Journey to transformation: Principals talk about school changes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Dr. Jamie Durant, principal at West Rowan High School, said his philosophy has always been to provide students with the most unique learning experience that he can. But with today’s tapped-in generation and a rapidly transforming workspace, what had been slow, but steady progress had to change.

“We’ve realized that process cannot be gradual – it’s got to be immediate,” he said.

Tuesday morning, Durant, along with the principals from Mount Ulla Elementary and West Rowan Middle School, spoke at a “coffee and conversations” meeting sponsored by Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody.

The meeting was a discussion of the “journey to transformation” the school system has been undergoing the past two years – particularly in regards to collaborative, moveable spaces and the implementation of technology.

At the meeting, the three principals talked about the changes they’d made in their schools. Changing teaching styles and classroom set-ups was necessary, Jennifer Warden, principal of Mount Ulla Elementary, said, because students think and learn differently than they have in the past.

“We’re thinking differently because our students are different than they were five years ago,” she said.

Students coming into elementary schools now have never known a world without technology, they are “never offline.” They learn in different ways, she said.

Over the past two years, Mount Ulla has transformed its classrooms and media centers to have collaborative spaces. Students can get up, walk around and move. They can work together, and write answers directly on tables.

Derek McCoy, principal of West Rowan Middle, said that flexible room design is key to learning. District classrooms now feature round tables, alternative seating and room to get up and move around.

“Who cares where you get the work done? Just get the work done,” he said.

Durant spoke about how expectations for the job field are changing. The number one ability employers look for now is creative problem solving. It’s a change that’s forcing a shift in education. McCoy said learning is less rote memorization, and more critical thinking.

“We want kids asking questions and getting to the why,” he said.

West middle has also implemented creative ways to use the one-to-one devices. McCoy said he’d heard many people say that students are addicted to devices, but he believes that’s incorrect.

“Students are addicted to information,” he said.

And his team has tried to use the tech to bring out and foster that intrinsic love of learning. Students use the devices to pull equations that they work out on table tops, or to piece together information for classroom-wide debates, where they’re expected to defend their view against their peers.

West Rowan High started up “Power U,” an hour in the middle of the day when students are free to attend clubs, do homework, meet with teachers or unwind with games on campus. The high school turned a section of its media center into a coffee-shop like space with a café and round tables and chairs.

Several of the ideas were pulled from local elementary schools. Durant said every staff member of West Rowan High visited an elementary school and brought ideas back with them – from round tables and repurposed furniture to chalk-painted walls.

If change is happening in an elementary school, Durant said, it needs to flow up the ladder, as well.

“We need to do these same things with high school students,” he said.

Moody said these changes, and those occurring at schools across the district, reflect ways the system is changing teaching styles to reach a new generation. The move is part of the system’s strategic plan, and Moody said that now that the changes are two years old, teachers will begin to fully utilize their new tools, instead of substituting them for old methods.

“It really is more of a journey . . . it’s just a continuous learning process,” she said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.