Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Sequoia Can’t Stand Alone

I, along with several leaders from Shelby County Public Schools, took a trip last week to visit two innovative schools in California; Envision Impact Academy in Hayward, California and Lindsay Unified School District in Lindsay, California. The purpose of our trip was primarily to see the Empower Learning Management System in action as SCPS looks for a better platform to increase visibility for parents, students, and teachers in the areas of student progress and curriculum. We also took advantage of the opportunity to see examples of project based, competency based, and personalized learning in real classrooms of schools that have been pioneers in these fields.

Before I go into depth about what I saw on this trip, I want to qualify the account of what I saw and my attempt to interpret and relay that interpretation to you. I’ve often said that when I’m surrounded by teachers and school leaders I feel like a rank amateur in a room full of professionals. It may be that I’m not giving myself enough credit as I am in the role of an educator in the private sector, but industry training is more about technical knowledge and the ability to disseminate it than about skill and knowledge of the process of educating. If I’m a professional at anything it would be as a learner. When I take on a new challenge I immerse myself completely in it, soaking up all the knowledge I can to be effective in whatever role I play in that challenge. Over my first eight months of service on the Board, I’ve navigated, with lots of help, through mountains of jargon, new concepts, and structures. My comfort zone has always been in the business and policy side of things, but I’ve rapidly gained confidence in my understanding of the conceptual and practice side of education. As a result, I feel like my 30,000-foot view of the practice of educating is accurate and relatable even without understanding every nut and bolt.

Our first stop on Tuesday was at Impact Academy of Arts & Technology in Hayward, California. Impact Academy is part of the larger Envision Education group. Our tour guide was Justin Wells who has been with Envision nearly since it’s inception and co-authored the book Transforming Schools” which lays out Envision’s vision and methodology. I highly encourage you to read it as it aligns well with SCPS’s vision for the project-based learning that is leading to the exhibitions you may have attended this year in schools across our district. Impact Academy has fully embraced project-based and competency-based learning to ensure that students are able to exhibit their learning and defend their readiness for transition to college or career. They are growing students that can do…not just students that simply memorize material and pass a test or are moved to the next grade because they had a birthday or put in a certain amount of time at one level or another. The proof of results in their approach comes not from college enrollment but college persistence. College persistence is the measure of students that remain in college for a second year or longer. Impact Academy’s rates of persistence are staggeringly high, for any school, let alone a school who serves such a large population of gap and at-risk students.

On Wednesday, we visited Lindsay Unified School District. Here we saw a district that serves a rural community with 100% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and nearly 50% English language learners. The student population is also considered very transient as they serve migrant workers who may bring students into the district at preschool age or at the age of 16 or 18 who still must master standards. For some context, Shelby County student population includes about 20% English language learners. If you’d like to learn more about Lindsay Unified I encourage you to read “Beyond Reform : Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning”. 

Lindsay Unified has fully embraced personalized learning and is one of the districts that is at the forefront of this method of education nationwide. Imagine a learning environment where students can move through standards as they master them. Students who excel in one or more areas can work through curriculum ahead of their classmates and advance or work from behind in other areas as needed to catch up. Curriculum is given to students with pacing recommendations. Pacing becomes more important than grade-level, but all the same standards are met.

One of the tools that make this possible is Empower Learning. This learning management system provides one space where students, parents, and teachers can view and track learner progress. Curriculum is uploaded by standard, by course, by interest and students can easily see where they fall on pace and standard as well as upload work and documents for grading and to keep as a portfolio of artifacts that are evidence of their learning over the whole of their school career. As SCPS looks for a new tool to replace Schoology which has a contract expiring in the next year, I saw evidence that this tool can help take personalized learning and communication between stakeholders to a new level here.

During our trip we were able to spend two good days with innovative schools but there was a lot of time spent on planes, in airports, hours in a large rental van on the road, and talk amongst ourselves. Somewhere in all of this we managed to find a little time to see a few of the sights in San Francisco, The Sequoia National Forest, and the Central Valley on the long car ride to Lindsay. Considering I used a week of my vacation time for this trip I was thrilled to be able to see some of the amazing landscapes we drove past and visited.

 I couldn’t help but wish I could talk to my late father about how different and fascinating the agriculture industry was there. Almonds, olives, grapes, and oranges in fields that went on for miles like corn or soybeans go on and on like here at home. Dairies that dwarf anything I’ve ever seen. One dairy outside of Lindsay was milking more than 10, 000 cows per day. Anyone who has worked on a dairy in Shelby County will appreciate the scope of that.

Maybe the best part of the trip for me however was the collaborative and candid conversations that went on in the van as we traveled for hours between visits and meals. My primary function on this trip was riding shotgun and providing the navigation so Dr. Neihof, Superintendent of SCPS, could keep his eyes on the road…ok, I basically read aloud what Google Maps was telling me. But this gave the other members of our group, Susan Dugle; Chief Academic Officer, Margo Whisman; Principal SCHS, J.J. Black; Principal Heritage Elementary, and Lori Stivers; Principal West Middle, an opportunity to feverishly take notes and collaborate as we traveled.

Their conversations, questions, ideas, were simply impressive. What I heard in those discussions gave me so much insight into what our district leaders are trying to do to meet the needs of students. These discussions also prompted me with questions that I could ask and have answered right then and there. I also became aware of exactly how focused and dedicated our district leaders are in continuously improving they way our students are served.

As impressive as Impact Academy and Lindsay Unified were, Shelby County Public Schools are far ahead of those schools in many ways but there were ideas that inspired our leaders and can be taken back to help our students. The administrators we met were so willing to share and as impressed as we were at what they were accomplishing, they were equally impressed and inquisitive about what we are accomplishing in Shelby County.

This brings me back to the Giant Sequoias we saw on our trip one evening around dusk after our visit to Lindsay Unified. These trees simply cannot be fully appreciated in pictures and it’s even harder to describe them in words. They only exist in a narrow strip about 250 miles long on the western peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between 5000 and 7500 above sea level. They are simply massive and resilient but as one of our group pointed out, they can’t put down very deep roots in the shallow soil before they hit impenetrable rock. In doing a little research I found that to be true. Sequoias that grow to 300+ feet tall, have trunks as much as 40 feet in diameter on average, and can weight as much as 2.7 million pounds do not have taproots. They put out a thick mat of shallow roots just below the soil surface and interlock with the roots of neighboring sequoias to be able to support themselves and each other. This way they can hold fast against the winds and support such massive structures.

School districts need each other too. School districts also need leaders and parents and community members. The best ideas are coming from parents and leaders and districts across the country and across Kentucky. We owe it to students to search out innovative ideas and to share the innovative ideas we have that are working. We can’t stand alone. Our students deserve the best and after my trip I can say with confidence that when it comes to ideas and leaders, Shelby County is fortunate to have some of the best. I have never been with a group more dedicated to improving learning for students here at home. I will continue to support their work and hope that you will join me in supporting them.

As always, you can reach me at if you would like to know more.

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P.S. Yes...we found an In and Out Burger along the way....

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