In a month's time most of the major headlines with the word "school" or education" in them, have not shed the system in good light.
For example, the Iowa Association of School Boards, which provides advice to Iowa school boards on things like finance and oversight, fired its executive director after she allegedly raised her own salary from $210,000 to $367,000.
The same day as that firing, the Iowa Department of Education released numbers showing an increase in the state high school drop-out rate to 48-hundred. Leading the state in drop-outs were the Ottumwa and Davenport school districts.
Getting kids to stay in school and inspiring them to actually like academics is not easy. But several school districts have found innovative ways to engage kids and prepare them for the future.
Students at Sigourney High School get a chance to work with a piece of equipment no other high school in the state, likely the country, uses.
Jeff Kirby/Secondary Principal, Sigourney: “What you see here is our virtual reality welder.”
The training here is done in a former computer lab. Classes taught by Indian Hills Community College instructors and offered to all Keokuk County schools and are worth both high school and college credit.
Jeff Kirby: “We wanted to be innovative, try to provide a different way of teaching kids, kids learn differently this day.”
This lab will soon move to the new 1.7 million dollar Keokuk County Career Academy for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology.
Todd Abrahamson/Superintendent, Sigourney: “This is probably my favorite piece of the whole project. “
Superintendent Todd Abrahamson says the lab will have 15 stalls for welding instruction and other virtual and hands on learning opportunities.
Much of the program is designed for those students not planning to attend college.
Todd Abrahamson: “Not all of those kids are going to take AP. A lot of these kids are going to get into career track which is going to lead to job creation.”
The Sigourney way looks a lot like a community college. Abrahamson meets regularly with business and economic development leaders, responding to the community’s needs.
Todd Abrahamson: “Where I think we’re missing the boat is that we feel they just need to start at a 4-year institution. I disagree with that. I totally disagree with that. Our programs are centered around job creation, and job placement advancement. We’re hitting all sectors, all students. That’s what’s exciting.”
Another one of the Sigourney schools innovations is on the main square. eSEAL or East Sigourney Entrepreneurial Academy for Leadership is open for business.
Senior Aaron Meiners got a 22-hundred dollar eSEAL business loan. He started a business that makes shaved ice for snow cones. He’s already paid the loan back – 3 months early. His idea hatched from the school’s business incubator.
Aaron Meiners/Senior, Sigourney HS: “I don’t think its right for everyone. But for the student who have the motivation, who really want to do something like this, then definitely they should take advantage of it.”
Todd Abrahamson: “What we offer right now, no other school can match what we’re doing, I feel we set the model for Iowa schools. Particularly when we set up eSEAL. That was set up to be a model Iowa schools, business incubator, entrepreneurship, that’s what expands small business, that’s going to expand the economy.”
100 miles to the west in Van Meter, learning again looks different.
Deron Durflinger/Secondary Principal, Van Meter: “Kids are engaged, kids are empowered to control their own learning, creating knowledge.”
Secondary principal Deron Durflinger credits the style of learning with fewer kids having discipline problems.
He says the kids with iPods, laptops, twitter accounts, facebook pages and blogs are engaged on all levels in learning.
Deron Durflinger: "I think kids like to be in school. I think they are engaged when they are here. I think they have an opportunity to be connected to the outside world, which is somewhat fearful to adults, but the kids like it.”
Van Meter is pushing students to extend learning beyond the walls. The Spanish classes have two different schools to interact with during instruction. And a sociology class partners with a New Jersey school on certain projects.
Students, take their laptops and partners to work on assignments. The school leased laptops for every student in 7 to 12 grades using money from the statewide one cent sales tax.
Deron Durflinger: “The system is adapting to the student, instead of the student adapting to the system.”
Shannon Miller/Librarian, Technology Coordinator, Van Meter: “We’re taking what these kids are learning and that were helping them find their passion, what they’re interested in. All of the kids are finding where they fit in, where they’re taking their education is different.”
7th grader Summer Sobotka says her best learning experience goes beyond her blog, with ¼ the students having a blog.
Summer Sobotka: “I always show a lot of my teachers and stuff the things that I do. I try to show my friends, they’ll also do it because they think it's really cool. That’s really cool to think I’ve found something that anybody can use as a great resource.”
Van Meter students are encouraged to create their content by using several tools, including a WIKI or an online collaboration tool.
Alex Gilmore/Junior, Van Meter: "It's more a lot of little things, really. Teachers will have us read something. Then they’ll tell us to go put a blog up, then go to my wiki space, check out these links, and have a class discussion, it’s a lot easier to be more collaborative with other students.”
The interior of school buildings may look the same as they did a generation ago, but that learning is light years different.
Deron Durflinger: “It is time for us to change with the rest of the world. You can look at all the model of the business world, media, everything is changing, but education has been very reluctant to change."