Two female students measuring wood and working on a project.

7 ways to drive district-wide innovation

Innovative learning experiences can, and should, be widely available, highly engaging, and designed to prepare all students for our rapidly evolving global economy

When the Gresham-Barlow (OR) School District (GBSD) hired Dr. A. Katrise Perera as the superintendent in July of 2017, she set out to listen and learn from students, parents, staff, and community members how to best serve our students. Her charge to me was to do the same when she brought me on last summer as executive director of innovation and partnerships. Well aware that initiative overload is common in education, I didn’t rush to implement new programs. Rather, my focus has been to identify the innovative programs and initiatives already underway that I could support, expand, and help replicate at other schools. Moreover, I have been mindful that innovation often takes root when there are considerable resources available.

However, innovative learning experiences ought not be exclusive; they should be widely available, highly engaging, and designed to prepare all students for our rapidly evolving global economy. Under the leadership of Dr. Perera and the GBSD Board, and in collaboration with Career Technical Education Coordinator Sarah Dorn, here are seven ways we’re working to drive district-wide innovation in Gresham-Barlow.

How to drive innovation

1. Engage multiple stakeholders

We make a concerted effort to listen to and engage multiple stakeholders including principals, teachers, parents, students, and school board members, as well as the local Chamber of Commerce, city and business leaders, and professional organizations on what types of educational experiences we should offer our students and which qualities employers are looking for in our future workforce.

Related: 3 ways technology & innovation are transforming classrooms

Resoundingly, they’ve asked that students develop competencies such as problem solving, perseverance, strong communication skills, creativity, and ingenuity. These conversations also helped inform our bond-funded construction currently underway to ensure that the schools we’re building and renovating will include physical spaces that allow for different types of learning and the development of future-ready skills.

2. Develop pathways

Our partnership with community stakeholders has also helped guide our effort to develop pathways in each of six career clusters that start in elementary and extend through middle and high school to ensure students graduate college- and career-ready. The first pathway to launch is Construction, and due to our partnership with local industry, students are already participating in projects with real-world relevance across grade levels. For instance, a fourth-grade project to design benches will culminate in a pitchfest this month at which Portland-based Fortis Construction will select four student’s models to incorporate into the design of an outdoor space at one of our elementary schools. High school marketing students are collaborating with the Lease Crutcher Lewis Construction team to learn more about the construction business from a marketing perspective, and we are seeking industry partners to support a recently proposed project to have Career Technical Education students build sheds for the benefit of the community.

3. Develop a common framework

To promote effective communications, our district leadership team has developed a common framework to help all stakeholders share an understanding of our goals as well as the language we’re using to express them. This approach gives us the flexibility to iterate while we build innovative curriculum and experiences for all students. It has also helped facilitate widespread participation in the work underway to develop the district’s Portrait of a Graduate.

4. Focus on data

As we review and strengthen current programs and develop new ones, we are looking closely at how students are performing while finding ways to collect data more frequently throughout the year via formal assessments, informal interviews, and other means. By breaking down the data in various ways and using multi-tiered systems of support, we can monitor which groups of students are accessing which programs, and we are using that information to remove barriers to entry, add additional supports for students who are struggling, and accelerate learning.

5. Support project-based learning (PBL)

Creating experiential and meaningful learning experiences for students starting at a young age is critical to sparking a love for learning that can span a student’s entire educational career. One elementary school’s project this spring is to clean an adjacent pond and test soil and water quality as part of an ecology unit. To support and expand initiatives like these, we are providing regular professional development on PBL methodology and opportunities for our PBL pioneers to share challenges and successes.

Related: 9 innovation tips from pioneering schools

6. Fortify STEAM programming

We are adding a number of new STEAM spaces to our middle and high schools, as well as soliciting new project proposals. One middle school teacher has proposed that we convert an old bus into a mobile STEAM lab to expand STEAM educational opportunities beyond the classroom. Students are actively involved in developing designs and suggesting resources for the bus, which could make its debut as early as this spring.

7. Expand summer learning

We are collaborating with our district’s CTE-focused charter school to add more high-quality offerings to our summer programming to engage students who might not otherwise have opportunities to extend their learning. Plans are underway to develop a two-week design camp for eighth graders transitioning to high school in which students will identify local or global challenges, propose solutions, develop prototypes, and solicit feedback from industry representatives.

Future outlook

By focusing on innovation, access, and opportunity, we expect to improve engagement, participation, and performance across all groups by 2025, including students of color, students with disabilities, emerging bilingual students, and students experiencing poverty. Moreover, I anticipate that our efforts to provide a continuum of innovative learning experiences will grow to encompass community preschools, higher education institutions, and additional industry groups as we continue to integrate our work directly into the fabric of the greater community.

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