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Santa Fe Trail Middle School staff members find humility, resiliency through redesign process

Posted: Feb 21, 2019
Categories: KSDE
Author: Ann Bush

Olathe USD 233 has two schools taking part in Kansans Can School Redesign

There was a point a few months ago when sixth-grade math teacher Andrea Bowne wasn’t sure about the Kansans Can School Redesign Project. 

The school where Bowne teaches – Santa Fe Trail Middle School in Olathe – was in its first quarter of implementing school redesign. Staff members had spent countless hours in the 2017-2018 school year researching what they wanted their school redesign to look like, visiting with community members and parents, and discussing with other educators how to implement it. Bowne had been in on the process. It took a lot of work. There were tears, disagreements and so many varying opinions. Some of the school’s teachers left. 

But no one was truly prepared for what was to come – the actual implementation phase of the school’s redesign plan. There were more tears of frustration, disagreements and lots and lots of change. And change can be hard. 

The school’s staff members, students and parents made it through the first semester. Things are running smoother and everyone is settling into a new routine. Students are showing growth and improvement and the number of tardy students has dropped significantly. 

And Browne? 

“This is the happiest I’ve been in my career,” she said. “There’s a great energy, and a great focus.” 

JJ Libal, principal of Santa Fe Trail, agrees that the process hasn’t been easy. 

“We have had the opportunity to learn and grow as a school and a community,” Libal said. “If this doesn’t work, it’s on us. We have to own it. We are trying our hardest, and we don’t know (what will happen).” 

The school’s staff have found humility and resiliency through the redesign process, he said. Not everyone was on board with redesign and some educators chose to leave Santa Fe Trail. 

Libal and Browne said it was sad to see people leave, but also exciting to see new people come on board. 

“We are interviewing and hiring differently now,” Libal said. 

Potential hires are given a brochure on the school’s redesign and a document on social-emotional learning, civic engagement and academic collective commitments before they even interview, Libal said. 

The school, which serves more than 700 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, is situated in a large building in 1100 block of North Ridgeview in Olathe. There are 110 staff members, and 30 percent of the school’s population is English Language Learners (ELL), Libal said. Santa Fe Trail’s vision is to empower all learners to explore, and its redesign pillars are civic engagement, academic, and social-emotional learning. 

Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, Santa Fe Trail’s ELL program operated within a sheltered model, which means ELL students received most, if not all, instruction in math, language arts and social studies, directly from an ELL teacher and didn’t attend class with peers. This year, ELL students are enrolled in grade-level core courses and attend classes with their peers. ELL teachers co-teach with classroom teachers. 

“We have seen an increase in how kids are doing,” Libal said. 

Under the academic pillar, the school has started a What I Need, or WIN, initiative. The initiative takes place three times per week in 25-minute increments. During this time, core teachers can pull students for remediation or those who need extra time to complete homework. Students who aren’t pulled can take part in other sessions, such as crafts or book clubs. This allows students to have choice, said Mary Jung, a seventh-grade math teacher. 

“Our kids are getting really good at making choices,” Jung said. “They are choosing well for themselves. It really is a great time.” 

Students also are involved in project-based learning and receive an Individual Plan of Study (IPS). And the school has implemented flex time, which is similar to WIN time but focuses on electives instead of core classes. Flex time gives electives teachers an opportunity to pull students for quiz retakes or extra homework help and also allows teachers to pull students for rehearsals (such as music, band or plays). Students who aren’t pulled by a teacher can choose from other electives, such as arts, quiet reading time and weights. Flex time helps elective teachers feel more involved and valued, staff members said. 

Under the civic engagement pillar, the school has implemented Exploration Days, which help students explore unknown topics and dig deeper into interests they already have, said Pinky McMillian, a seventh-grade science teacher. The school has hosted three Exploration Days so far, McMillian said. There are two more scheduled – one in March and one in May. 

The days have been popular with students. In fact, they were the highest ranked part of the school’s redesign plan, Libal said. 

The school’s first Exploration Day in September, with a theme of Honor and Sacrifice, included a presentation by an Army veteran and a presentation on how the brain changes with post-traumatic stress disorder. Students also could take virtual field trips and a Boot Camp Warrior Challenge. 

Community members play a critical role in the Exploration Days. Teachers and other staff members can invite community members into the school to share topics with students. Students also are taking more field trips to learn more about their community. 

“We’re trying to get out into the community more,” McMillian said.

To help with the social-emotional learning pillar, the school has implemented a Cyclone Start-Up time at the beginning of each school day. Students receive social-emotional learning lessons during this time and also receive mentoring and establish goals. 

Teachers give shout-outs to students for doing something helpful or going above and beyond, too. The shout-outs, along with positive student behavior referrals, are displayed in the school’s hallways. 

In Amy Hellman’s classroom, 33 eighth-grade students in the school’s Achieving through Individual Motivation (AIM) program were finishing up their school day recently when Kansas State Department of Education staff members stopped by for a visit. 

When asked their thoughts on the school’s redesign, answers ranged from “I like all of the flexibility” to “I have more ownership of my learning.” Students also said they enjoy building stronger relationships with teachers. 

Bowne agreed with those students. 

“I know all of my kids and where they are at (in their academics and social-emotional learning),” she said. “I love it.”

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