Mercury 7 school principal encourages Kansas schools to take part in Apollo phase of Kansans Can School Redesign Project
This spring semester at Kennedy Elementary School in Wellington Unified School District 353 looks a lot different than the fall semester, said principal Gillian Macias.
“We don’t hear, ‘It’s impossible,’ anymore,” she said. “Instead, we hear, ‘Show me how’ or ‘Let’s work together.’”
Macias came to Wellington USD 353 just as the elementary school was beginning full implementation of its redesign plans at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. She previously had served as a teacher and administrator at Maize USD 266.
The first semester was somewhat chaotic – stressful and nerve-wracking even, Macias said. But after overcoming a few hurdles, this semester is going more smoothly.
Kennedy Elementary is a Mercury 7 school taking part in the Kansans Can School Redesign Project. It and Wellington High School are the pilot schools for the district.
Mercury 7 was the first phase of the school redesign project, which was announced in 2017. Since that time, the Kansas State Department of Education has announced Gemini I and Gemini II phase participants, and the application process is currently open for the Apollo phase.
Kennedy is focusing on project-based learning, behavior and social-emotional growth during its first year of implementation.
The school serves nearly 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It is located in Wellington, a city of about 8,000 people located south of Wichita near the Oklahoma border.
Many of the students have experienced trauma and need extra social-emotional support, Macias said.
The school has implemented SOAR, which stands for Safety, Ownership, Acceptance and Respect. Staff members often can be seen in the halls or classrooms wearing red, laminated SOAR cards on lanyards around their necks. The cards can help students decide what behaviors are acceptable in different situations.
Kennedy also started Mindful Mornings, which take place the first 20 minutes of each morning. Teachers work with students on team-building exercises and de-escalation tools.
Behavior referrals have “decreased tenfold,” said Macias, and Esther Runck, the first-ever instructional coach in the district hired as part of the redesign.
“The teachers are providing consistency and social-emotional supports, Macias said. “We have really been intentional about positive reinforcement.”
The school’s counselor also has implemented yoga sessions to support students’ social-emotional needs.
“Our staff members have huge hearts and are in it for the right reasons,” Macias said. “Our kids and teachers are experiencing more success this semester.”
The redesign process has been stressful at times, but worth the hard work, several students and staff members said.
“I love the idea of redesign,” said Paula Edwards, a fourth-grade teacher. “I like that we have more options to come up with projects that are real-world-based problems – projects that the kids are going to use in life, not just memorizing how to do a certain skill. They have more choice as far as what they want to take, like classes and things that interest them, and projects they want to do that may help them make career goals and choices. It gives them more skills that they’re going to use throughout their lives, not just in elementary school and high school.”
It also gives educators an opportunity to tailor learning to each student.
“The redesign concept has given us more flexibility as far as what we want to do and what we would like to teach our kiddos,” Edwards said. “Each year, each kid has a different path. Now, we are able to help them more with that.”
A fifth-grade student at Kennedy said he enjoys the flexibility it gives him, too.
“I like it,” he said about redesign. “I can do everything on my own, at my own pace. I think I’ve become a better student.”
Macias encourages districts considering joining Apollo to do so, but she has some advice.
“Communicate. Communicate. Communicate,” she said. “You can never communicate enough. Get buy-in from your community, site councils, teachers. We haven’t been afraid to let people know we don’t know all of the answers. The unknown is scary, no matter what it is. It has been worth it. I think redesigning is something Kansas has needed for a long time. We’ve had a lot of emotions through this process. At the end of the day, it has been worth every drop of blood and sweat and tear.”
For more information about the Kansans Can School Redesign Project: Apollo or to apply, visit https://www.ksde.org/Agency/Fiscal-and-Administrative-Services/Communications-and-Recognition-Programs/Vision-Kansans-Can/School-Redesign/Application
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