USD 333 one of two districts granted innovative status

By Jessica LeDuc
Blade staff writer

 In a shift toward more local control for school districts, Concordia and McPherson were granted innovative status Wednesday, freeing them from state laws as they pursue certain education goals.
Both districts were chosen from eight initial applicants to be part of the Kansas Coalition of Innovative School Districts, which was established under a law enacted by the Legislature in 2013.
Concordia submitted an application and made a presentation to Gov. Sam Brownback, House Education Committee Chairwoman Kasha Kelly and Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams yesterday in Topeka. The three unanimously approved the first two districts, citing their goals and focus on improving achievement.
   "Today marks the first step in an exciting new process, which allows districts to create a better path for their students to become college or career ready," Brownback said.
  The applications now move on to the state board of education for approval, which could take up to 90 days.
 USD 333 Superintendent Bev Mortimer said Thursday morning becoming an innovative school will allow the district more freedom to reach its goal of graduating every student with at least a year of college and/or an industry recognized certification.
 "We did this to give our students more opportunities, that's what it all boils down to, and getting our kids ready," Mortimer said. "We have to put in place the best programs we can to help students reach their potential so the day they graduate, they're ready to move on to the next level."
  Concordia's application to become an innovative district asked that the district be exempt from licensing and recertification, specifically in its career and technical education programs, accreditation, new pathway creation, and offering local credit.
 "We want to avoid complacency by introducing innovative solutions, which allow educators to do what is best for students," the application said. "Limited personnel resources in rural areas hinder college and career easiness, while statutes in licensure, accreditation, CTE pathways and limits on local credits block districts like Concordia from bridging the gap and creating a seamless K-13 transition to post-secondary opportunities."
Mortimer said the district is currently fully accredited through AdvancED, a global accrediting agency.
 "It was a big process and it made us really accountable with what we do in the district," she said.
 The State Department of Education is now considering requiring districts to move to a districtwide accreditation, which Concordia already has. However, the DOE would not allow Concordia to use its current system, rather asking that they duplicate the process.
 "We don't want to duplicate that process. We have a process we think is above and beyond what the state is developing," Mortimer said. "We want to keep our process and not spend our time doing two things that are basically the same."
 The district also asked for flexibility and local control to be able to hire people who may not be "highly qualified" by state standards.
 As an example of hurdles the district faces in that department, Mortimer said if high school students take a physics class on the campus of Cloud County Community College, the state considers the college teacher to be highly qualified. But, if that same teacher comes to the high school, to teach the same class, the state will consider them to not be highly qualified because they lack a license to teach high school.
 "It just creates issues that we have to work around in our reports, and it shouldn't be that difficult and complicated," Mortimer said. "We're not a big enough school district for me to go hire someone to do a full program, but we have professionals in the community who could come in and teach a course for us."
 While the district's first goal is to hire a fully licensed teacher, it can be difficult to find someone to teach one or two classes, especially in the career and technical education courses.
 "If we could find a local certified mechanic to come in and teach a course for us, that makes more sense than trying to find someone for a full program, then have low numbers in the courses," she said.
 With hundreds of thousands of dollars having been cut from the district's budget over the years, Mortimer said the district needs to get creative – and innovative.
 "If we don't find different ways to do this job, we're just going to have a skeleton," she said. "If we try to stay traditional and do things like we've always done them, we're going to lose opportunities for kids because I don't think that money is coming back."
 The third exemption in Concordia's application centered around being exempted from restrictions that allow only certain career clusters and pathways. Mortimer said in working with the city and college, the district has found some pathways – classes that give students skills and certifications for the workforce – that would be more relevant to this area that do not yet exist.
 One such pathway would be for nursing, she said. Concordia currently offers certified nurse aid courses through a partnership with the college. The state's pathway – health science – is more general, Mortimer said.
"With our college offering nursing we think it makes more sense to have a pathway that takes them through nursing more specifically," she said.
The final exemption is from regulations and statutes that dictate awarding credit to students for extra-curricular activities and other experiences outside school.
 Under current state regulations, a student who is active in sports throughout the year would not receive any physical education credits. If that student could receive a PE credit for sports, Mortimer said it could free them up to take other advanced classes.
 "Our kids don't just learn from 8:30 to 3:30 every day inside the walls of our schools," she said.
The innovative schools law is not without its critics, including the Kansas National Education Association, which has raised concerns about districts that may seek to waive state teacher licensing and employment laws.
While the district would be exempt from the professional negotiations act, Mortimer said they have no intention of moving away from negotiations.
 "We feel like the negotiation process works and we don't intend to address that," she said. "It's really about the kids and if it's not something that's going to affect our kids and student achievement, then we're not going to go there with it."
 By granting innovative status, McPherson and Concordia would operate similarly to charter schools but still be accountable to the local school boards and the State Board of Education. McPherson superintendent Randy Watson will serve as chairman of the Innovative School District board. He and Mortimer will review the other applications for possible inclusion as innovative districts.
"We realize we've been given an opportunity and we want to make sure it works," Mortimer said. "I've never been in a position to just take off and do things. You learn a lot about what works and what doesn't work over the years, and we've just been turned loose to make these things work. We have a responsibility to do it right and show the strengths of public education and what we can accomplish if we work together."

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