Weigh In: What's the Best Decision You Ever Made?
Superintendents share their district’s most beloved and successful programs.
"Our Intersession Program is an amazing addition," says Robert Slaby, superintendent of Storey County (NV) School District. "This is how it works: The 180-day school year for our high school students is divided into two semesters. In between those two semesters, in January, we have what's called our Intersession. During this time, teachers give instruction in a variety of subjects in which they have a strong interest. That could be anything from juggling to snow survival to Shakespeare to ceramics. Students who have done well during the first semester can take any of the enrichment courses, while students who have failed a class during their first semester or who have failed the state's proficiency exams have the chance to make up that work. Since they make up the work immediately—not during summer school, not the following academic year-they don't fall behind and they don't drop out. Instead, they have the whole month of January to get back on track.
"The program has been very successful. The teachers love it. The kids love it. Kids who have done well are rewarded with the opportunity to take a fun class. Kids who have fallen behind get one-on-one attention right away. But there's nothing about this program that by itself makes kids do well. You have to have a good program and very good teachers for kids to succeed."
"We involve our students in leadership decisions," says Tim Hanner, superintendent of Kenton (KY) County schools, "where they can actually make a difference. We've adopted an entire approach to promote student empowerment.
"We started a program called Shining Stars Mentors two years ago when I met with 15 students to talk about ways they could give back to the community. From that meeting, they created a program in which high school students were trained as one-to-one reading coaches to go into the elementary schools after school and tutor kids in reading.
"I agreed to meet with these volunteer tutors once a month to discuss what was and what wasn't working in the program. At our first monthly meeting, the initial 15 kids had recruited about 15 or 20 more kids. By the second meeting, 50 high school kids showed up. By the third meeting, 100 students wanted to be part of the program. With so many students interested in going into the elementary schools, we created a program in which high school students mentor elementary kids in any number of ways, not just in reading.
"By the end of the first year, 104 kids were involved in Shining Star Mentors. By the second year, 320 students participated. Today we have 720 students who are mentors. Here's why it works: The students took control of the program and it just exploded. They devised ways to make their peers want to be involved. They refused to market the program to one demographic, but set out to get all students involved. They created T-shirts that high school kids will actually wear and brought the elementary school children to visit the high schools so that the students could see the success of the program right in front of them. They started a Facebook page. They asked me to do a monthly video blog, or vlog, about the program, but it's their program. The kids have been empowered to take charge and lead it."
"We've built a project-based learning culture," says Brian Davis, superintendent of Holland (MI) Public Schools. "Our district joined the movement to increase 21st-century learning for high school students by joining the New Tech Network, a collaboration of higher education, business/industry, and K-12 education to better prepare graduates for college and career readiness. We implemented a New Tech High School this past fall. New Tech High Schools create a culture that empowers teachers and students through project-based learning in a 1:1 technology environment. Blending strong academic rigor and standards, students also focus on project-team development, creativity, critical thinking, oral and written communication, and problem solving-all standards that prospective employers are looking for. Once we decided to implement this high school, our community responded very positively. We've established several partnerships with higher education and local businesses and nonprofits. Already the results with our students have been quite amazing. Holland is one of the first six districts to open a New Tech High School in Michigan—now the fastest-growing New Tech state in the country."
"We've created ‘Innovation Grant' opportunites for our teachers," says Rosa Atkins, superintendent of Charlottesville City (VA) Schools. "Rather than use the funding we get for remediation solely to provide tutors or extra instruction for students, we also use it to award teacher grants. We ask our teachers to think about what kind of innovative initiative they would like to bring into their classrooms. Teachers then apply for funding by submitting a proposal. We review each submission, including the cost estimate, and then fund their ideas.
"This approach has also given us a way to research and develop new ideas in our district. Teachers have an idea, receive the funding for it, and then test it out in their environment. If it works there, we can spread that program to other classrooms—across the grade level, throughout the school, or to the entire district.
"This grant program is two years old. The first year about 15 teachers submitted proposals. This year, nearly 50 teachers did.
"Teachers know that we've now created an environment in which they can take risks. For example, one second-grade teacher wanted to give each of her students a Kindle. We funded that idea. It has been a huge hit with students. We tracked the number of additional books the students read because of the Kindles, and we saw an incredible increase. We reward teachers for thinking outside of the box, and this results in academic gains for our students."
"We're having great success with Walk to Read," says Jule Walker, superintendent of Plevna (MT) School District #55. "This is a leveled reading program in our elementary schools. For reading instruction, students walk to the classroom designated for their reading level. This ensures that they are reading at their level.
"We started it last year, and we're already seeing all students achieve academically. The advanced readers are excelling, and the more remedial readers are catching up. Students' grades in all subjects are improving because reading is so important for academic achievement.
"My second favorite program is called ‘What I Need time,' or win. During the last 30 minutes of the school day, we place elementary students, again according to achievement. They get additional reading instruction if they are reading below grade level. If they are above grade level, they get enhanced lessons-perhaps reading material for another core subject, like science.
"Both programs are successful because we have a very dedicated staff that makes the programs work."