The Story of Transforming a School System
By Gina Meinertz
Globally, educators are seeing a need to change school systems. We believe in the possibilities of equity, all students achieving, and all students graduating ready to contribute to the common good, but we also know there are barriers standing in the way of those beliefs. The hard work to transform our system will not only mean we will need to identify the barriers but that we will also need to find solutions that include more voices and better outcomes.
Spring Grove Public Schools is on a journey to transform a traditional public school into a culturally relevant learning space that ensures every child confidently uses their passions and strengths to find purpose. To do this work, a team of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and board members created a vision of the 21st Century One Room Schoolhouse with pillars of self-paced curriculum, project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, and real-world learning opportunities.
Here are some thoughts on how a more traditional system can transform into a student-centered learning environment.
Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
Hidden Voices: Designing A System for All
Spring Grove consistently uses design teams so students, parents, and educators collaborate to envision, prototype, and research the best next steps for our school. We use a series of improvement cycle protocols, including empathy interviews, to hear all voices. When we collect this information, the order of the collection is integral. Unlike most systems, feedback starts with our students so that the adults listen to the voices of the youth before sharing their own perspectives. This ensures the traditional power holders are listening before speaking. We also have a practice of looking at our data from a series of lenses. We start with common themes, and then take a second look purposely searching for hidden voices with concepts from equity design principals intertwined. If we are missing any stakeholders or groups, we seek out empathy interviews with these individuals. If we are hearing passionate or loud voices, we may use the “5 Whys” technique to find and respond to the root cause.
Flexibility: The Students and Families Shape Their Own Success
We know our school system will forever be changing and transforming. This is because Spring Grove offers opportunities and choices to students, parents, and staff members. This relationship of communication and trust has allowed us to continue our healthy transitions, even during a pandemic.
Here are a variety of ways we have been able to use the shifts and stressors of the pandemic to further our advancements in culturally, relevant student-centered learning.
Transformational Leadership: A Shift In How We Support Our Vision
Maybe because of the size of our system or maybe because of creative thinking, Rachel Udsuen, our Superintendent, has created a Transformational Leader position that combines Transformational Coaching with Leadership (this is the position I hold). The primary goal is to break down barriers holding back the vision of culturally relevant, student-centered learning by working with teachers, students, parents, community members, and other staff individually, in small groups, within the community, within the county, and within the state. Another role of this position is to listen with empathy, dig for voices that may have been missed, and support everyone interested to achieve desired outcomes. Lastly, the role includes analyzing systems, writing and revising policies, and supporting the system to represent the voices and perspectives of multiple stakeholder groups.
Our goal was to create a setting to support the passions, interests, and individual professional development needs of all adults, so that the adults could in turn implement deeper learning, whole child development and personalized learning experiences for students. As a coach, I personally use experience mapping to storyline the growth and needs of our system as we transform. As a leader, I work with my team using human-centered design and Studor Education to visually transform feedback loops and research into practice in a transparent way.
Impacting Community and Place
Place-based Learning in Outdoor Classrooms: An increase in Inquiry & Engagement
Our educators wanted to find ways for our students to feel safe and engaged in learning during a pandemic, which led us to outdoor learning. We reached out to some friends in Norway at Hoppensprett. They shared how they started outdoor classrooms with details about how they would instruct, eat, and learn outdoors. This inspiration helped us as we designed three outdoor classrooms in the elementary, a middle school partnership with a city park, and additional outings for many students to prairies, woods, and wetlands.
Outdoor Classrooms have been such a success from the perspective of our students, teachers, parents, and community members. Students ask more questions, observe with more detail, focus better, and make more connections between learning and life. Projects of learning include but are not limited to the following learning themes:
The city has supported our efforts by renovating three shelters to create spaces of flexibility where windows can be closed and opened to protect students from the wind and other elements. Our Communications Company gifted the internet to our outdoor shelters. Teachers invite guest speakers frequently to share their experiences and expertise to engage students with authentic and relevant learning. These students will end their year by creating a new outdoor natural reading space for all students in the school. They are organizing funding, designing a log to be transformed into a bench, and planning a native plant garden to surround their reading bench. In years beyond, they plan to increase the native plant populations around the entire school grounds and city.
Place/Based Learning: Experience Drives Learning
Traditionally, all students in seventh grade and above in Spring Grove functioned with a similar eight-period day schedule. The pandemic brought us to create a middle school pod. The teachers started teaming to create interdisciplinary units of study focused on real-world problems, self-reliance, and collaboration.
The students partnered with the City of Spring Grove to research, plan, and design a park with more native plants and natural spaces. Students learned from an environmental educator about biodiversity, habitat, and prairie plants. Using this knowledge as well as their aesthetic preferences, students designed maps and presentations to share their ideas of how to improve the park with the grant funding. Students shared this with the Mayor and Parks and Recreation committee. They will receive feedback before ordering the plants. The City and students plan to continue this project into the spring so the students can learn about soil preparation and testing, planting conditions, and will in the end complete the project alongside community members.
Other interdisciplinary projects included the start of a weekly Socratic Seminar discussion we call Community of Inquiry using Philosophy for Children and other current and relevant resources that encourage analysis of relationships and systems, promote belonging, and help students to hold deep, life-changing discussions about topics they are interested in.. Using themes such as Hidden Figures, the US Sustainability Goals, and the concepts of utopias and dystopias, our students are seeing that learning and life need to be similarly authentic and relevant to invoke meaning for all. Learning is applied when it dispersed deeply into life, as they paintings on our school walls communicate to those passing by.
Community Partnerships: Improving the World Around Us
Connecting within the community is a way of life for students of Spring Grove, but the opportunities increased greatly in recent years. We received a grant along with Mabel-Canton and Caledonia Area Public Schools to start a Business Experience/CEO course in high school. The school partnership was based around a series of challenges to improve the businesses in all three communities. Students met with leaders from the organization to create a plan for their human centered-design process before creating surveys and other analytic and research tools used in the Launch Cycle design process. Students celebrated helping to build their first Habitat for Humanity House in our town. Students learned many essential skills and worked side-by-side with community members in this meaningful work. Seeing one of our families move in upon completion brought pride and joy to all. We also partner with area organizations in quail restoration, ancestral research, theatre productions, and service learning experiences. Next year, we will be adding opportunities for students to be certified in areas of healthcare and trades. We are looking at more partnerships between districts to offer career pathway options and work-based learning experiences for our students.
Beyond student partnerships within the community, our educators and leaders are pursuing ways to support improvement of our practices through collaboration in the community. We partner with a University to bring authentic experiences with culturally relevant, student-centered practices to student teachers. I serve as a University Supervisor who coaches student teachers in outdoor classrooms, multi-age classrooms, and our middle school pod. The teachers and the student-teachers create a co-teaching partnership engrained in the belief that we are all learners. By sharing our practice and sharing our reasons why we do what we do, our teachers are engaged in more action-based teaching methodologies supported by research.
Representatives from across our county came together with the goal to bridge organizations to acknowledge racism and create systems that promote belonging and safety for all. Using the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership (MNEEP) as our guide we have used quantitative and qualitative data to paint the picture of our place. The MNEEP team and our leadership team created an equity education event leading to a county-wide equity plan where we create principles to align our policies and practices around equity. We have a goal to value all people and increase the diversity of the workforce within our district, city, and county.
The Power of Story
Feed the Good Wolf
Have you ever heard the story that teaches us to feed our Good Wolf? This story that is ascribed to the Cherokee, encourages us to be our best self while quieting our fears. This story can also be applied to a system. Where we focus our attention will be the places that feel supported and grow. That is why and how you tell your school’s story is so important.
Our little city has a pandemic story to share, and it is a story of partnership, pride, and transformation. By creating trusting relationships, designing unique opportunities, and working together to follow the guidelines and recommendations of COVID-19, we created a system that kept our students safe while improving our educational system. When other schools needed to work distantly or in hybrid, we came to school. Of course, our students had times they needed to quarantine and needed to learn distantly, but the majority of the 2020-2021 school year was face-to-face indoors and out. Students and staff were diligent in wearing masks (even though they were annoying) and they stayed six feet apart. They ate outside the school and in their classrooms. They separated into pods and adjusted to a new system of one-way-stair and hallway traffic. Our data shows that staying in school with these new safety measures was great for our learners. Students, parents, and educators truly appreciate the relationships and learning they have gotten to experience in our system. We do have pockets of students that need extra support after going home last spring, but the amazing thing is that our staff is seeing this as a confidence gap. These students need to practice independence. They are not missing learning. They are missing the skills to use their own strengths to conquer the next learning challenge, and we are prepared to support them in this work by focusing on our Profile Learner characteristics and how we can embed them into our reporting and parent feedback loops
Our school also has many learner stories to share. We have been capturing a series of video stories to share with our parents and community. No matter the restrictions, we need to share the learning stories of the people coming to our school every day. We captured growth and flexibility from adults and students sharing stories of grit, creativity, rigor, and reflection. These stories show how everyone in Spring Grove is contributing to a system that celebrates and transforms for the students they serve.
Leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community members are turning their attention to the positives. In a time where many systems are drowning from the demands and shifts of a pandemic, our system is celebrating change, focusing on growth, and telling our story of transformation.
Profile of a Learner Progressions: Teaching the Whole Child
The profile of a graduate community input process started last year has helped us to create the first version of our Profile of a Learner Progressions (in draft). We are using these progressions to guide discussions around what it means to be a learner. And what it looks like to support different learners in different ways. We are using progressions to help students and teachers to identify cultural, instructional, and future relevance in their learning.
Most of our school, including many of the high school courses have moved to standards-based grading. Our next steps are to move to competency-based grading systems to track not only academics, but also Redefining Ready indicators and Profile of a Learner dispositions and skills. Right now, our teams are preparing to prototype and implement a profile of a learner competencies into instruction, assessment loops, and reporting methods. We have the goals to use these whole child focal points to increase learner agency, student co-creation of learning experiences, student-led conferences and empowerment within our system.
Profile of a Learner Competencies also intertwines with the Storylining, the methodology many of our teachers use to weave together standards, questions, student inquiry, and learning themes into instruction and assessment with a focus on depth and relevance. The concept of storylining blends phenomena-based storylining taken from science curriculums (Illinois example); with the Montessori principles of a three-period lesson; the Visible Learning work of learning intentions and success criteria; and student inquiry-based, place-based, and experiential learning. We used this Storylining Folder to teach staff the essentials during a summer session, and continue to coach and support the implementation over time.
Spring Grove Schools is a student-centered school built on empowerment, trust, and innovation. The people of the school and community used the barrier of a pandemic to transform a system into a place of engaged learning with a more clear purpose for our work ahead.
Want to Dig Deeper? Explore these Getting Smart Resources:
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