Nobody could argue the cause wasn’t good-hearted. The students were rooting for a man in town who helped make ends meet by collecting cans to recycle. Some residents were concerned about him coming onto their properties, so he’d been told he was no longer allowed to pick up cans.
As it turns out, the students acted maturely during their social media campaign. The town altered its decision and school officials, proud of their students’ responsible use of social media, breathed a sigh of relief.
It’s commonly said it takes years for a trend to reach Kentucky. Someone merely passing through Eminence, population 2,200, might describe it as a sleepy little town. But Eminence students’ impromptu Twitter campaign is just one example from among the forward-thinking Kentucky schools on track to become models for the state, nation and perhaps even the world.
Given their innovative spirit, it is no surprise that when the College of Education at the University of Kentucky created a program in 2011 to build capacity in leaders to design new systems for learning, Eminence’s superintendent, Buddy Berry, and instructional supervisor, Thom Coffee, were among the first participants.
The Next Generation Leadership Academy — an output of the college’s Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab — was a game-changer for Eminence. Berry and Coffee were already on an innovative path, but the academy allowed them to get further connected with what school could be. They say it also allowed them to think purposively about how to enact changes in a designed format that’s systematic, rather than happenstance.
In one particularly eye-opening session, UK Associate Professor John Nash brought in some high school students and prepped the academy participants on how to ask probing questions about what they want from school.
“As we interviewed them about how to do school differently, the students were so stuck inside the model they had seen for 15 or 16 years, they couldn’t think differently. It convinced me that we’ve got to go back to Eminence and find a way to get from students what they really want from school — not just a version of what they think school is supposed to be,” Coffee said.
Across America, there are students, teachers, principals and superintendents who, similarly to Eminence, know all too well the way we do school no longer works. While we may refer to what is needed as “education reform,” the effort shouldn’t be confused with reform programs we’ve all watched come and go in decades past. The new “education reform” is designed to root out what doesn’t work and replace it with ways of learning that will prepare all students for college and careers. Interestingly, this kind of reform is student-centered, meaning students have a say in designing the future of their education. And, perhaps most importantly, Kentucky has spent years building the sorts of infrastructures that will make this work sustainable over time.
At UK, we call this type of reform “Next Generation Learning” or “NxGL” for short. In 2010, the college created a launching pad for NxGL called the Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab. At the simplest level, it means pre-school (“P”) to graduate level (“20”) education. The activities that fall under the P20 label are diverse and complex; however, the heart of P20 is quite simple. P20 builds a bridge between school districts and higher education.
It is a daunting task, tearing down a system that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1800s. But the participants are up for the challenge and the UK faculty members involved in P20 are excited to lend a hand and be part of the transformation.
Within P20 is a set of mini-labs that are based upon issues or themes. For instance, the importance of self-beliefs is a founding principle of Associate Professor Ellen Usher’s work as co-director of the Motivation and Learning Lab. Meribeth Gaines, principal of Lexington’s new Wellington Elementary, co-directs the lab with Usher.
“The lab gets us out of our silos and helps us share expertise we both have for solving challenging problems we face,” Usher said. “By having a university researcher and school principal collaborate, we are able to ask the right questions and conduct the right analyses, so our lab is able to solve problems encountered daily in Kentucky’s schools.”
The NxGL Leadership Academy begins work with school leaders because they are in a position to make school-wide and system-wide changes. These leaders have been part of the current system since about age 5, when they entered kindergarten. And it’s likely most of their career successes have come from performing well within that system. But they also realize how the current system isn’t keeping up with the demands of a global world and are ready to lead the state, nation and the college’s international partners in changing it to meet current demands.
Here’s how it works. Once a school leader takes part in the year-long leadership academy, he or she will have a set of goals and ideas for how to make important changes. The ideas worth trying out are called “prototypes.” The college will then have the chance to work with their schools to test out these prototypes within Learning Innovation Zones (iZones) created inside the schools. iZones provide a safe place for college faculty and school personnel to work together to redesign and rethink current policies, practices and programs to support 21st century learners.
When something shows promise among the students in the iZones, networks are set up across Kentucky (at other iZone schools) and in several other states through the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Kentucky is one of seven states chosen by the CCSSO to participate in an Innovation Lab Network (The Partnership for Next Generation Learning) to strategically work together to design new systems for learning to more fully prepare all students for college and career. This partnership seeks to spark a broad-based educational transformation through the establishment of state-based networks to create proof points of scalable initiatives and system redesigns that deliver desired educational outcomes. UK is working collaboratively with the Kentucky Department of Education to lead this work throughout the state.
Kentucky is the only state among the CCSSO network that has a high level of involvement between P-12 and a university. This puts the state at an advantage, because with a job this important, no one is willing to leave any of this to chance. Collaboration with a tier-one research university allows Kentucky schools to deeply analyze prototypes and research the impact on student achievement.
UK will hold it's next NxGL Academy next week in Georgetown, Ky., and more this fall. For more information, visit http://p20.education.uky.edu/registration/.
Information provided by Amanda Nelson and Jenny Wells
Photo and video provided by the University of Kentucky
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