In the hallway, students use construction paper to create two life-size Instagram accounts for American frontiersman Davy Crockett — with captions written in the first and third person.
Second-graders in a nearby classroom show off research projects created on iPads that are based on their own interests: an iMovie about Siberian huskies, a brochure about New Jersey attractions, a basketball lineup using current NBA players.
Boxes of robotics, circuits, Legos and other learning tools are stacked in a “makerspace” area in the library that students and staff share as a hands-on learning space at Apache Elementary School in Overland Park.
Shawnee Mission administrators who oversaw Apache Elementary’s pilot year as an “innovative school” say this is what the model looks like — a centralized location where teachers implement new and inventive ways to instruct kids, in addition to using teaching strategies already practiced in the school district. The methods practiced here emphasize “project-based learning” — the idea that children learn better when they are required to problem-solve, develop skills and invent solutions to real-life problems through hands-on projects.
“We call Apache a lab school for a reason,” Apache Co-Principal Kevin Hansford said. “Not a lab in terms of experimenting on students, but a lab where teachers could come who wanted to start dipping their toe in the water of taking different approaches to instruction.”
Yet Apache’s transition to an innovative model school — and a February announcement that the district would expand the program to Rising Star Elementary in Lenexa next year — has had a rocky reception from parents and teachers in the Shawnee Mission School District. Some question how administrators can know whether the model is working when test scores and other benchmarks can’t be fully understood until after the school year.
They’ve asked the school board why the district has chosen two Title I schools — which receive federal funding for serving some of the district’s poorest students — as centralized locations for teachers to practice new teaching strategies.
“My concern is that my kids are guinea pigs,” said a teacher at Rising Star who asked not to be identified for this story.
Other parents have scrutinized the origins of the model, which like other curriculums found throughout the district incorporates some of the teachings of Willard Daggett, the founder of a New York-based education consulting firm who has been criticized throughout his multidecade career for making false or sensational claims about education.
Some parents with questions say they’ve struggled to get satisfactory answers.
Tucker Poling, a Prairie Village resident whose child is not yet a Shawnee Mission student, voiced questions about the effectiveness of Apache and Rising Star’s programs at the March 27 school board meeting. But he said the two-line response he and other parents received from the district didn’t help him understand what the transition means.
“I look at what’s going on with the innovative school project, and it seems like this is something that they may spread across the district,” said Poling, the parent of a 15-month-year old, to The Star. “For all I know, the innovative schools project could be a great thing — I just don’t know.”
Apache Elementary’s debut as an innovation school this year represents a shift in learning found throughout the Shawnee Mission School District and the country toward a system that prioritizes collaborative projects, hands-on learning and individualized curriculum over what proponents call “one-size-fits-all” teaching models.
Students are more engaged when they have some control and influence over how and what they learn, Apache Principal Pam Lewis said. And educators should be preparing students for 21st-century jobs that more frequently will require project-manager, event-planning and presentation-making skills.
So at Apache, science students won’t sit in a classroom, read textbooks and then take a multiple-choice test, she said. They might create their own weather station, research weather patterns, predict a forecast and present their findings based on standards they have learned.
If a student needs additional reading support and is a big skateboarding fan, teachers might allow students to complete a reading project centered around the sport.
As part of an American Revolution unit recently, fifth-graders were required to create a scavenger-hunt-like game with clues that helped their classmates learn about an aspect of the topic.
“It’s kind of teachers letting go of leading all of the instruction,” Lewis said. “And it’s more so, let me teach and lead the lesson and then give you questions and problems that you have to work together to figure out, and then let’s see what you learn from that.”
Teachers also have more freedom to try out different classroom setups. Think flexible seating is better for students? Students can work from couches or soft chairs throughout the room. Want to create a high-enrichment math class that transcends grade levels? Launch it at Apache, Lewis said.
Next year, the school will try out “vertical looping,” in which students stay with the same teachers for years at a time.
Lewis said the district hopes to bring successful teaching methods to other schools.
Administrators say they realize the school culture they are building at their innovative models schools isn’t for everyone.
Eighteen of 39 certified staff members at Rising Star have asked to be reassigned ahead of next year’s transition, according to the district. About half of Apache’s teachers opted to do the same ahead of the 2016-17 school year.
Parents then had similar concerns about what would happen next, Apache Elementary Parent Teacher Association president Sharon Kochan said.
“There were definitely parents that were concerned, and they weren’t excited about the changes,” Kochan said. “I think they didn’t understand what was going to happen.”
That uncertainty has been hard on teachers, both at Apache and Rising Star, said critics who point out that the evolving model has led to disorganized or confusing expectations for educators.
The model calls for teachers to act more as facilitator or guide, a change that can clash with more traditional views of the role educators should play in the classroom.
And in Shawnee Mission, those asking questions about the innovative school model have expressed another concern: whether lower-performing students who have yet to develop basic skills that meet grade-level standards are ready for the kind of analysis and critical thinking the new model might require.
More than 70 percent of Apache Elementary students are considered economically disadvantaged. At Rising Star, 60 percent are. Last year, more than half of both schools’ student populations did not perform at grade level in reading and math or were not considered on track for college success.
When Rising Star’s transition to an innovative school model was announced earlier this year, teachers were reportedly told that administrators could see a boost in Apache’s midyear student test scores after a half year as a model school.
Hansford, who acted as interim principal of Rising Star after former Principal Miranda Hoit was moved to the district communications department this fall, also told The Star that those scores “show a pretty steady increase.”
But when The Star requested those test scores, Lewis responded with a statement reiterating that a full year of testing data would be needed to inform analysis of student growth.
Administrators say they chose Apache Elementary, and then Rising Star, as innovative model schools precisely because the schools are low-performing. (Rising Star’s school building also already has open-concept classrooms that lend themselves naturally to a collaborative learning environment, Hansford said.)
But even if test scores dropped, administrators would not consider the transition a failure.
“If it ends up decreasing or things aren’t how we want them to be, it’ll be disappointing,” Hansford said. “But I think again there are often times as you think about change ... the common thing in change is that when you have the implementation of something, there is almost a slight dip before there is a nice, steady increase.”
Investing in a new framework
School officials say many of the project-based learning methods conducted at Apache are concepts that have been practiced throughout the district for several years — since school administrators began to implement ideas and philosophies championed by education consultant Willard Daggett.
The founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education, a New York-based education consulting company that shares “successful practices with educators through our conferences and keynote presentations,” visited the Shawnee Mission School District in the fall of 2015.
“We are in serious trouble in terms of preparing this generation of Americans to be economically competitive in the technological information-based society in (which) they are going to have to live and work,” Daggett said during a presentation to teachers then. “It’s not that our schools are failing; in fact they are getting better — it’s that the world has changed.”
For the Shawnee Mission School District, it marked a transition to a school culture that would begin to champion concepts associated with Daggett’s “rigor, relevance and relationships” education model, which emphasizes putting students in situations where they have to solve real-world problems — often through projects, presentations and collaboration — as a way to develop complex thinking skills.
Hansford said Daggett, sharing some of the things that large companies want, said: “ ‘Hey, I really care less about what kids know necessarily, but I need them to be able to think critically and problem solve.’ ”
In a career spanning decades, education leaders, academics and journalists have consistently debunked comments and claims made by Daggett — from the suggestion that the U.S. is the only country to teach biology and chemistry separately to inaccurate descriptions of scientific experiments he’s cited in his speeches.
His critics also point out that participation in the speaking events, curriculum and conferences associated with his program are costly.
The district invested in Daggett’s curriculum before and after Daggett visited the district in 2015 at the invitation of Superintendent Jim Hinson.
Around the time of Daggett’s November 2015 presentation, the district issued several checks totaling $32,300 to the International Center for Leadership in Education, for contracting services including Daggett’s speech, travel expenses and visits to elementary and secondary schools.
Prior to his November visit, the district had already spent roughly $60,000 on instructional materials and registration fees for ICLE conferences.
(According to a public records request, the district has paid the ICLE a total of $98,960, using primarily federal Title II funds.)
That figure doesn’t include travel requests totaling $60,700 to send principals to the ICLE’s model schools conference in San Diego and Orlando, Fla., in 2016. A similar trip is planned this summer in Nashville, Tenn.
“I think some of his facts and figures — people question those,” Hansford said of Daggett’s credibility. “But it’s really hard to question the big picture.”
Hansford said that the message Daggett’s education framework is based on is important — that in the 21st century, facts and figures are less important than students being able to think critically and “not shut down when they are faced with problems.”
It’s a philosophy that the education world is more frequently embracing, even if Daggett has proved to be a controversial figure. As Blue Valley Schools looks to update its middle school curriculum for the first time in 15 years, leaders have also discussed infusing project-based learning curriculum into the classroom.
On a recent Tuesday, fourth-grader Kevin De Andrade created the plot of a video game on paper using the literary concepts of “conflict,” “setting,” “character” and “villain.” Like his classmates, he then used a video game app on his iPad to transform that story — a Hercules-like character battling Hades in the underworld — into a video game.
“To me, it’s about the student, not about the teacher,” said Abby Morgan, an instructional coach who helped develop the lesson plan in several classrooms. “It’s about starting with the student’s passion and using that as a gateway to what they need to know. Because of their ownership — they are bought in. It’s about them.”
Once Kevin had made his video game, students played it and left feedback. Kevin’s task was to make adjustments based on that feedback.
“It’s about, your first idea is not your best idea,” Morgan said. “If you want to create a product, you can have the idea you really like, but if other people don’t like it or enjoy it, it’s not really meeting its need.”
Trying new things
Kochan, the PTA president, and other Apache parents say they are excited about the changes they’ve seen in Apache’s learning environment.
Kochan said her fifth-grader, Noah, is a good student but has rarely been visibly excited about school. This year, he used his Genius Hour — time for students to pursue their own passions — to explore effects of radiation as well as the history of Microsoft Windows — and appears much more engaged.
Kochan said she knew of other students who had used their free time to launch a toy drive or other community projects.
“I’m seeing great changes just with my kids and their attitude,” Kochan said. “In that way, (the program) is sparking more interest in what’s going on at the school.”
While parent Erica Crouch said it’s been tougher to tell exactly what her child is working on when less paperwork comes home, she’s particularly enjoyed “makerspace” nights, where parents and kids come to school for an evening program in which they work together to solve a puzzle or problem.
“It’s nice to see the kids trying new things, failing and trying again,” Crouch said.
Still, until more can be understood about how changes in instruction at Apache have impacted students, some parents remain wary. And many of the things that are being implemented at Apache — Genius Hours, makerspace, flexible seating — are methods of instruction that several other schools in Shawnee Mission already practice.
Kim Taylor is the parent of an Apache student as well as a teacher at a different school in the Shawnee Mission School District. She said after a year at an innovative model school, she still isn’t exactly sure what Apache Elementary is implementing that other schools are not.
Like many parents who have expressed concerns to the school board, she worries that the district is expanding this program too fast, before teachers and parents understand its true impact on kids.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing — I’m just saying it’s no different than all of the things going on in Shawnee Mission,” Taylor said. “Come out and tell us exactly what the differences are so at least the teachers know exactly what they are supposed to be doing and parents know exactly what they are supposed to be getting.”