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All four high schools in the Pulaski County Special School District have submitted applications to the state to become "schools of innovation," where instruction is to be challenging and personalized -- and at least partially untethered from time and place.

Blended learning, mastery of content, adaptive technology, content aligned to Arkansas standards, and school-to-career connections are among the terms used to describe the Pulaski County Special district's school of innovation model. Other elements in the proposed plans are content reinforcement, enhancement and acceleration. And still others are flexibility, mentoring, concurrent college-high school credit, industry credentials, a virtual academy and a senior capstone project.

"We want to go to the moon; this is big," John Tackett, the district's interim assistant superintendent for learning services and secondary education, said about the draft plans sent to the Arkansas Department of Education. "Our targets need to be reasonable, but we see the potential of allowing kids who never had the opportunity to be part of their own learning to do so now."

The Pulaski County Special district is one of 14 districts that submitted drafts for 19 schools of innovation for a preliminary review by the Education Department before final applications are due in mid-April.

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Maumelle, Mills, Robinson and Sylvan Hills high schools in the Pulaski County Special district join Little Rock's Hall High, Fort Smith's Northside High, Augusta High and other schools large and small that sent in preliminary applications.

Schools of innovation would be a new category of public schools in the state's most populous county.

But schools of innovation -- authorized by Act 601 of 2013 as an alternative to traditional schools for raising student achievement -- exist in other parts of the state. As of this year, there are 27 schools of innovation approved by the Arkansas education commissioner. They are in places such as Flippin, Greenwood, Kirby, Lake Hamilton, Russellville, Stuttgart, West Fork, White County Central and Wynne. The Springdale School District, for example, has seven schools of innovation, although an eighth school -- Don Tyson School of Innovation -- is actually a conversion charter school.

Schools of innovation are different from the older district-run conversion charter schools -- another alternative to traditional schools -- in part because a school of innovation plan requires a 60 percent vote of approval from a school's staff before it goes to the Arkansas education commissioner for approval. Schools of innovation are approved for four years and can be repeatedly renewed.

Conversion charters are approved by the state Board of Education for varying lengths of time.

Both conversion charters and schools of innovation seek and receive waivers from some state laws and rules that govern traditional schools but would keep the more experimental schools from strategies they believe will increase student achievement.

The nearly identical applications for the four Pulaski County Special district high schools are the product of months of work, Tackett said. That has included researching, forming innovation councils at each school, and evaluating software to be used to support the curriculum and other features of the schools. There was the employment of consultant Kenneth Grover, who is principal of Innovations Early College High School, which is a public school in Salt Lake City. There were trips to that Salt Lake City campus and to Springdale schools, and to the Center for Secondary School Redesign conference in San Diego to learn more and see first hand the operations of schools of innovation.

Joe DiMartino, president and co-founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, which is based in Rhode Island, said his organization has been working to move schools out of the more-than-a-century-old system of requiring 120 hours of class time a school year for a student to complete a course. That system works well for only about 20 percent of students, he said.

"What has been happening over the past 20 years, in pockets around the country there has been a lot of movement to become much more student-centered, understanding that if we want to get 100 percent of our kids to graduate from high school prepared for what comes next, we have to focus on all the kids," DiMartino said. "That means it's not the same for every kid. They are all different."

Moving to more personalized, student-centered instruction -- using a variety of measures for achievement and without lowering academic standards -- "is interesting, exciting and real hard," DiMartino said.

Communities have to figure it out for themselves, he said, but there is help and success from which to draw.

"At this point I am comfortable that Pulaski County understands the challenges and is looking for a way forward. I feel good about that. In fact, I like a lot of things happening in Arkansas with Johnny Key as [education] commissioner," said DiMartino, who also praised Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins. "There seems to be a real understanding that we need to reach all the kids. That is the part that is so impressive."

If the innovation applications are ultimately approved, the Pulaski County Special district will use the coming 2017-18 school year to select teachers for the innovation initiative and to open up applications for up to 100 freshmen and sophomores per school to participate in the restructured academic program in August 2018, Tackett said.

In 2018-19, the selected students would move through lessons and classes at their own pace, in some cases viewing a teacher's video-recorded lessons on their own, and then tailoring the time spent with a teacher in the subject area to get one-on-one or small-group help in mastering the finer points of that lesson.

Those who understand the lesson may spend more time on a different lesson in a different subject or on their own working on a project or assignment. The scanning of bar codes on student badges could be used to track student activity, making sure that a student struggling in math is working with the math teacher on a regular basis.

The innovation plan builds on the fact that the students are already equipped with Chromebook laptop computers, on which much of the curriculum could be loaded.

"The curriculum is aligned with Arkansas state standards," Tackett said. "Teachers would be able to get into the curriculum that is already there. They could edit it. They could add to it. They could hyperlink other lessons into it. Let's say, for example, when students are studying parts of the cell, or cell biology, or genetics, you, the teacher, could hyperlink a lesson to re-emphasize certain points. Students can watch that lesson as many times as they need to.

"Also it's seamless, because students who are absent never lose any time," Tackett added. "You don't have to worry that I missed that lesson. They would have 24/7 access. It would provide a no-gaps teaching and learning."

Additionally, the district is entering into agreements with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to enable students to earn concurrent college/high school credit in college subjects such as civics, college biology, college algebra and English composition. Qualified students can take civics as ninth-graders, getting them immediately on board. The district is also working with the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College to link career courses now offered in the district with courses offered at the technical campus, to give students clear pathways to associate degrees or other credentials.

The Pulaski County Special schools, like several of the schools that submitted applications for schools of innovation, are seeking waivers of state rules and laws that cap the numbers of students per class and require a minimum number of minutes and hours of instruction for a course, for a school day and for a school year.

The district is also seeking waivers of student attendance requirements to permit student enrollment in a virtual academy when they can't physically attend regular classes. A proposed waiver of teacher licensure requirements would enable the district to use industry experts to teach career and technical education courses and to employ elementary school-licensed reading teachers to help struggling high schoolers.

The high schools would retain their bell schedules that mark the beginning and end of class periods, Tackett said. But the bells may not be strictly adhered to in some parts of the building where schedules are meant to be flexible. Still, he said, traditional class periods will always work well for some students, and are required for the Advanced Placement college courses taught in each school.

"We would like to think that the flexibility would work for all students," Tackett said. "But it may or may not be productive because it is all about choice. We don't want to promote choice on one hand and on the other hand take away models that even though they are traditional may fit perfectly with the learning styles of students who like structure."

A Section on 03/27/2017

Print Headline: Four schools in district seek 'innovation' status; Pulaski County Special thinking big

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