KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: Kansas schools innovating a 21st century education

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"When I'm in there, I don't really feel like I'm in school," said Cole Thompson, a student at Haysville Campus High School.  He works in the branch of the Valley State Bank in the school's commons area.  His job part of the school's business program.

Banks, general stores, carpentry businesses, those are just some of the new ways Kansas schools are bringing your child's education into the 21st century.

"It is what we have used for years, for decades!" said Dustin Little, principal of Norwich High School.  He's talking about the traditional school scheduling.  "I mean, that's what I had when I was in school. It's what my mom had when she was in school. That's not the  most conducive to student centered learning."  

Which is why  Norwich High is experimenting with a flex schedule this spring semester.

The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) is working to bring public school education into the 21st century with a massive re-design program called Kansans Can, kicked off a couple years ago.  KAKE News Investigates found some schools are well ahead of that re-design curve, already matching how they teach to what students need to know when they graduate in 2019.

"Two vanilla iced coffees!" a student yells out from the Stompin' Grounds before classes begin on a Tuesday morning.

The coffee shop is part of the modern face of education in Kansas, and the students at Campus High love it.

"The thing about the coffee shop is it's real life experience," said Robbie Adamson, manager of Stompin' Grounds.

The coffee shop is student run, student operated, and student served.

"I am very hands off," said Zach Kliewer, head of Campus High's business department.  "I let them fail.  Like, if something is out of stock, I don't refill it.  I let the kids realize it's out of stock and refill it. If someone doesn't show up, I'm not the one who scolds them,  the managers talk to them."

Among the first of several student businesses teaching Kansas kids about the real world, Stompin' Grounds started in 2014 with an idea.

"We realized that we were dealing more like in hypotheticals with kids," Kliewer said.  "And we were like, 'Man, we are not giving kids any actual real world experience.

The teachers may have come up with the idea, but the students ran with it.  They wrote the business plan, got a loan from the school board, and now, not only operate the store, but do all the accounting and decide what happens with the profits.

They're not alone.  

Complete High Students in Maize spend several hours a week at the Reflection Ridge Retirement Community running a general store for the residents. 

"It's definitely not normal," said Jocelyne Wynegarner, a student at Complete.

They're learning not only math skills, but also communication skills - how to connect with people who aren't like you.

"Everybody sees the world differently throughout their own eyes," said Jocelyne.  "I wasn't typically used to spending time with people that are older than I am.  I didn't spend a lot of time with my grandparents.  So it's kind of nice to know somebody else's story, to see someone who's already gone this far in life and all the stories that they have and, like, metaphorical scars that they have."

While over at Andover High School, geometry class sure has a new sound to it, the sound of drills.

"Just the idea of, you know, having a math class and then applying that to the real world," said Ryan Organ, who's taking the new Carpenter's Geometry class at AHS.

There the technical education teacher teamed up with a math teacher to teach the new class.  Now, the kids are using geometry to build a new understanding of how the world works.

"Perseverance," said Chad Wilmott, the Geometry teacher.  "One thing we talk about as teachers is how do we teach these kids to have that grit and perseverance to, for lack of better words, get through the class."

The product of their labor is now something more than a score on a sheet of math problems.

"It helps you with your future," said Jocelyne about the real world experience of these programs.  "It helps you learn the different skills that you need."

The students in these classes are also learning what the KSDE calls soft skills, things like time management, communication, and community responsibility.

"After paying back our bank loan," Kliewer said about Stompin' Grounds, "We give out $10,000 in student scholarships and then we also give back to local and school run events."

Things the business community, universities and colleges all told Kansas educators that high school graduates are lacking.  And, in an era when the state says it will need 71% of workers to have some post-high school training, a training certification, associates, bachelors or higher degree, the biggest payoff may be in students' returned excitement for learning.

"That's an amazing way to start my day. not just like, 'Oh, I have to come in to school.'  But it's, 'I get to go to the coffee shop.'" said Chloe Ward who works at the Stompin' Grounds.

"There's not a question about, you know, 'Why am I doing this?'" said Ryan at Andover High.  "In one hour we're in there doing this and they're like, 'Ok, now you know how to do this, we're going to actually apply it now.'"

"Pretty much everything I'm going to be able to take after high school and apply to my adulthood," said Cole about what he's learned working at the bank branch at Campus High. "When I'm in there I don't really feel like I'm in school."

Every student KAKE News Investigates spoke with said that these programs have made them re-evaluate their plans after high school and many are now thinking seriously about post-high school training, when they weren't before.

These programs are so successful that most schools are looking at ways to expand them.  At Campus High, the year after Stompin' Grounds opened for business Valley State Bank moved in, providing banking internships for students right in the school.  Students who've worked at either the coffee shop or the bank have had 100% placement rates for similar jobs after they graduate.

"I love coming to school on Wednesdays just because I get to do what I want for the day," said Kodie Dopps.  "I get to, like, be productive.  It's like an enjoyable day at school."

While over in Norwich, they've decided the future of education lies in a new type of class schedule.  One way to make sure students get those soft skills businesses and higher education say high school graduates lack, is to give them more responsibility for their education.  

"I don't know if that's right..." one student said. 

"You didn't close the parentheses," another pointed out.

They may be in a math classroom, but it's Wednesday, which means it's hard to find the official teacher.  On Wednesdays, classrooms at Norwich more closely resembled a study hall, one where the students get to decide how long they stay, or if they're coming at all. 

"We get this misconception sometimes that it's a free day," said Principal Dustin Little.  "It's not.  It's a deeper concept day."

"Today I've already gotten two math assignments done, along with my science test," said student Ethan Westlake. 

Every Wednesday, Norwich High School divides the day into 27 minute blocks.  Students get to pick how many of those blocks they spend in which classroom, based on what they need and want to work on.

"I get the day to just focus on what I need to focus on," said Kodie.

There are limits. Students have to visit at least four teachers during the day. 

"It's all up to the students on making sure that they get to where they need to be, when they need to be there," Kodie added. 

That's helping them learn those soft skills like better time management. 

"It's helped me and other students get stuff done when we need to, when we're normally behind in our classes," said Ethan..

In addition it's a low-stress to stress-free learning environment, like the micro sessions students can attend when they're all caught up on other work..

"We did a yoga session at the beginning of the year," said Kodie.  Her English teacher taught it.  "He told us that he knew how to do some yoga before.  But then he did it with us and it's like, 'Ok, Mr. Rowe."

"No grade involved.  It's just something the kid is interested in doing.  I've had kids approach me about hosting their own micro-sessions," Little said.  "We have a group of kids that simply goes to the park with a sponsor and reads under a tree."

Little says he's still got his handful of freebirds who try to duck the system.  But it's nothing new.

"We needed to jump.  We needed to move.  Otherwise we would just spin our wheels and look at everything that could go wrong and never give it a chance to go right," he said.  "We're still continuously working on it.  We're improving how our students move.  We're improving the logistics of how we know where kids are at."

"The whole idea is not that students are always going to pick the best way, but to go, 'Ok, this didn't work.  What do you need to think?'" explained Nathan Bonham, Norwich's science teacher.

He says teachers have struggled a bit with figuring out how to work lesson plans around the new schedule.

"When we lose track students, that's about half my class.  That, combined with the flex day, is days for direct instruction that I don't have," he added.

But, he says, the flex scheduling is working better than most expected. 

"I'm impressed by the amount that our kids will go out there, work on stuff individually, work on things with teachers one on one, get in small groups and work together on an upcoming project," said Little.  "Because it's about them.  They know that if they don't do it, nobody's going to force them to do it."

Norwich just came up with the idea of the flex schedule day last fall, and implemented it beginning in January.  They're already talking about how to expand it.  

KAKE News Investigates asked students if they felt the flex scheduling had changed them.

"As a person, no.  But, academically, yes," Ethan said.  "I'm still the same weird person I always am, no matter what I do.  But, it's definitely  helped me academically. I've learned a lot more.  I'm able to push myself to do a lot more."

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