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Kalispell schools examine future of learning

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | March 23, 2022 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Schools has taken its first strides in a yearslong path to transforming “how school is done,” after recently wrapping up four public listening sessions at the elementary and middle school level.

One of the listening sessions at Kalispell Middle School on March 16 drew a small audience of 17 that included administrators, parents and a few educators.

“We feel really good about what we’re doing with the constraints we have, but we also recognize we can do things better or differently to help kids better,” Kalispell Middle School Principal Tryg Johnson said.

Johnson emphasized the session was a time for parents and community members to share their thoughts because administrators and staff held their own listening sessions. Jensen said some teachers will also hold brainstorming sessions with students to also get their input.

Kalispell Middle School Assistant Principal Dallas Stuker told attendees to set aside potential barriers such as time, money, or rules, for the time being, and brainstorm any ideas of what school could be.

“Anything goes here, we’re looking for ideas,” Stuker said.

“The big question comes down to what’s your Disneyland?” Johnson said. “What’s the best Disneyland for students, which, you know, is probably a little different for students, teachers and probably will be a little different for parents as well.”

KALISPELL SCHOOL District Assistant Superintendent Matt Jensen said roughly 15 to 20 people were in attendance at each of the meetings and some basic themes came out of the responses.

“The first theme was academics,” he said. A lot of specific focus on academics — personalized, competency-based, flexible and individualized learning. The next theme was student behavior. Things like tenacity and grit. Parents and administrators want to see we’re doing a good job of developing different traits.”

“The last theme would be around experiences,” he added. “Bbefore kids leave elementary, middle school or high school, they wanted them to have different opportunities whether outdoor-based education or work-based internships.”

Questions about character traits, skills, abilities, family values and success, served as launching points for discussion in what they wanted for children to become “successful, thriving adults.” Attendees were asked to think of the questions in relation to not only students but also their own school experiences.

Ideas and suggestions touched on topics such as grade levels, school year schedule, duration of classes/day, integrated learning, mentoring and vocational opportunities.

IN TALKING about what areas of school “bring joy” to students different, for the most part, many talked about different classes, teachers, school pride, sports, hands-on activities such as science club or plays, said parent Lindsey Bushnell, where students can either act or be on the tech crew.

“I love they get to have PE every day,” Bushnell added.

Another attendee agreed about the physical exercise, noting the benefits they saw in another school where students would run before the school day started and learned in a classroom free of desks, where, instead, students sat on the floor or a few couches.

One attendee said she had substituted in the school and agreed that getting students away from sitting at a desk all day might curb behavioral issues, transitioning into discussions about shortening class time.

“I notice that they concentrate for a certain amount of time and are just done, completely done. If each class was just shorter and tighter you could get a more focused time,” she said, noting the early-release Wednesdays the school district currently has in place as the perfect schedule.

Early-release Wednesdays were first implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic as a time for students to get extra help and for teachers, who were given extra responsibilities, to catch up.

She also suggested snacks no matter the grade level.

“When some kids come to school not eating, from what, probably 7:30 a.m. in the morning to 1 or 12:30 that’s a long time to go without eating so some behavioral issues I think are straight up due to blood sugar problems they need to have a snack or something.”

Removing time constraints could possibly be achievable with integrated, or cross-curricular learning, attendee Tina Blair, who is the principal at West Valley Middle School, offered.

“You could bring more relevance in class if things were brought together,” Blair said, using an example of technical writing and science.

This could help students more easily see how skills learned in one subject transfer to another she said.

ANOTHER AREA of discussion were learning opportunities outside the classroom such as practicums where students could spend a portion of the day working in a business or on a farm, for example, to mirroring something like the high school vocational agriculture center.

Attending vocational classes was life-changing for parent Mike France who shared his personal experience attending a rural school. He said the vocational school was fed by 14 surrounding schools.

“I took small engine repair. I did really well. It springboarded me out,” France said. “Vocational school, it just changed my life as far as my education went.”

Bushnell suggested having students coming into middle school get involved with mentorships with community members to help them learn what they want to pursue in high school and continue those ties to help them discover who they want to be.

Adding avenues of getting help was another one of her suggestions. For helping students, some sort of program to get help after hours.

“How can we make sure kids have avenues so they are not afraid to take hard classes?” Bushnell asked, later suggesting, “Is there some sort of mentoring center the district could come up with where kids have other times they can get help and how do you make that work for a kid who wants to take an early bird class? They can’t go in early to get help and then if they’re in activities right after school how does this work?”

REVISING THE school year from 180 days was also discussed. The possibility of breaking up the school year to a different schedule, such as seven weeks on, two weeks off, for instance, was suggested to mitigate what’s referred to as “summer learning loss.”

Doing away with traditional grade levels and having multi-age classrooms where students could advance at their own pace was another suggestion in how schools could be transformed. Tying into this discussion was whether or not extending the age a student could attend high school would be beneficial.

“I know we’re responsible for the state to have them educated by a certain date or there are some elements that count against our districts,” Blair said. “There are some students who are ready at 16 or 17 to launch on to college or the trades and there are others that it’s gonna take 20 or 21 and I don’t think we always allow that unless there’s an extreme disability.”

Jensen said the next step is to organize the notes and ideas from the meetings and begin prioritizing to set out on the path of transforming “how school is done.” The process is currently set out on a nine-year timeline.

“So now we’re doing the preliminary work that will determine the scope of the work,” Jensen said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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