With new manual in hand, changes coming for Missoula schools

2011-08-29T06:15:00Z 2011-08-29T06:48:59Z With new manual in hand, changes coming for Missoula schoolsBy JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
August 29, 2011 6:15 am  • 

Years from now, Missoulians may look back at the summer of 2011 as the season the walls began to crumble.

It is a seismic vision of change that the Missoula County Public Schools district now has in its hands, after all. But if it's truly going to be earth-moving, then it has to start jumping off the print of an 84-page manual to guide all-encompassing changes in Missoula education.

"This," said MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle, "will not just go on a shelf and collect dust."

It would be expensive dust if it did.

"This" is the bound report, "Model of Change: A Framework for Education in the 21st Century," the document that MCPS paid a consulting group $150,000 to produce over the past year.

In it are the results of workshop after workshop, survey after survey, a massive compilation of thoughts and ideas from education "stakeholders" - the focus-group, consensus-driven euphemism for teachers, parents, students and businesses.

And as such, it contains the expansive vocabulary of modern educational and corporate buzz-phrases, like "dynamic learning environment" and "authentic learning experiences" and "model collaborative approach" and "empowered decision-making."

But it will mean big changes in the education of 8,500 Missoula schoolchildren as it unfolds into reality.

Even a no-nonsense educator like Melanie Charlson sees that.

"I just saw this document with fresh eyes myself," said Charlson, a 22-year mathematics teacher in MCPS and new president of its teachers union. "But for the last couple of months, I've been asking my own questions and doing my own research. It's just really solid and contains great teaching practices."

Teaching and learning will look much different than it does right now when the district implements the report's ideas.

Imagine:

  • Completely realigned and reconfigured school schedules;
  • High-school students studying health sciences in cooperation with St. Patrick Hospital;
  • Smartphones and iPhones not as contraband distractions, but learning tools for students;
  • Learning targets, not grades, as measures of student achievement;
  • Students learning English and language arts on a collaborative wiki;
  • Internships for credit;
  • Schools gutted of classrooms, where cross-disciplinary learning can occur;
  • Students and teachers armed and updated with the latest technology.

*****

Those are some of the possibilities mentioned in the report, which is open-ended enough to give Missoulians and their children plenty of room to put their own stamp on it.

Apostle, who was hired three years ago to make such changes, said 21st century education - known as "Forward Thinking, High Achieving" in MCPS - must not be confused with the mere embracement of technology.

"This effort is not really focused on technology," he said. "It's focused on relationships between staff and kids and community. That will go a long ways into moving the agenda. Technology is part of it, but it's a very small part of it overall."

No education philosophy - 21st century or not - would be any good if it didn't make all children more knowledgeable and critical thinkers, said Mark Thane, curriculum director for MCPS. The current model may be working for most, but not all students, he said. And it ignores the reality seemingly inexhaustible change and innovation.

"The emphasis needs to be on the learner," he said. "The Bell Curve was really designed to sift and sort students. We're not interested in sifting and sorting them. We want every kid to master the material. The old model was the Bell Curve. Now, it's the J-curve."

It is 21st century education that is leading MCPS' other initiatives, like Graduation Matters Missoula and "student achievement for all," said Apostle.

"The 21st century program is the driver of everything we're going to do in this district," he said.

*****

Students will notice the sweeping changes in their education, but it's the teachers who have to adapt to the new environment most. In that sense, they will become students themselves, said Charlson. And the district owes it to them to be as supportive and patient as possible, giving them ample time and resources to, in some sense, relearn their profession.

And that means teachers will be teaching teachers.

"Collaboration is going to be how we're doing business instead of just shutting their door and teaching," she said. "We need to be seeing the kids as collectively ‘our' kids, and not ‘I have this classroom with my students.' "

What's next? Over the next 18 months, MCPS and its various school- and community-based committees will be putting the plan into action. Leaders of the initiative will meet monthly, then weekly, to be updated on the progress at the school level. Each school's principal will form a leadership group of teachers and community members.

And all along, there will be public involvement and scrutiny of the process. They are the public's schools and it is the public's resources, said Apostle, who rarely downplays the importance of education.

"When you embark on this kind of work, you need to know why you're spending the money and the energy," he said. "Our why is very clear. It's our kids. It's our community's future, our state's future, our country's future. And we can do our little part with 8,500 kids."

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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