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Sonora Elementary School school pursues innovative change

by Mary Jordan | June 20, 2021 at 1:02 a.m.
Lindsay Hennarichs (left), assistant principal, and Regina Stewman, principal show a commons area at Sonora Elementary that will be redone to be more useful to students. The area is callled a parliament, after a pariliament of owls, Stewman said. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

SONORA -- Sonora Elementary School is the latest school in Northwest Arkansas to seek designation as a school of innovation.

"There's an excitement that we're feeling like our first year again," said Regina Stewman, Sonora principal.

Sonora opened in 2011 as the Springdale School District's first elementary with an Education Accelerated by Service and Technology lab and the first in the district to provide one-to-one laptops for students during the day, she said.

The EAST labs use technology as a catalyst for learning, Stewman said. The labs focus on student-driven service projects through the use of technology, such as plotters and printers, she said.

"We were doing things differently," she said, noting many schools in Northwest Arkansas now offer one-to-one devices and EAST labs.

Having the school designated a school of innovation regains momentum toward establishing innovative practices to help Sonora students at all levels excel, she said.

The school of innovation model was introduced with the passage of Act 601 of 2013, said Marsha Hash, school of innovation liaison with the Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas.

The model allows schools to receive waivers from the Arkansas Department of Education to develop practices that may differ from established regulations or practices to meet the specific needs of a school's students, Hash said. The schools also receive support from the Office of Innovation for Education to look at administrative and instructional practices to explore ideas and opportunities for innovation.

"We really start from the grassroots to help schools determine if they're living their vision and mission," she said. "We look less at the rules and requirements and more at the individual students and the needs of the kids. I think it gives schools a great level of hope."

Innovative practices

Innovation doesn't necessarily translate to technology or a school that looks unique, such as Springdale's Tyson School of Innovation, which has an open wall concept, Stewman said.

"The building won't necessarily look physically different; it's what we do within the day and what we provide to our kids," she said.

For example, as a school of innovation, Sonora could receive waivers to adjust when recess is scheduled throughout the week so it doesn't disrupt learning.

The school is currently required to provide students 40 minutes of recess per day, or 200 minutes per week, Stewman said.

"We don't disagree. They need that playtime," she said. "We want to still do 200 minutes a week, but we want to be able to do it as it fits naturally into a schedule."

Another potential waiver would allow the school to develop collaborative learning environments in which students can work together on assignments outside of class, Stewman said.

One such space is outside the school's library. Fourth- and fifth-grade students are working with the school on what type of furniture and materials the space may need to best benefit student learning.

"If you stay in a classroom, and the teacher is the giver of information, we're not preparing them for jobs that haven't even been created yet," Stewman said.

The environment will help prepare students to work in modern workplaces where people regularly come together to solve problems, she said.

"You're going to feel the difference," said Lindsay Hennarichs, Sonora assistant principal. "You're going to feel the innovation."

School footprint

No one region of the state has more schools of innovation than another, Hash said.

There are 44 schools of innovation throughout Arkansas, she said. Tucker Elementary School in Danville, Clarendon Elementary School and Lakeside Junior High in Lake Village have also applied for the designation for the 2021-22 school year, she said.

Fort Smith has four schools of innovation, which include the Peak Innovation Center opening this fall, Northside and Southside high schools and Darby Junior High School, said Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent. The district intends to add more, he said.

"All of our schools are doing things that are very innovative. These just had a particular focus," Mahan said of the district's schools of innovation.

Cooper Elementary School in the Bentonville School District also has the designation, although Bentonville has no plans for another school of innovation, said Leslee Wright, district communications director.

"There's tremendous opportunity to be innovative in all schools by committing to community partnerships and employing top-tier talent," Wright said.

Springdale's Westwood Elementary, Tyson School of Innovation and Sonora Middle School are also schools of innovation, said Marcia Smith, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and innovation. Rollins Elementary School, scheduled to open in August, may apply for the designation, she said.

Fayetteville's Leverett Elementary School and Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services School of Innovation are the district's only schools of innovation, said Alan Wilbourn, Fayetteville public information officer.

Rogers doesn't have any schools of innovation, said Ashley Siwiec, communications director.

Schools throughout the country are developing innovative practices, Hash said, noting they're likely using different terminology than "school of innovation." There's no means of determining how similar practices being developed through the Office of Innovation for Education are being implemented nationally, she said.

"There are many different ways states approach this opportunity for schools," Hash said.

Next steps

Sonora has been working with the Office of Innovation for Education to develop a plan for implementing the school of innovation model as it works through the application process, Stewman said.

The School Board approved the school's request to become a school of innovation in March, she said. The school has since developed a School of Innovation Council of about 40 parents, staff and students, she said.

Sonora's staff voted on becoming a school of innovation in April, with more than 97% of staff voting in support, Stewman said. Hash said 60% of the staff had to support seeking the designation.

Hash anticipates Sonora's application for school of innovation status to be approved this summer, allowing the school to implement any waivers they've applied for as part of the application process in the fall.

"It's a truly iterative plan in the fact that if we move forward and we see something's not working, we can make adjustments," Stewman said.

The school will go through a renewal process every four years, during which staff will look at how they've done achieving innovative goals and set new objectives, she said.

"We're putting things in place that we will serve every one of those children at the highest level we can," Stewman said. "We need to ensure high levels of learning for all kids."

Regina Stewman, principal, visits with students on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary in Springdale. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Regina Stewman, principal, visits with students on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary in Springdale. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Regina Stewman, principal, talks Friday April 9 2021 about Sonora Elementary becoming a school of innovation.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Regina Stewman, principal, talks Friday April 9 2021 about Sonora Elementary becoming a school of innovation. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Regina Stewman, principal, visits with students on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary in Springdale. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Regina Stewman, principal, visits with students on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary in Springdale. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Students file through hallways on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Students file through hallways on Friday April 9 2021 at Sonora Elementary. The school is on a five-year plan to become a school of innovation. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
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Helping hand

The Office of Innovation for Education features educational tools and blogs to inform state educators at https://www.innovativeed.org/ .

Source: Office of Innovation for Education

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