One of my favorite movies growing up - and one that would still rank in my top 10, if I spent time preparing a list - was Back to the Future. It was on the big screen as I completed my senior year of high school back in 1985, and it's the only movie that I've watched more than twice - other than Thomas the Tank Engine, Barney, Scooby Doo, and all things Disney. I was drawn to the movie because of its well-defined, distinctive characters; its clever dialogue; the tension/uncertain outcomes it toyed with at many points of the production; and its fun and playful approach to the science fiction genre.
The movie's approach to time - starting with a look at suburban life in 1985, then a trip back in time to the lives of the main character's parents-to-be in 1955, and then to a transformed family in that same suburban town when time moved forward again to 1985 - also intrigued me, and it has been part of my internal self-talk and dialogue ever since.
Back to the Future has prompted me to reminisce about the past, reflect on the present, dream about the future, and ask myself to identify those things in my past that I want to stay the same for my children, and which things that I'd like to be different. The work of our district leadership team follows a similar model; we analyze past, present and future, and identify those parts of the school experience that our stakeholders indicate should stay the same, and those parts that need to change.
As our students return throughout the district for a new school year on Tuesday, Aug. 21, much of their experience will be the same as when I started kindergarten at Leroy Drive in 1972, entered junior high in 1979, and began the home stretch of my Five Star education at Thornton High School in 1982.
Some new kindergartners - and nearly all of their parents - will shed a few tears. The sixth graders entering our middle schools will worry about finding their classes, remembering their locker combination and how they'll look when they're dressed out for P.E. Our new freshmen will spend a fair bit of time in the first few days of school surveying the students who have joined them from other schools, and will welcome the greater independence that comes with maturity... and, eventually, from a driver's license.
All of our students - just like 40 years ago - will hope they have a "nice teacher" (that's the elementary school student version) or "good teacher" (that's the secondary school student version), and most of them will hope for as little homework as possible. They'll also want school to be fun, engaging, relevant, appropriately challenging and the gateway to a life as good as - if not better than - that of their parents.
Responding to student needs for an engaging, relevant and appropriately challenging education looks different in many respects now than it did 40 years ago. The explosion of technology, growing global interconnectedness and changing skills needed by employers are among the reasons that we need to reshape some of the "what" and "how" we deliver education to our students. In the 2012-13 school year, staff, parents and students will see a system that continues to take the following steps to improve our effectiveness in meeting student learning needs:
1. Polaris. Many of you will notice posters in our school buildings with a student gazing at the nighttime sky and with text identifying the mission, vision, performance goals and commitments for the district. The poster content - especially in the key area of "commitments" - was developed from staff feedback throughout the district after they had received input from colleagues, parents and other stakeholders.
The Polaris graphics are purposeful and symbolic; they reflect our commitment to providing students outstanding educational opportunities that will equip them to pursue and achieve the goals and dreams they have for their future. Polaris also reflects our commitment, as district leaders and staff, to stay focused on guiding principles so we do not get off course in our work - just like ship navigators, for centuries, have looked to Polaris (aka the North Star) to keep them on track to their destination in the midst of stormy seas.
As you'll see, the Polaris posters paint a big-picture view of what we intend to accomplish for our students and how we will go about the work. In September, we'll supplement the Polaris posters with a more comprehensive online explanation of how the work ongoing right now - both system wide approaches to teaching and learning, as well as school-specific programs like STEM and International Baccalaureate - fit together in a coherent manner and advance the mission, vision, performance goals and commitments. It reflects our best efforts, in an era characterized by standardized testing, school accountability/ratings systems, and school choice options that were not in place 40 years ago, to provide an outstanding education to all of the children we serve - and an outstanding value to our taxpayers who are investing in our work.
2. Innovation, Risk Taking and Relevance. Our business partners consistently tell us that they desire employees who have strong "hard skills" in communication, mathematics and other industry-specific skill sets as well as creativity, a willingness to make calculated risks following review of probable costs and benefits, and an ability to solve multi-dimensional problems. Our leadership team believes few students will become innovators, thoughtful risk takers, and solvers of complex problems unless we create structures that allow our teachers to bring those same characteristics to their classrooms.
Over the last two years, we've worked on developing, and communicating throughout the district, a systemwide framework for teaching and learning that asks our educators to use their professional judgment, and that of their peers, to analyze student learning needs, modify or supplement instruction as necessary to connect with each student, and take appropriate risks to implement innovative teaching strategies designed to move student achievement dramatically forward from where it's been for most of this past decade.
One of the key vehicles for that work is project-based learning in which we move students beyond the dreaded one-dimensional "story problems" from math classes 40 years ago and ask them instead to solve problems which cross disciplines and/or have been suggested by our higher education and industry partners. We have a limited track record in approaching student learning in this manner, but given the excitement that we've observed in students, staff, and business/higher ed partners where teaching has moved forward in this fashion - as well as the achievement results in many of these classrooms - we have high hopes for its ability to elevate student outcomes in our district.
3. Infusion of Technology into Instruction. District leadership believes that we cannot expect our students to be fully prepared for the 21st century if technology resources and digital literacy skills are offered to students in isolation from math, literacy, social studies, arts/electives and other components of a well-rounded education. We are also aware of the temptation to utilize technology simply because students "like it" or find it entertaining, and are committed to integrating technology into instruction only when it is likely to assist in building student understanding of more rigorous content standards now in place throughout Colorado.
Our Information Technology and Learning Services staff members have been closely collaborating throughout the summer to expand value-added technology use into more schools and classrooms in this coming school year, and we'll seek solutions moving forward that will allow us to improve equity in technology resources offered to our students so that school size and building age do not determine the quality or breadth of educational opportunities provided. Perhaps no other area of our work is so different now than it was 40 years ago, when computers that performed the simplest functions filled entire rooms in businesses and universities and were absent altogether from K-12 classrooms.
There is much more that I'd like to share about where we've been the last two years in the Five Star District, and where we're heading in the future - but it's time for me to put my parent hat on and get my first grader ready for his first full day back to school. I look forward to connecting with you on these issues in future blog posts so that you'll see why I believe - and why our business partners, higher education collaborators and district staff believe - we're creating opportunities for students throughout Adams 12 Five Star Schools to thrive in their world.