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Board hears of ‘school of innovation’

One of the more exciting things being considered by the school district academic planners is the “school of innovation” concept, Cabot Superintendent Tony Thurman said during a committee meeting Nov. 19. New legislation opens the to way to a “school of innovation,” in addition to the charter school concept, he said.

“This is a general concept, we need you think about if this is something we should go ahead with,” Thurman told school board members. It is cost-neutral, and Cabot School District already has the experience in making such a concept work, he said.

“We have a bunch of kids that just are not making it right now,” Thurman said. “We have kids every day ask to stay at [Alternative Learning Environment] because they need that structure… They will tell you, ‘I can’t keep up on my own.”

But current ALE guidelines require the students be returned to the general population. Back in “regular school,” the standard curriculum does gives students limited ability to recover sufficiently to graduate with their peers, Thurman said.

Under guidelines approved during the last legislative session, a school of innovation can take action through areas outside the standard accreditation, similar to that of a charter school, such as the Academic Center of Excellence and the Alternative Learning Center (ACE and ALE), but a much simplified process, Thurman said. “Right now we are waiting on rules and regs,” he said.

Thurman said he has tasked high school principal Henry Hawkins, Junior High North principal Roger Tonnesson and ACE principal Michele Evans to consider how the school district can take advantage of a school of innovation to further reduce the dropout rate. “What can we do to keep the kids that we are losing.”

Evans said students who enter ALE as ninth- and tenth-graders have a much higher dropout rate. “Thirty to 36 percent of them never make it to graduation,” she said.

Thurman said it has been found that many of the students who return to the general student population after ALE, would actually prefer to return to ALE.

ALE principal John West said a program similar to ALE could help students who have fallen behind on requirements to catch up, though a return to the general population would fail to “Get them to leave with a diploma.”

Thurman said that while it is easier to identify the problem with ALE students, there is a “niche of kids” who would benefit from the same attention. “For whatever reason, they are not acclimating well [in junior and high schools],” he said.

Thurman said staff members have been brainstorming about what such a program would look like. “What would the possibilities be, that would be good for the kids and still achieve objectives,” he said.

The answer could be in a, “blended model of learning,” Thurman said. Blended learning means using a combination of teaching methods, at a pace set by the student, he said.

Tonnesson said blended learning could well serve the student who has fallen behind, “And someone ‘flips the switch’ and now they want to start doing right.

“But they are behind the eight-ball because they can’t catch up and graduate with their peers. That’s huge,” Tonnesson remarked. Blended learning could serve to break that cycle by giving the student opportunities outside the standard curriculum.

Thurman said there would still be a required curriculum, because the same standards still must be met. The difference would be in the activities taken to get them done.

Evans said she has a student who needs three history classes completed before the end of the school year for the student to graduate. Placed in the mastery learning approach the student is completing the courses, “And that will get him across the stage in May even though he had to complete three history classes.”

The blended learning environment would allow this as a practice.

“This is a work in progress,” Thurman told school board members. “The rules and regs have not come out yet, but we want to get ahead of the game and get the first proposals in,” he said.

A School of Innovation is not required, but to have one the plan has to be approved, Thurman said.

Setting up the School would likely have little additional capital cost, Thurman said. Most of the equipment is already in place, and staffing would need mainly a “reshuffling” of personnel. “I see it as almost cost neutral and something that would be good for kids,” he said.

The School would be for few students who do not do well with direct instruction, which is the method preferred by the majority of students, he said.

“I could not go to this school,” Thurman said in example. “I need to be in front of a teacher for every class period … I like being in a regular school setting.”

The School of Innovation would be for students who work best on their own with a teacher available to encourage them, he said. Cabot School District has 10 years experience through ACE/ALE on “how to make the curriculum integrate with the setting,” Thurman said.

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