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Greenfield - Around 100 parents, teachers, and a few high school students sat down to talk about the future of learning in the Whitnall School District at a community conversation the district held Wednesday, Nov. 30.

The goal of the evening discussion was for people in the community to share their opinions of what effective education might look like in the district, a discussion that started with a screening of the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed" the district held earlier in November. Almost 500 people attended the screening.

The documentary takes a look at High Tech High, a school in California where the curriculum is based on student-imagined projects rather than traditional lectures and testing, and asks how education needs to change from its 19th century origins in order to prepare students for the modern job market and community.

"This isn't to watch the documentary and say, 'how can we become like that school,' but to spark thinking and ask what can we be doing...Are we teaching them (the students) the skills they will actually need in 'the real world?'" said Whitnall Superintendent Lisa Olson. "We want to give everyone a voice."

Is personalized learning the future? 

The district has already started taking steps away from the traditional classroom by starting the Personalized Learning Experience (PLEx) program, which allows students to approach education in a way best suited to their learning style and pace. According to school officials, this program has been very successful so far in the elementary schools.

The next step in educational reform then might be to figure out how this effective personalized model might be adapted to work in the middle and high schools, something that Olson hoped might be touched on in that night's conversation.

"It's (PLEx) really changing the educational model," Olson said, asking, "What if we don't have a traditional model, but something a little different?"

Documenting a community of ideas 

That evening, participants sat down in small groups and discussed three different questions centered around what a "perfect day of learning" would look like, the pros and cons of the traditional education format, and how to "break down the walls of traditionalism" in schools.

One person from each group recorded the collection of ideas on a large piece of paper that were later posted around the room for everyone to read.

The various pieces of paper documented a variety of different ideas. Some were contrasting, as one group suggested that the "perfect school day" might be more calm and quiet, and one noted that a "controlled chaos" of activities might be best.

Some ideas were echoed in a variety of papers, like the idea that students need some sort of choice in what to learn in a "perfect" classroom. It also seemed to be a consensus that a good education system focuses on students and student needs.

Getting the community on board 

A few groups suggested that one essential element to make any sort of change is a significant engagement, or "buy-in," from the greater Whitnall community, which includes parents, students, teachers, administration, and non-parents in the community.

At the discussion night, there was a large number of parents and teachers, and a handful of administrators, but the conversation lacked a significant engagement from non-parents in the community, with only one participant identifying themselves as a non-parent, just a community member.

The idea was echoed in the large discussion portion of the evening.

"How do you get buy-in when 95 percent of people aren't here?" Asked one participant.

Next steps 

Moving forward, the district will use the input from the community conversation as the board and administration start to possibly make changes.The information documented on the large pieces of paper will be transcribed then posted online, and the feedback, especially the common themes, will also be referenced when the district starts discussing how to make changes in committee.

As this is still the beginning of a larger plan and discussion, there is not yet a finite plan for how the night's information will specifically be used. Olson said that there are a variety of different steps forward, from more discussions, to giving it to the district's steering committee, or starting another committee altogether.

Regardless of the direction, Olson hopes to keep the community in the loop.

"We're still on the journey; we just started it," Olson said. "There will be many more opportunities to keep engaged."

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