District 833 changing how students are educated

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South Washington County Schools is building on its 50-plus years in Woodbury by looking to the future of education.

Some changes are happening quickly — prompted in part by advancements in technology and shaped by new views on how best students can use it — while other efforts are years-long initiatives that administrators believe will positively change education.

Three specific areas have gained district attention: personalized learning, technology use and design thinking. They are embedded in District 833's strategic plan — "Together We Are SoWashCo" — and are being implemented in a variety of ways.

Personalized learning is "the future of education in general," said Brian Boothe, District 833's director of professional development and accountability.

Education can be standardized but students can have a personalized journey through those standards, he said.

"The past of education has been you treat students as kind of the industrial model: You put them in batches (by grade) ... and they progress along that system," Boothe explained. Under that model, time is the constant, learning the variable.

"When we talk about personalization, one of the big shifts (we're) trying to figure out is that learning becomes the constant and time becomes the variable."

A particular lesson could take one student 20 minutes to grasp and much longer for another student, but the goal is the same for both: master that lesson. In the traditional teaching model, a teacher would have to move on to a new topic regardless of whether all students had grasped the first topic.

"We want the learning to be the thing that determines when you move on to the next item," he said.

It's not a quick transition. In fact, Boothe said, it could take 10 or even 20 years to work toward a full implementation of personalized learning in grades K-12.

Standards-based instruction is an example of how the district is moving toward personalized learning. Under this approach, for instance, the district and teachers identify what should be learned by the end of kindergarten, and then "map out a journey for each student" to accomplish those benchmarks by the end of the year.

Adopting standards-based instruction means schools must develop ways for teachers to efficiently provide different lessons for different students at different levels.

"It's incredibly complicated," Boothe said.

There are small examples of it already happening in District 833, however.

The district is moving toward standards-based assessments. Report cards at lower grades will begin to explain how each student is progressing toward year-end goals.

Also, some schools are beginning to use learning management systems that allow teachers to organize a lesson, track where every student is at and be able to communicate that to parents and other teachers.

Research into standards-based learning is positive, Boothe said.

"When you have clear learning targets, kids will meet them," he said.

Even as the approach to learning changes, Boothe said what will remain is the importance of an "authentic" teacher-student relationship.

"When you have a strong, trusting relationship where kids will be able to take risks, the student achievement soars," he said.

That relationship can be strengthened through design thinking, another district focus.

The traditional educational system works for most students, but not all, Boothe said. Design thinking as the district is applying it involves teachers putting themselves in their students' shoes and discovering what potentially will hold them back.

The district used design thinking last year when 40 teachers each followed a student around for an entire school day. Teachers learned of small challenges faced by students that they would not usually see with less interaction.

"It's realizations like that that when you put those stories together, are there ways that we as a system can change?" Boothe asked.

Design thinking works with teachers and staff as well. Boothe said through one exercise they identified a challenge at the kindergarten level: assessing students five times throughout the school year, which took time away from instruction. The district changed the process and reduced assessments to three times per year.

Like personalized learning, design thinking takes time to adopt.

"You have to challenge a lot of our preconceived notions about what school is and isn't, and you have to listen with empathy to people who sometimes have different opinions on how school looks," Boothe said, stressing that the district is focused on making decisions with the full involvement of staff and teachers.

As technology has advanced, so has the district's view of how to use it in the classroom.

For the last couple of decades it's been used as a way to produce content, Boothe said. It was a replacement of a previous lesson. Instead of a poster board presentation, students used technology such as PowerPoint to present information.

"The way it's shifting is it's being used to unleash creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration," he said of a change underway for several years and continuing to evolve.

Technology is also being used to share students' ideas. They are writing blogs, making movies and some classroom presentations are web-streamed.

Technology tools give students more creative options and can strengthen critical thinking skills, Boothe said.

History of growth

Here is a short history of District 833 schools in Woodbury:

1961 — Woodbury Elementary School opens

1967 — Royal Oaks Elementary School opens

1970 — Woodbury Middle School opens

1974 — Woodbury High School opens

1991 — Middleton Elementary School opens

1991 — Bailey Elementary School opens

1995 — Lake Middle School opens

1996 — Stadium completed at Woodbury High School

2002 — Red Rock Elementary School opens

2003 — Liberty Ridge Elementary School opens

2009 — East Ridge High School opens

2012 — Liberty Ridge Elementary School, Site II opens

2016 — Valley Crossing Elementary purchased by District 833