That new education smell

Written by Karen Long

As store shelves fill up with the scent of new notebooks, pencils, markers and backpacks, schools themselves are stocking up on ideas for how to make this year’s crop of students the best equipped, most connected and most emotionally prepared they can be. SPLURGE! talked to superintendents and headmasters across the area to learn about the freshest initiatives in primary and secondary education.

Real world experience

“We’re really excited about the opportunity for career development in our schools,” says Dr. Alicia Thompson, Wichita USD 259 superintendent. “One of the cool things we have just launched for next year is our Aviation Pathway.” The district has partnered with Textron and WSU Tech to start students on an aviation pathway as early as ninth grade, and high school juniors and seniors will have internship opportunities and practice actual job-related tasks. In the future Dr. Thompson says they’ll continue to look at all the pathways in the school system to ensure they’re aligned with community and county needs.

Maize USD 266 is also building partnerships with business and industry, technical schools and community colleges. For example, in the third year of their Health Science program, students are out observing surgeries, participating in autopsies and having conversations with working surgeons.

“Just in the last few years we’ve seen a huge spike in our kids gaining certificates, meeting industry standards before they graduate high school and getting pretty good jobs right out of high school,” says superintendent Dr. Chad Higgins. He says students are “giddy with excitement” when they can earn credit for their experiences and work outside the classroom.

At Wichita Collegiate School, Headmaster Tom Davis says Mentor Day gives their upper school students a chance to shadow someone in a field of their interest, from architecture to law to theatre. And, for the third year, Collegiate is planning to take a group of eighth-grade girls to the San Francisco area to visit tech companies like Tesla and Dropbox.

“They visit with particularly female executives and engineers, who introduce them to the industry and dispel the stigma that this is a male-dominated field,” says Headmaster Davis.

As students plan for their post-school life there’s nothing like a taste of the real world to inspire, inform and crystalize a vision for the future.

STEM: Getting it down to a science

The technology trend is still going strong as schools consolidate the past few years of integrating laptops, tablets and smart boards into the classroom.

Collegiate encourages students to dive even deeper into STEM pursuits with two Innovation Labs: one in the Middle School, and one in the Upper School. The Upper School Innovation Lab offers subjects such as robotics, an introduction to engineering and CATIA, the industry standard in computer-aided design software.

A popular project for Middle School students is building a piece of furniture, such as a chair or a bench for a teacher. Working in teams of three or four, kids go into the lab to design and build a prototype, incorporating the teacher’s needs. Then they present their solution to the teacher and her class, talking though the problems they encountered and how they solved them.

“Of course the teachers like it because they get a cool-looking chair,” says Headmaster Davis, “And the kids like it because when they go by they can say, ‘Hey, I was on the team that built that chair.’ ”

At Primrose School of Wichita children are introduced to STEM concepts starting in preschool, according to owner Anjana Bhakta.

“Our preschool-and-up classrooms have a technology and research center,” she says. “In this center you may see iPads, microscopes, pens and paper. Children are welcome to come to the center or take an iPad to a different center to take photos of their creations.”

The young students are given design challenge opportunities throughout the day, embedded into their learning experiences. While playing and exploring in math centers they also learn reasoning, communication and problem-solving strategies.

Tribes and social contracts

Even as schools embrace the power of technology, they’re also taking responsibility for managing some of the challenges.

The Independent School is adopting a new initiative this year called Tribes as a structure for their social and emotional programming. Alyssa Boyer, Head of Lower School says there’s a lot of research showing how technology in general is impacting kids’ social, emotional and even physical development — and not always for the better.

“We are working on balancing that,” she says. This year they’re forming vertical groupings of students from fifth, fourth, third and grades on down, lead by a teacher. “It’s not new in education, but it’s innovative that we’re working together on character and service projects.” Even Meet the Teacher Night will become a Tribe meeting to fill parents in on what their children are learning — concepts based on Franklin Covey’s “The Leader in Me” model, training kids to be leaders of themselves and leaders of others.

Collegiate is adopting a character-building program aimed squarely at social media etiquette. “I talk to schools and go to conferences,” Headmaster Davis says, “and this is a universal new area that is very, very important, and it’s starting earlier and earlier.”

This fall at Collegiate, students will learn not to put something on social media they wouldn’t share with somebody face-to-face. They’ll talk through handling specific situations, etiquette, kindness, empathy and developing healthy relationships — whether it’s face-to-face via technology.

“The world is much bigger because of technology,” says Headmaster Davis. “Students are seeing instantaneous things. And I don’t know that so much of what they see is modeling the kind of behavior that we all like.”

Other ways schools are addressing soft skills include the new Bryant Opportunity Academy at USD 259, which opens this fall with an emphasis on building character and strong social skills, says Dr. Thompson. The district is also partnering exclusively with the Sedgwick County Mental Health Association, whose treatment providers will work with kids and families in the schools, “so they have the support they need to be emotionally stable and ready for learning at school.”

This year the Maize district is expanding their Capturing Kids’ Hearts program into the high school level.

“It’s really pretty funny to watch,” says Dr. Higgins, “if you’ve been in a classroom long enough you’ll see that, if students fall outside of the agreements, another student points to the social contract on the wall and reminds them what word we’re using, and different levels of respect depending where they’re at in the building. It’s handshakes, it’s eye contact, it’s verbal conversations.”

Bhakta with Primrose says that young children are naturally compassionate people, but as they get older that can start to fade.

“The goal is to imbed strong character development skills so 10 to 20 years from now they will fall back to their gut instinct. We believe who children become is as important as what they know.”

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