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School district to hold “Renewal Reveal” on Friday

By Andie Foley
andie.foley@salisburypost.com

The Wallace Educational Forum will this week welcome a wide range of invited guests: elected officials, college and university leaders, employers, members of the faith-based community, barbers, beauticians and Realtors.

This eclectic mix is what Rowan-Salisbury School Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody called “a scattering of community leaders.” Invitees were hand-selected and will be brought together for a “Renewal Reveal” held Friday at noon.

The F&M Bank-sponsored, lunchtime reveal is an effort to inform key members of the community of coming changes to Rowan-Salisbury’s world of education — “so that they can help tell the story of where we’re headed with renewal,” said Moody.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools was declared a Renewal School District in August of last year. This distinction gave all 34 — then 35 — schools in the district charter-like flexibility in terms of funding, curriculum and instruction.

Since that time, the district has been hard at work to develop a new directional system: a set of overarching goals to guide its numerous school sites as they explore their newfound freedom.

For school system Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Smith, this notion of school autonomy is “something pretty unusual in public education.”

“Usually it’s one-size-fits-all and we develop one cookie-cutter response to everything at the district level and then scale that out to all the schools,” he said. “Now, we’re approaching that differently and acknowledging that each school has unique students, unique needs.”

According to Smith, the Rowan-Salisbury school system has a diverse population. Some students are facing rural poverty, while others are in urban poverty, and the interventions for either are vastly different, he said.

Renewal has offered the chance for educators at each individual school site to identify their own unique needs and, accordingly, plan the interventions necessary to solve them.

The planning process

When the school system received renewal provisions last fall, district staff first began work to develop the directional system.

This higher set of goals moves beyond standardization and state-mandated practices, said Moody. It’s a three-part system, focusing on academics, unique life goals and interpersonal skills, each coming together to create an educational experience tailored to the individual student.

With this guiding set of principals, rigorously selected teacher-led design teams were then tasked with developing processes for achievement therein.

As a starting point, said Smith, educators were asked to identify the top three most prioritized needs in their school.

“Once you understand your needs, then you can start to start to say ‘well, how can I fix that?’” he said. “In order to fix it, you have to know the root cause of it.”

The planning process for individual school plans has therein been time-intensive, said Moody, something she calls her greatest underestimation. Ideally, she’d have teacher-led design teams be 12-month employees, she said.

“We’re trying to learn to be patient but push,” said Moody. “We don’t have forever.”

But, she said, it’s been interesting to hear the concepts of educators as they envision their new and perfect school models and what they will look like.

Some teams, said Smith, have been quick to push boundaries and seek innovation under the new flexibility. He called ideas presented by these groups “renewal-ly,” an internal term for wild and imaginative concepts that could vastly reshape the Rowan-Salisbury educational experience.

Some suggestions required input from an innumerable amount of district staff.

“When you want to do something radically different, that changes the time of day, that changes transportation schedules, that has to get approval from a lot of different departments internally,” he said.

Therein, the planning process has been one of constant motion and with all hands on deck. Draft plans were presented in front of a team of district staff, with each live-typing feedback into a Google document.

Next, Smith said the system used software from Monday.com, allowing for critical players to be tasked with checking over suggested innovations, making sure none conflicted with federal funding regulations like Title 1.

“We still have rules we’ve been sure we’ve been thoughtful about,” said Moody. “But we don’t want schools bogged down in trying to sort through that. We want them to be free to think.”

A preview of innovation

This freedom to think has led to varying ideas from across Rowan-Salisbury’s numerous school sites, said Moody. Some proposed changes focused mostly on the inner workings of each campus, ideas like rearranging the courses in a school day or letting electives drive core classes.

But others were seemingly more radical, requiring participation from multiple different departments across the system. Teacher-led design teams have proposed everything from later start times or varied school shifts to new practices like serving breakfast on the bus or providing transportation or incentives for parental involvement.

“Some of the things we’re going to be doing we know we won’t do forever,” said Moody. “We could try them and find out they didn’t work, or we might expand it. That’s the value of 34 schools having a plan, too.”

As an example of innovative ideas catching on at other sites, Moody pointed to Knollwood Elementary School principal Shonda Hairston. Hairston saw a need in Knollwood’s population of ESL-learners for real world experiences on which to tie learning.

Using funding freedom, she shifted from a more tried-and-true practice of providing afterschool tutors to instead providing biannual expeditions or field trips for every grade level.

And just like that, said Moody, learning started to click.

“Kids were reading everything they could get their hands on related to where they were going, because they were so excited about their exhibitions,” said Moody.

As other schools have witnessed this soar in enthusiasm, participation and — as a bonus — parental engagement, talks of similar plans have trickled outward.

“It’s a different way of scaling innovations,” said Smith. “The old way of scaling innovation was top down. … Now, we’re scaling innovation up. If it works here, people look at it and see it … and I can see it blossoming around.”

Friday’s reveal

Though individual school plans are yet being finalized, Moody said that Friday’s reveal will offer a “deep dive” into these and other unique opportunities of renewal.

The focus of the presentation will be the district’s direction system and its outlined standards of practice, student promises, expectations and more.

“We believe that if people in the community understand where we’re trying to head, they’ll have some ownership and buy in to the renewal plans,” said Moody.

That buy in, she said, meant the school system was extending an invitation for collaboration from attendees: “We’re hoping there will be ideas about how they would like to get involved in the process to be ‘community thought partners’ with us through this directional system.”

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