Just as no two children are alike, neither are their education options. Gone are the days when the majority of students attended their neighborhood schools. School choice is now the norm, with multiple private and public magnet options available to students. According to greatschools.org, Wichita has more than 100 private schools serving students from preschool to high school, in addition to the Wichita, Andover and Maize public school districts.
“There are many more options today, even more than there were five years ago, virtual just being one of them,” says Mark Templin, principal of Andover eCademy, a blended virtual school serving K-12 students in Kansas.
Templin says that available choices have created options for parents and students looking to custom-fit their education, whether they are looking for flexibility in class scheduling, a specific learning philosophy, religious instruction or a particular educational focus.
Milt Dougherty, Ed.D., head of The Independent School, concurs. He says parents and students are looking for schools that offer individual attention and a holistic approach to education that encompasses academic growth along with responsibility, compassion and self-discipline.
“Parents are seeking customized learning for their child. That is a trend I believe we’ll see continue to grow in the future,” he says. “At The Independent School, we tailor the educational experience to fit the student’s individual talents and learning style.”
With so many academic options, Templin acknowledges it can be hard to navigate opportunities in consideration of the hot topics surrounding education, especially when they are often interpreted differently.
“It is difficult for parents to compare and understand what some of these words mean,” he says. Whether parents are making sense of Common Core standards and curriculum, a school’s emphasis on STEM-related activities or the use of personal learning plans, educators agree that the best way for parents to distinguish schools is to make a personal visit.
“To get past the educational jargon, you need to go to the school and ask to see the curriculum, their philosophy and belief statements,” says Karen Boettcher, principal at Holy Cross Lutheran School. Boettcher adds that school visits also will provide insight on the school’s relational atmosphere, values, physical environment and whether the services provided fit the needs of your family.
Critical thinking skills
Along with choice, a growing trend in primary and secondary education is an emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills to help prepare students to be the next generation of innovators and problem solvers.
“The classical model is about imparting tools of learning to students, teaching students how to think rather than what to think,” explains Julie Kice, director of admissions for Classical School of Wichita. She cites the school’s Latin curriculum as one example of the school’s approach.
“Latin is a wonderful tool. It is like a gymnasium for the mind and creates great learners – it’s really about training the mind and how to handle information,” she says, noting that Classical has been intentional in its efforts to provide a well-rounded liberal arts education that isn’t overspecialized.
“We want to develop the tools for learning that will enable students to go wherever the Lord calls them,” she says.
Heather Eubank, Ed.D., head of lower school at Wichita Collegiate School, says that problem-based learning is another educational tool designed to inspire students to think outside the box. This fall, Collegiate will be introducing a high school innovation lab, similar to one they already use with their middle school students.
“It is meant for students to go in and explore problems, dream and invent,” she says, explaining that students are presented with difficult issues and encouraged to find solutions. “It is completely open-ended.”
Last year, Eubank says sixth grade students studied workplace ergonomics and were tasked with developing a better chair for use in the classroom. Teams of students then experienced how to investigate a problem, turn their ideas into a plan and use it to actually build the chair they designed.
“It is taking what they are learning book-wise and practically applying it, which creates learning opportunities that are very authentic,” Eubank says.
Anjana Bhakta, owner of Primrose School of Wichita East and Primrose School of Wichita West, says this type of hands-on learning can’t begin too soon. Primrose encourages students as young as preschoolers to explore and observe science in action.
“Yes, it starts that early,” she says. “We recognize that we are looking 20 years ahead to what we need to be introducing and talking about with our children.”
Bhakta contends that as students tactilely interact with the world around them, whether it is through gardening and journaling the stages of a tomato plant from seed to fruit, or playing with magnets, they are turned on to learning in a new way.
“It helps them get excited. It makes a big difference to see how STEM works and how it transfers into our daily lives,” she says.
To bridge academics with the real world, The Independent School is working with the Wichita community to enable students to apply learning outside the classroom. Upper school students are encouraged to intern with area businesses, and new this fall, sixth grade students will have the opportunity to attend morning classes at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
“These programs give our students an edge as they explore their interests in a real-world setting, further preparing them for college success and beyond,” Dougherty says.
With the constant presence of technology and social media, educators are also noting the reemergence of an emphasis on soft skills – skills area schools say have long been a core focus, but are even more important in today’s society.
“It is hard to guess what is coming,” Collegiate’s Eubank says of technological advancements.
“We are preparing children now for careers we don’t even know will exist.”
So, while teachers and students are embracing technology both in and outside the classroom to meet future needs, Eubank says it is important to keep an emphasis on personal interaction.
“Are they still good communicators? Can they work as a team?” she says. “Students need these skills to be successful adults.”
In an increasingly digital world where students spend more and more time behind a screen, finding ways to help students express themselves and engage with others is paramount. Boettcher says that while students today are technologically savvy, it is crucial for educators to help stuents see beyond a virtual environment.
“It isn’t enough to know how to play the latest game,” she relates. “Students have to know how to communicate, write and use technology.”
Kice says developing responsible, respectful and articulate students is an important key in the Classical Christian approach to education as well.
“Education is valuable outside of where it gets you in the American dream,” she observes. “It is meaningful and worthwhile to learn to work hard. Classical imparts a love of learning and discussing things, which is valuable in and of itself. It isn’t just a means to an end, but we would see it as soul shaping of who you are.”
The marriage between social and academic education is one Bhakta says Primrose is especially attuned.
“There has been a lot of talk about character development,” Primrose’s Bhakta says. “Employers today are seeing things that are lacking and there is a lot of research that is being done.
“The earlier you introduce the concepts of sharing, caring, giving, how to be a good citizen, the better,” she continues. “The more children are instilled with strong character traits, just imagine how they can change the world.”
No matter what pedagogical changes are ahead, local educators say there are some constants every parent should know:
• Students benefit when schools and parents are partners. It is important to communicate with teachers – you are on the same team.
• Teachers are experts. While no one knows a child better than a parent, teachers are trained to educate — support them in doing what they do best.
• Let your children struggle. Avoid rescuing your child when they encounter difficulties. Some of the best character lessons come through mistakes and failure.
• Know what you want. Determining the best school fit for your student will be easier if you have a clear idea what your priorities are.
• Do your research. Whether you are looking into public or private schools, do your homework. Check out school websites, read their mission statements, review their curriculum and schedule a visit.