CLARK COUNTY — In the second year of rolling out its new academy model, Greater Clark County Schools Corp. will be given more flexibility to develop the program thanks to its membership of a freshly-minted statewide coalition.
Greater Clark County Schools Corp. (GCCS) is one of seven districts in the state that have banded together to form the Coalition of Continuous Improving School Districts. The coalition was created through the state legislature and gives the districts more flexibility to develop innovative practices for their students
The idea began in Chicago. Superintendent Paul Ketchum, who is credited with being the originator of the idea, learned about a coalition of innovative schools in Kansas.
“It takes the idea of a coalition of districts that want to innovate, and says if given flexibility and fertile soil we'll grow some great ideas,” Ketchum said.
The key is to let the district lead the way.
“Public schools feel like they get a lot of unfunded mandates that don't necessarily makes us better. If you came to our school and talked about what we're doing well, it wouldn't be the A-F accountability, it wouldn't be test scores," Ketchum said. "We are a high-performing school but that's not what makes a difference in kids lives. It's these other programs.” Those “other programs” that are impacting students aren't necessarily easy to expand due to state regulations.
“We were forcing kids to do things just to check boxes,” he said. For example, high school juniors are taking Algebra 2, a theory-based math class, and going to work in tool and die. “Why couldn't we count that work-based experience in lieu of sitting in the class?” he asked. “If we had the flexibility to count that, would we be better, is that what's best for kids?”
Ketchum pitched his idea for an Indiana coalition to State Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, in February 2017. Behning was in from the start.
“This makes a heck of a lot of sense,” he said. “Let's let some leaders out there in the state have the ability to put together innovative ideas and give them some flexibility while we are holding them accountable.”
Behning drafted House Bill 1398, signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb in March. The law established the Coalition of Continuously Improving School Districts and set a system to track the progress of the members and hold them accountable.
There are eight districts in the coalition to start with (including Batesville Community Schools and Greater Clark County Schools) and each year four more will be added until there are 32 members. Those members are able to have certain regulations and state statutes suspended by the state board. Different districts may aim to suspend different regulations, but in GCCS there are two main areas they are looking for leniency: curriculum and staffing.
THE ACADEMIES OF GREATER CLARK
Officials at GCCS wanted a change for their students and community and didn't care how easily it would come.
“We believed so strongly in the academy concept that we started this process a couple years ago and we were gonna find a way to make it work because we knew it was in the best interest of students and community,” Superintendent Andrew Melin said.
The Academies of Greater Clark will be fully implemented in the 2018-19 school year. Students choose a pathway during their freshman year and, starting their sophomore year, their classes are geared toward their selected pathway. There are four academies – Business & Entrepreneurship, Health Services, Engineering & Advanced Manufacturing and Public Service – which each house four pathways.
According to Melin, the government red tape can make it difficult to construct the academy model to its maximum potential and making it easier both on staffing and curriculum would make a difference.
As is, classes offered in the district are selected from a state-approved list. In most cases, these classes are enough to develop the program, but in some cases more specialization is necessary. Melin points to the business and nonprofit management pathway; there is no class on the state-approved list that truly encompasses that material. The district has “made it work” so far, Melin said, but that may not always be the case.
“What I would anticipate down the road is that we may have to create some specific classes in specific pathways that are not on that state approved list. If we need to do that, we need to be able to create it and not worry about whether the state will approve it or not. Creating our own curriculum, it's all about meeting student needs.”
Flexibility in which teachers take on classes in career pathways is also advantageous, he said.
“As we set up academies and pathways, big piece is we need best, qualified teachers to teach inside these academies and pathways. Here we are in the middle of what can be referred to as a teacher shortage in our state and so we need to have the flexibility to move teachers from certain areas of licenser to other areas that we need them in, certain pathways. We need the ability to move them where we think it's a best fit for them and our students,” he said.
He pointed to a scenario where a teacher may come from a legal background. Though they may not teach a legal-focused class currently, they would be a good fit for the law pathway. According to Melin, in the past “the state would make it more difficult for that to happen and now, under the coalition, we will have more flexibility to make that work if that's what we need.”
The whole idea, behind both the Academies of Greater Clark and the coalition itself, is to better prepare all students for what comes after graduation.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
When it comes to the skills gap, the divide between skills required to do a job and the skills present in the eligible workforce, it's a numbers game according to Paul Holba, Director of Talent Development and Skill UP Partnership for One Southern Indiana.
“If you look at the trends over the last 10 years fewer children are being born, families are being started later so you don't have that 2 to 1 or 1 to 1 replacement we used to have,” he said.
According to Holba, things aren't going to get better if businesses don't change how they tackle things. One component of that is the Academies of Greater Clark, a model which can make a difference if there is buy-in from businesses.
“The benefits on the company and business side is that if they want to get involved they will have first crack at these students that are taking the internships and maybe doing job shadowing at the business,” he said. Companies who bring in students for internships or job shadowing will have “first crack” at those future employees, Holba said.
With manufacturing a heavy trade in Indiana, Holba said preparing more student for those positions can benefit both the student and the community.
Behning said the same, explaining that there is a “crisis.”
“Number one, Indiana has a record low unemployment rate,” he said. “So it is a crisis in many of our communities because employers cannot get qualified employees. And it's a big focus by the general assembly at the moment and governor's office in terms of – what do we do to improve the earning potential and overall satisfaction of life by Hoosier adults and students? For too long too many of our schools have said it's a four-year college degree or nothing and the reality is we need kids to go get four-year degrees, but probably not as many as we have in pursuit today.”
According to Ketchum, preparing all students for what comes next is the core issue.
“Sixty-five to 70 percent [of Batesville graduates] earn a degree with academic honors or technical honors and are going to go to a four year degree,” Ketchum said. “That's great. But for the 30 to 35 percent who go into workforce, get certified or enlist, we want good options for those kids as well.”
Behning hopes that the school districts who are in the coalition will lead the state
“My real hope is we are going to start to crack the nut, especially in [career and technical education] so we can have more work study type programs and really prove to the rest of the state and to many communities that yes, a four year degree is important but it's not the only option," he said. "There are other viable options out there that are many times as rewarding as a four-year degree, especially in compensation.”