Members of the Kansas State Board of Education and Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson stopped by southwest Kansas communities this week, touring schools and discussing how educators, cities and local businesses could partner to spawn student success.

Led by the board’s vision statement — “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student” — the Kansas State Department of Education continues to move forward with a tiered school redesign initiative, working with districts across the state to prepare students with more individualized, career-focused structures, Watson said.

Part of that involves asking Kansans what they want from the school system and how they define student success, he said.

The KSDE surveyed parents and business leaders across the state, asking how they would characterize a successful 24-year-old. Tangible aspects, such as holding a job and credentials and achieving academic success, were important, but overwhelmingly responders valued what lies beyond those categories: nonacademic skills like integrity, self-motivation, cooperation, communication and a strong work ethic.

According to a national survey of business leaders, employers say the majority of high school, community college and university graduates are in need of those skills, claiming upwards of 80% lack a sense of professionalism, work ethic and teamwork and communication skills, Watson said. And, while 71% of Kansas jobs require a degree or certification beyond a high school diploma, only about half of Kansas students are qualified, he said.

Kansans generally expect successful adults to be happy, fulfilled, dedicated to helping others and possessing skills that will allow them to earn at least a middle class wage, he said. Schools, largely based on a hyper-standardized and outdated structure can be serving their students better, Watson argued.

The solution was a structural and mission-guided redesign, he said, guided by new priorities. In a redesigned school, successful students are academically and cognitively prepared, possess technical and employability skills and emphasize civic and community engagement. More to the point, schools would specifically prepare each student for the post-secondary life that works best for them.

Redesigned schools individualized education tracks for each student, lean into flexible schedules and, most importantly put a central focus on the workforce. Partnerships with business leaders put students in touch with mentorships, apprenticeships and job shadowing opportunities that can give them hands on learning in their desired field and allow them to practice nonacademic skills that will be essential in the workplace, Watson said.

And ideally, students would be able to graduate high school with not just their high diploma, but also with technical certifications or college degrees that would quickly give them access to high-paying jobs, he said.

One of the state board’s stops — Dighton USD 482 — has already put this structure in place and with positive results, Watson said. USD 482 superintendent Kelly Arnberger said the smaller, rural district uses a “flex mod” schedule, which, like a college campus, weaves in structured class time and independent study time into a standard school day.

Dighton’s schedule allows students to pick classes and craft a school day that benefits their individual career goals and plan of study, mixing on-campus, online and blended academic and elective courses with classes or mentorship opportunities that directly connect to their career interests.

The district also builds in time for social/emotional check-ins across elementary and secondary classrooms, supporting students as they learn how to advocate for their own needs, Arnberger said.

The result is a student body, particularly among the older grades, that is self-driven and eager to take control of their education, Arnberger said. When state school board members met with a student panel this week, the students were able to communicate effectively with their adult counterparts, he said, expressing their plans, needs and wants as students and young adults. The system, he said, works.

”They are embracing the idea that they have some ownership in their path, or almost complete ownership in their path, and there’s something very energizing about being able to, as the superintendent, step back and watch these young people have conversations with very attentive adults who spend their time being deeply concerned about the future of kids in general. I can't adequately describe how outstanding and how cool that is,” Arnberger said.

Schools like Garden City High School, with its academies that point students in the direction of certain fields of study or work, are good first steps toward career-centric secondary education, but it could be even more individualized, Watson said. That evolution across the state is still happening, he said. Just this year, Holcomb USD 363 implemented a new schedule, blending Dighton’s “flex mod” model with a standard class structure.

The changes are not meant to be standardized, Watson and Arnberger said, but a thoughtful reflection on how each community, large or small, rural or urban, could best serve its students.


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