

The Mercury schools will run pilot projects through February then evaluate and build their “rockets” through the rest of the spring semester. In June and July, schools will present their redesign plans to their local school boards and then the state board of education before launching in August for the 2018-19 school year.

The Gemini schools will launch their projects the following year, and more schools will be added through the remaining years of the 10-year project.

“Somewhere around 2025 we’ll have it all figured out,” Swayne said with a laugh.

But what schools look like then might not be what the Mercury 7 schools look like at the end of their first year of launch.

“The model will become refined,” Watson said. “So it will still be flexible, but the model, what it looks like will start to become more and more refined as more and more districts do it.”

“We have to be constantly changing. Our world is constantly changing,” Dix said.

That flexibility has fueled the Stockton team of teachers. They say it’s given them more ownership of what they teach.

“Permission to dream” is the phrase frequently said by Swayne and her teachers.

“Permission to dream … and to act,” Watson said.

“This whole thing has given us permission to dream to make it what it our students need,” Dix said.

Lindsey said a new teacher in the district recently commented to him the standard class structure had stopped him from trying ideas he had to better teach his students.

“He’s given up on these dreams because he has to do this structure that has been in place for 150 years, and he has an opportunity to try and do those things that are better for his students,” Lindsey said.

“I think that’s the buy-in for all of us. We can do that? We can try that? We have that ability this time,” he said.