The Foundation for Saline Area Schools has launched a campaign to fund a pilot program designed to make the next generation of Saline school classrooms remain the best learning environments in the state.
Wednesday, at a Zingerman's catered lunch at Saline Middle School, local government, school, business and community leaders gathered as the Foundation for Saline Area Schools unveiled its strategic grant campaign to fund “next generation classrooms” in the district.
Since the beginning of the school year, students have been learning in re-designed, gadget-rich and more collaborative classrooms at Harvest and Heritage elementary schools and Saline Middle School. The district is watching these classrooms closely as it begins tho think of templates for “next generation” classrooms throughout the district.
This year, the foundation hopes to raise a minimum of $75,000 to support the pilot program.
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Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden said the district is going to measure the progress of the “next generation” classrooms.
“Does increasing engagement in the classroom increase learning? We're going to try to measure that,” Graden said. “We're trying to change the way students learn. So much of what we do now is teacher-directed. Students may be learning the same things (in the new classrooms), but we're going to try to teach them to be self-directed learners.”
Cheryl Hoeft, Foundation for Saline Area Schools board president, estimated it costs about $250 per student to provide the technology and materials needed to turn a class into a “next generation” classroom. With about 5,300 students in the district, that's around $1,325,000. The district can't afford such a cost at the moment. But if the foundation can raise more then $75,000, the district may be able to use elements of “next generation” classrooms at some of the other schools.
“We want to learn about the benefits of the program, figure out the best way to move forward, and then expand it from there,” Graden said. “We don't want to be spending a lot of money on tools that won't work. We want to be smart about it.”
A new style of learning may not result in higher test scores, Graden said, but it the hope is that it will have important long-term benefits for students.
“You have some students in our high school who 'do' school and they earn great grades. But the way they learn might not work for them in college or in their professional life. We want to create students who know how to learn,” Graden said. “It's hard for districts like Saline, with perceived high achievement, to change and evolve. People ask, 'Why would we change? We're doing great.' But there is always a better way. And if we don't seek it out, we're going to fall behind.”
The crowd that gathered Wednesday heard from students and teachers who've been operating in the “next generation” classrooms for almost a month now. Students in Kara Davis' seventh grade language arts class are learning in a next generation classroom. During the lunch, they visited tables to talk to people about their experiences.
“This is so much fun. We have iPads and Chrome books. I think we learn more and we have more fun,” Cam Bacarella told a group of visitors.
Davis has championed the use of technology in education for years. She was an early proponent of the Bring Your Own Device program at the middle school. Yet even she was surprised at how fast this has all come on.
“For the last 10 years, I've been saying at my open house that one day I'll see the day when students don't use paper. I didn't know that was going to start on July 18,” Davis said.
While people equate “next generation” classrooms with digital devices, Davis said there's much more at play.
“It's about establishing a different mindset around teaching and learning,” Davis said.
She said she “gave the students back” their classroom.
“I'm allowing students to go on their own journey by fostering an environment in which I am the mentor by their side – not the teacher,” Davis said.
Davis said it's important to give students choices in how they learn and to help students become creators and producers, not passive learners. She said she's already seen incredible changes in her students.
“They see themselves as not going through the motions and doing what they need just to get the grade, but they see themselves as learners and producers, and as part of the larger community,” Davis said.
Davis' classroom focuses around 21st Century literacies. Instead of rows of desks, students sit in “Starbucks-style” seating. There is also a garage door that opens to an outdoor learning space.
At Harvest Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Kristin Girbach and first grade teacher Deb Smith are piloting the classrooms, offering personalized learning through an app-based academic reading and math program. Mobile devices were assigned to students and teachers are using data to inform instruction and shape the academic growth of each learner.
At Heritage Elementary school, fifth grade teachers Kelly Widman and Julie Myers lead the “next generation” classrooms that are designed around collaboration and communication. Assignments and projects are non-traditional and encourage creative and critical thinking. Students are using mobile devices and online resources for “anytime and anywhere learning.
Saline Mayor Brian Marl, a 2003 graduate of Saline High School, urged the community to contribute what they can to the pilot program.
“We must prepare our young people to compete in a 21st Century global economy. We continue to hear, regrettably, about the way the American student has fallen behind in math, science and foreign language. Now more than ever, we must not lower our expectation,” Marl said. “Our students deserve better than that. Today, I choose to contribute to this effort because I believe it is critical for Saline Area Schools to remain on the cutting edge of education.”
In addition to financial donations, supporters can donate time, energy and expertise, Marl said.
Board of Education President David Holden said the Foundation for Saline Area Schools' fundraising campaign was critical to the district.
“The 21st Century Classroom is vital and the foundation supports that. And it's nice to have, as Cheryl Hoeft said, everybody on the same team,” Holden said. “We have the alignment we have to drive the district's strategic framework and we appreciate the support of the community in doing that.”