Educators think outside the box

Two Northwest Arkansas principals apply for School of Innovation status

Posted: February 9, 2015 at 1 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Jonathan Mendez (left) and Baylee Clements work together on a math project Friday at Sonora Middle School.

A handful of principals hope to take a different approach to teaching children and teenagers.

Middle-schoolers could finish a project instead of leaving the class when the bell rings.

Students at an alternative school could earn Friday off if they have good attendance, behavior and grades the rest of the week.

Art and music teachers could integrate their subjects into other classes instead of spending 40 minutes a week with students.

Different ideas about how to meet students’ needs prompted five principals from across the state to apply for their schools to become schools of innovation through the Arkansas Department of Education. The state set an early submission deadline of Jan. 30 for principals wanting feedback and time for revisions prior to the final application deadline of March 16.

“We want to see somebody that’s looking outside the box trying to improve education,” said Cindy Hogue, director of the Office of Educational Options for the department. “What is it that’s keeping them from doing this idea? If it’s some rule the state has in place, they can ask for a waiver. It’s a good way for us to look at innovative ideas that other schools could replicate.”

The proposals are from the Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services Center, an alternative school in the Fayetteville School District; Sonora Middle School in Springdale; Mountainburg High School in the Mountainburg School District in Crawford County; Madison Academies, a campus of two alternative schools in the Forrest City School District; and White County Central Elementary School in Judsonia.

The state’s first schools of innovation were established this school year under a 2013 law that provided another op- tion for testing instructional models apart from becoming a charter school. The law allows the department to waive some state regulations.

Schools of innovation approved for the 2015-16 school year will be announced May 1. The commissioner of education gives the approval for a four-year period and it can be renewed for additional fouryear periods after that, according to state regulations. The state does not provide new funding for approved programs.

The department last year received applications from 39 school districts proposing 118 schools of innovation, though many had sought waivers to change calendars to accommodate more snow days.

Six were approved: Leverett Elementary School in Fayetteville; Russellville Junior High School; and Weiner Elementary School in Harrisburg; and Flippin High School. Springdale has two schools of innovation, Westwood Elementary School and the School of Innovation, which was proposed by six of the district’s campuses.

The first schools approved had well-developed plans for making substantive changes designed to meet specific student needs, said Denise Airola, director at the Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas.

The schools spent at least two years working toward those changes, including identifying students they wanted to reach, finding research-based innovations and starting conversations within the school or community.

Airola encourages educators considering becoming a school of innovation to begin by evaluating what is working well and what is not working well and what needs the innovation will target, she said.

“Our biggest mistake we sometimes make in education is to throw out something that’s working because something new has come along,” Airola said.

THINKING DIFFERENTLY

Principal Shawna Lyons said she jumped at the chance to create a more flexible school day for the 820 sixth- and seventh-graders at Sonora Middle School. Students no longer would follow a schedule driven by a bell that tells them when to switch subjects.

Instead, they would meet with an advisory teacher to make plans for what they need to accomplish each week, Lyons said.

Their classes would integrate different subjects and put a greater emphasis on learning through projects and solving problems, she said.

Students would have choices in how they demonstrate what they are learning.

“It’s fun to think that you don’t have to move by time or bells,” Lyons said. “It’s all based on needs and abilities.”

Lyons is seeking waivers from regulations for how much time students must spend in classes, on curriculum and on how the gifted and talented teacher and media specialist spend their time.

Principal Denise Hoy has struggled with students losing credit for lack of attendance at the ALLPS Center. She estimated that fewer than 40 percent of the 225 students enrolled attend school on Fridays.

She has sought to become a school of innovation to offer students Fridays off as an incentive to manage their behavior, maintain at least a C average and attend class Monday through Thursday.

The center would offer optional activities on Fridays designed to help students who earn the day off to prepare for life after high school with workshops on scholarships, applying for federal student aid and tours of colleges or area businesses, Hoy said.

Students who do not meet the criteria for having Fridays off would be required to participate in remedial instruction or group sessions for improving behavior, Hoy said.

She has sought a waiver from the state regulation that students have to be in class 30 hours per week, Hoy said. Students who have Fridays off would be in class 24 hours per week.

An alternative school in Forrest City is seeking waivers so students don’t have to take a full semester to earn credit for high school courses, said Patti Long, principal of Mustang Academy for 40 ninth- through 12th-graders, part of Madison Academies.

Instead, they would earn credit for courses they are retaking as soon as they have mastered the course.

If an 18-year-old lacks 12 credits to graduate and can only earn seven credits a year taking classes by the semester, they likely would not graduate high school until they are 20 years old, Long said.

“When you’re 20, the odds are you’re not coming back,” she said.

Relaxing the amount of time students must spend in class would allow juniors and seniors at Mountainburg High School to have the option of leaving campus early to work, explore colleges or careers and to take college courses, Principal Jason Rutherford has said. By their junior and senior year, many students have taken many of the courses the state requires for graduation, but because of state regulations on class time, students have to fill out their schedules with courses in which they have little interest.

Rutherford applied to be a school of innovation to provide more options for juniors and seniors who are on track to graduate.

The high school enrolls about 200 students.

INTEGRATING ART

AND MUSIC

White County Central Elementary School already is part of a network of Arkansas A+ Schools that focus on integrating the arts into the school day, said Beverly Froud, principal of the kindergarten- through sixthgrade campus of about 390 children.

Arkansas requires students to have 40 minutes of art and music instruction per week, but Froud is seeking a waiver. Instead of art and music teachers teaching separate classes, she wants them to serve as instructional coaches and work with classroom teachers on developing lessons that infuse the arts.

Lessons could incorporate paintings, sculpture, songs, dance and skits, Froud said.

The art teacher would have the flexibility to spend a few days with one group of students and more than a week with another group of students, depending on need.

Froud thinks students would exceed the 40-minute minimum, she said. She also thinks a greater focus on the arts will excite teachers about planning lessons and teaching, a passion that will keep children interested in learning.

“It makes students want to attend school,” she said. “We want school to be a place where kids want to come.”

Brenda Bernet can be reached at bbernet@nwadg.com.