The Rowan-Salisbury School System (RSSS) is an innovative, forward-thinking district. RSSS was one of the first public school districts in the state to implement a 1:1 model of technological instruction, meaning that students in grades 3-12 have a technological device that goes home with them.
So, it was not surprising when RSSS took another step to continue being a champion of education in North Carolina and became a renewal school district last August. For many educators, students, and families around the county, this designation created lots of questions, but also a lot of excitement.
In a nation where our education system is often classified as “broken,” Rowan County taking steps to become the first renewal school district in N.C. and “walk the walk” instead of just “talking the talk” proves that we want a better future for the children in Rowan County, and we aren’t going to sit around and wait for others to improve education…we will do it!
Renewal: A.K.A Renovation, Improvement, or Rebuilding
So what does all this mean? Trust me, we don’t have all the answers— no one does. I met with Andrew Smith, the Chief Strategy Officer for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, to talk all things renewal. He said that the term “renewal” was actually made up for us, which shows just how new this idea is, but we see school autonomy like renewal present in places like Denver, Colo., New Orleans, La., and Indianapolis, Ind.
“Our intent is to look at the states listed above as models, take the best parts of them, and adopt them as our own. We’re trying to change the system to better meet the needs of kids in Rowan County,” Smith says.
This designation of “renewal” gives all schools in the district charter-like flexibility, meaning our schools can now opt-out of some of the rules that traditional schools follow.
Smiling, Smith explains that “for once, decisions about Rowan County are being made in Rowan County rather than Raleigh. The flexibility that it allows us to use in our schools gives us the opportunity to make Rowan-based decisions, rather than Raleigh-based, which gives us the ability to solve issues specific to our schools.”
The renewal plan is a proactive educational approach that will prepare our future scholars for life after high school… the real world. Some students will go forth to receive a degree, maybe from one of the four institutions of higher learning in Rowan County. Others might start entrepreneurial or learn a trade. But all of our students will be prepared with a unique, and valuable education.
Because of this designation, our school district is making lots of changes. We no longer have to give all the state-mandated exams that haunt our children’s minds and self-esteems yearly. We have the unique opportunity to aid in transforming our education system, as we are a model of renewal to other counties in the state.
One of the first things RSSS did with its new freedom was change the school calendar. In the past, we had to follow the state’s start time. With the new calendar beginning in early August 2019, high school students will take exams before leaving for Christmas break, students will get out for summer break in May, and we will be better aligned with the early college.
Additionally, we can now hire high quality individuals from their fields to teach. For example, a doctor of 15 years, under the current state system, is not allowed to teach an anatomy course in our schools without taking lateral entry courses. Now, we can hire actual masons to teach Masonry, or actual forensic scientists to teach Forensics.
As a teacher in the county myself, the most exciting thing about renewal is that my students are no longer measured by a standardized test score; instead, I can watch them grow, learn and ENJOY English, and then measure them with criterion that really matter in the 21st century: work ethic, grit, persistence, ability to collaborate, think critically, and communicate effectively, etc.
This year, since teachers don’t have to “teach to the test,” we have the freedom to make decisions about what the curriculum should look like and create meaningful, innovative projects for students. I haven’t had to worry as much about teaching this certain novel, this play, this short story, and these poems decreed by the state in one semester. Instead, I have focused on the literature that is most relatable to my students’ real worlds and have created projects that make them think critically about real problems for which they have to find a solution, and then present to real audiences. Because of these changes in my classroom, I have seen an increase in student engagement and a less stressed classroom environment.
Wendy Fontenot, an 11th grade English II and III teacher at East Rowan High School, says that she loves having the freedom to create meaningful and relevant lessons to better benefit her students. Because of renewal, she says her students have the opportunity to dive deeper into projects than in previous years.
“Although my students typically participate in a PBL entitled “Change the World” where they work collaboratively to solve a problem at our school, in our community, state, country, or the world, this semester, we were able to take their efforts to the next level,” she says. “We partnered with Michelle Cheshire’s English class from Knox Middle School. Students collaborated via Zoom (which works like FaceTime) and met each other on a field trip to Rowan Helping Ministries and Faithful Friends, where they volunteered and delivered the supplies that they had worked to collect. This is meaningful for students because it helps create a sense of community and allows them to see the importance of helping others less fortunate.”
Additionally, she is thrilled about the installation of a Virtual Reality Lab at East this year. Because of renewal, her students were able to work with Becky Sabo’s Project Management students to help them bring the poems that they wrote to life. “My students were introduced to and began coding,” she says. “This technology skill helps students create a mindset towards problem-solving which is imperative in real life.”
As you can see from two of Mrs. Fontenot’s projects, the experiences that our school district is helping create for our students through being a renewal school district are PRICELESS!
North Rowan High School is on the move and has shown that being a part of North Carolina’s pilot ‘Renewal School System’ gives them the opportunity to think “outside of the box”, offering a challenge-based learning class, which uses design thinking and entrepreneurship. This three-hour class not only allows students to earn two academic credits at the end of the year but also gives them a chance to take what they learn in their core classes and apply them to a real-world challenge.
And these exciting, innovative, cross-curricular projects aren’t just happening in high schools. Missy Tatum and Michelle Hastings, kindergarten teachers at West Rowan Elementary School, say, “Renewal has given us the opportunity to be more flexible. We are excited to reincorporate developmental free centers along with traditional and technological teaching strategies. Our concern with the old system was we did not have sufficient time to focus on the whole child. Now, we have the opportunity to design a framework that acknowledges each child’s individual learning style and strengths.”
A Big Question
One of the biggest questions teachers and principals have been asking throughout all of this is: How is the state evaluating our success without high stakes testing?
Smith says that redoing accountability has been one of the district’s major goals for the year. “They’ve had the opportunity to think differently about what our schools want to be accountable for,” he says,“and they’ve come up with some great measures! Test scores alone are not a great measure of student success. Instead, we think a good goal is that every student leaves our high schools either enrolled, enlisted, or employed.”
- The first thing that teachers and students will be accountable for is showing mastery of fundamental standards in English, math, science, and social studies.Teachers at every school have been working through the state’s list of standards and narrowing the long-winded list down to the most crucial. This way, students will focus on the most important, most relatable standards in these core subjects and really, actually learn them through projects, labs, and demonstrations, rather than flying through a laundry list of standards that might be on a test at the end of the year.
- The second thing that the district wants students to show is their unique life goals. Smith says that all learners will set goals based on their unique smartness, career aspirations, and personal passions. This way, we get to know our kids beyond the fact that they are good at English or not. We can hook kids into instruction more easily when we know what they want to be and what they are passionate about. Teachers will be able to create more relatable lessons and create intentional groups to better meet the needs of students.
- Finally, we want all of our students to leave our classrooms having mastered interpersonal skills, such as creativity, leadership, team work, civility, work ethic, communication, and problem solving. After all, these are the skills that future employers will be looking for, so why do our report cards look so much different than a real life assessment?
To know if these things are met, the district will look at growth in fundamental standards, teacher evaluation of student work, student-owned digital portfolios, positive student engagement survey results, increased graduation rates, and all students either enrolled, enlisted, or employed.
Wouldn’t you much rather your child be evaluated by these things rather than a few measly test scores each year?
“By seeking and blundering we learn.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Since we are the first school district to implement this program anywhere around here,there is some trial and error involved, and we are facing challenges we’ve never had to deal with before. Smith says he’s seen two big challenges thus far: change management and finding appropriate peers. Because we are asking people to do things differently, to think really hard about the needs of their own schools and come up with new solutions—specifically teachers and administrators— we have to manage that change. Additionally, it has been difficult finding appropriate peers or models, since we are the first ones to do this. The district has been researching how businesses and charters work through change management and trying to find resources and models for what it looks like to do things differently in schools.
But, isn’t facing challenges and overcoming them the beauty of learning? Of growth? I am encouraged by our district’s willingness to implement this program for our students—to show them that even though the unknown can be scary and intimidating, sometimes risks are worth taking. When students see adults engaging in risks, making mistakes, failing and failing again (better this time), they are more prone to follow the example. We’ve told students that it’s okay to make mistakes for years…now we are showing them what that looks like in our classrooms and across our district.
In the near future, you will see the renewal plans from each school unveiled! Be on the look-out!
P.S. A common gripe amongst high school graduates (myself included) is the lack of education they received regarding managing personal financials. The Rowan branch of State Employees Credit Union (SECU) is now providing financial literacy to middle and high school students in our county through the “Reality of Money” simulation. This is one of our must-read articles for parents.