Article originally published by Community Health Magazine, Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas (ESSDACK), Autumn 2020
Even before the pandemic, rural communities were wrestling with how to expand educational options to students without having access to resources, funding, and additional specialty teachers. Many of these schools struggle to gain additional support due to their geographic location or shrinking student population.
A small rural district in Stafford, KS has figured out a way to do just that — expand opportunities for students without an influx of resources, funding, or additional staffing.
“We figured out a few years ago that by leveraging synchronous and asynchronous learning alongside individualized student paths of study, we could not only expand the options we make available to students, but also get students actually engaged in their learning,” said Mike Cargill, Science Teacher at Stafford.
Stafford champions a better way forward for rural students with increased opportunities and deeper learning. Educational leaders can similarly pave the way for rural schools everywhere to adopt a different mindset, create independent paths of study, and implement the Headrush learning platform.
Adopt a Different Mindset
Stafford’s approach involves adopting an agile mindset that focuses around designing learning experiences as an iterative process. With an emphasis on learning by doing, students can demonstrate competencies in individualized ways. This shifts the role of the educator as a whole student advisor, compared to a traditional deliver-er of content, where advisors mentor personal learning experiences in asynchronous or synchronous environments.
“It’s not an easy switch, especially for those teachers who are not project-oriented to begin with,” explains Cargill. “Before we adopted a different mindset, every Sunday night I had to write 60 different lesson plans to show what students were doing.” Since student work is individualized, cross circular, and connected to external certifications, planning does not fit neatly inside traditional course buckets; this is why having an agile system in place for planning and management is key to save time and energy in the long run.
Adopting an agile mindset has proven to be well-worth the transition on behalf of the administrators, educators, and learning community at Stafford as a whole. “This mindset shift has laid the foundation and provided golden opportunities to enable options our rural districts were previously unable to explore,” states Cargill.
Create Independent Paths of Study
By creating independent paths of study, students are set up for personal success. “I can’t afford to teach a python [course] to one student,” says Cargill, “and yet if a student has an interest in building games or programming, that’s what would set them up for success.” Independent paths of study allows students the autonomy to become experts in their own areas of interest.
Another benefit of this approach is how it enables more students to earn industry certifications, such as Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPHT), Phlebotomist, Arduino Programming Certification (ACP), Residential Design, Legal Assistant, and more, all alongside their other areas of study. “Certifications are a big deal for my kids… specifically in the medical field; it gives them a jump start to post secondary possibilities as well as an immediate opportunity for employment/internship,” states Cargill.
He continues, “One of the main goals of Stafford USD 349 is to prepare students to pursue industry recognized certifications. The students are allowed to move through the program at their own pace. The task boards that are used as the examples prepare the students for careers as a certified pharmacy technician and a certified electronics technician. Both programs are developed according to the benchmarks established by the Kansas Department of Education. After completing the pathways, the students are prepared to successfully enter the post-secondary requirements and sit for the certification exam.”
Stafford is just one of many schools and organizations that use Headrush task boards to navigate independent paths of study for students. Students can demonstrate their understanding of custom competencies and earn credits towards certifications through the Headrush Learning Platform, as seen in the following task boards.
Implement the Headrush Learning Platform
A key component of Stafford’s expansion of this model has been the addition of the Headrush Learning platform. “Since Headrush, I no longer need to do that extra work to justify this approach, I can just point the state/administration to a summary in Headrush for transparent tracking of student learning. That in itself has been a huge timesaver for me and would be what I’d recommend for anyone wanting to replicate this approach,” says Cargill.
ESSDACK has been a supporter of these kinds of initiatives. Their organization helps school districts across Kansas modernize and redesign themselves according to the Kansas Can framework via professional development and coaching. “We’re grateful to be in a state that has, for many years now, prioritized strategies that are learner-centered, more equitable, and better preparing students for the world they will enter as they graduate,” says Dr. Mike Cook, Executive Director of ESSDACK.
Educational leaders who attempt to manage and scale project-based learning within larger learning communities understand the value of a tool like Headrush. “Projects have always been in my wheelhouse as a teacher, and when I transitioned to developing more individual projects and really focused on student voice and choice, that is where it got messy! In using Headrush, one of the things that has helped me so much is that I can see right where students are at in their project of choice. As a teacher, this is amazing; I can pull up Headrush and go right into a conferring meeting with a student. I am really able to focus on what the student has been learning, what roadblocks they are facing, and what support they need. With Headrush, the student is in charge of their learning and, as the teacher, I get the privilege of being on the journey with them, guiding them, asking questions, and supporting them,” says Carmen Zeisler, Director of ESSDACK Learning Centers & Educational Consultant.
As Stafford shows us a new way forward for rural schools and communities, consider: What independent paths of study could you provide to your students quickly? How are you embracing an asynchronous mindset to encourage student-led learning? What platforms do you use to support the transparent tracking and managing of agile learning?