Friday, February 17, 2017

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Do you want to know a secret?  Last week ended with a several exciting announcements for Isle of Wight County Schools.  We unveiled our educational plans for both Smithfield and Windsor High Schools.  And we had a major donation from Smithfield Foods in support of our vision for high school redesign.  Somehow we were able to keep that a secret for over two months before the official announcement. 

So why make these changes?  The proposals we presented support our vision, which is to create a learning environment that enables every child to discover his or her unique talents and gifts.  We strongly believe in focusing on the process or the journey that students take in their learning and less on the outcome. To become innovators our students need to be allowed to stumble and make improvements along the way.  We do not believe this can be accomplished without redesigning the high school experience for our students.

In early 2016, we hosted a business roundtable where representatives from business and industry shared with educators the skills students need to be successful in their company.  We learned from the business leaders that students need experiences different from what they are getting in the traditional classroom.  Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication were the skills they identified students should have in order to be effective employees.  In addition, they need hands-on, real-world experiences, both in and out of the classroom.

The plan we shared last week emphasizes our commitment to preparing our students for college, career and life.  At Smithfield High School, we will retrofit the old “E” Building behind the school to accommodate several Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.  There will be a commercial-grade kitchen for Culinary Arts, a MakerSpace for students to design and build their own products and creations, a realistic lab for the Nursing program, as well as labs for welding, mechatronics and global logistics.  A generous $3 million donation from Smithfield Foods will be used to establish the Smithfield Foods Legacy Project.  The funding will support the MakerSpace area, as well as a JROTC fieldhouse and a Multi-Use Pavilion.  Specifically, the donation will enable us to provide the kind of spaces where students will be able to use their minds, their hearts, and their hands to create beautiful quality work. Windsor High will be home to a Greenhouse, Construction Lab and Cosmetology program.  To expand on the highly successful Ag program, we plan to use land behind Windsor Elementary School to construct a working farm.  

While most of the plan focuses on career and technology programs, there are components in the re-design that modify existing spaces into areas that encourage collaboration, showcase student work and facilitate a healthy lifestyle.  Both high schools will see renovated cafeterias and media centers, as well as the conversion of other areas into more collaborative settings. At Windsor High, that includes an Outdoor Classroom, Art Courtyard and changes to the existing space for Outdoor Dining. Smithfield High will have an exercise/fitness room for use by students and staff, and an Athletic Fieldhouse with a weight-room for all sports’ teams.

By reallocating the money currently budgeted for the Pruden Center, which we will no longer attend next year, in conjunction with some adjustments to our current funding, and the significant donation from Smithfield Foods, we will be able to make all of these projects a reality.  

The changes coming to Smithfield and Windsor High have been recognized by others as necessary to prepare students for a global economy.  In his remarks to SHS students, Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan addressed the importance of keeping up with changing needs of businesses and industry.  "You have to change; you have to innovate; you have to adapt in education, just as you do in the business world. If you don't, you will not be successful."  An editorial in the Daily Press on February 13 also praised the vision we have for our high schools.
High school students who have an early eye toward their career paths will be able to learn a wide range of technological skills — for example, welding — that will give them tremendous advantages in a job market that is looking hard to find prospective workers with specific skills and certifications.  For students to be able to acquire these skills as part of their public high school education is an immeasurable benefit.
I’m attaching the presentations that were shared with students, staff and the community at SHS and WHS so you can see what each plan includes.  I am also listing links to several articles written about the plans for both high schools, including the donation from Smithfield Foods.  I look forward to sharing our progress on these plans with you in a future blog. 

Links to News Coverage

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Journey through Deeper Learning

Students in Mrs. Judith Hasty’s class at Carrsville Elementary School are learning about Jamestown.  They are also studying animals, as well as working on their reading and writing skills.  Sounds like a typical 4th grade classroom.  But unlike a typical classroom, the students are learning all of these things through a classroom project.  Groups of students have assumed the persona of different animals.  They have researched what the animals eat, their diet, lifespan, habitat, and defense mechanisms.  But their animals are on a journey to Jamestown.  Lizards, frogs, mice, even crickets.  Equipped with detailed knowledge of their animal, the students researched the conditions of the trip—how would they find food and shelter?, what predators would they encounter and how would they protect themselves?, how would they survive on the ship and once they arrived at Jamestown?

When I visited the classroom the students were eager to share their work on the project.  They were critically thinking through their situation and putting themselves into character of their animal.  They were taking details about the ship and Jamestown and analyzing how their animal would, or wouldn’t, survive.  The students were collaborating with each other and demonstrating meaningful communication.  They explained how they were critiquing each other's work and giving kind, specific and helpful feedback.  

Once their stories are finished, they will publish them in a book which will be sold on Amazon.  Imagine having your project seen by people all across the world!  Connecting class work to the real world makes the assignment much more meaningful—authentic-- than one only graded by the teacher and handed back.

I have a video of my visit to Mrs. Hasty’s class that I hope you will watch.  The conversations with the students are spontaneous and unrehearsed.  They are enthusiastic about their project and excited to soon be published authors as fourth graders.  Mrs. Hasty also shares her thoughts about trying something that was outside of her comfort zone and the results she has seen so far. Like a good movie, the video will make you laugh, make you think, and may even make you cry, especially the story of the crickets.  This is a great example of the impact that deeper learning has on our students, as well as the skills and knowledge they gain from authentic experiences.  I can’t wait to read their book once it’s published.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading is My SuperPower!

We all know the importance of children having a strong foundation in reading.  In many cases, the cause of students struggling academically in middle and high school can be traced back to their reading success in elementary school.

We have placed a high priority on having each of our K-2 students reading on grade level by the time they are in third grade in the year 2020. To meet this goal, we have implemented several programs in kindergarten, first and second grades.

We have introduced a new literacy program through the American Reading Company which focuses on individualizing literacy instruction for every K-2 student.  Teachers are working with their students, tracking their literacy progress, and introducing literacy strategies to move students from where they are to where they need to be. The program incorporates more non-fiction reading, as well as writing, to ensure students are covering all the components of literacy.

We kicked-off the new reading program with a campaign to get them excited about reading.  We placed banners in the schools announcing Reading is my SuperPower!  

Who doesn’t love super heroes?  We want our students to realize the impact and power of being a good reader.  The schools have taken this theme further with the building administrators becoming “caped crusaders” and the students earning their own capes as they meet certain benchmarks.
We also started a “Reading Across Isle of Wight County” activity with our K-2 students.  Big banners with a map of the county and all 9 schools are hanging in Carrollton, Carrsville, Hardy and Windsor elementary schools.  

Students record the number of books they read during the nine weeks.  A certain number of books equals “steps” on the map.  They map their journey throughout the year to all the schools in the division.  When the students reach a school, they get to see a special video from the administrator of that school welcoming them and congratulating them on all of their hard work. We love to celebrate our students’ accomplishments! 

Another important part of developing student literacy is providing students opportunities to hear books read to them.  We know there can be a great disparity regarding children being read to outside of school.  To emphasize the importance of reading, all Central Office employees serve as Reading Buddies to several students in kindergarten through second grade.  Every week, each staff member meets with their students for 30 minutes and spends time building a positive relationship by reading to them.  This is a commitment from every Central Office person—administrators, secretaries, technicians—everyone! Our actions show the importance we place on reading; it isn’t just lip service.  To see pictures of our Reading Buddies, just click on the Reading Buddies link below. 

Since we started our focus on reading in the fall, we are already seeing a different culture throughout our schools.  Students are excited; teachers are excited; there’s a whole new energy in the schools.  Even our students' families are reading with their children for 30 minutes each night. But the real test will be seeing our students become accomplished readers.  We owe it to them to ensure they receive the necessary foundation to prepare them to be college, career and life ready.