A new school year begins every August, and it always brings new challenges and experiences to the students, but this new year brings some particularly significant changes to teachers and administrators as well.
Several substantial changes in the way certain classes are taught are, after months of discussion by the Board of Trustees, headed for the classroom.
One of the biggest changes is the introduction of iPad tablet computers to the lives of students across the elementary and high school districts.
A few months ago, trustees approved the purchase of 500 iPads that will be distributed among the schools, some assigned to specific classes and others left on school-wide carts to be checked out by teachers looking to experiment.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson said that those experiments, while not guaranteed to succeed, are good for the districts and the future of Hi-Line education.
“I think it just opens up another resource that we haven’t had in the past, ” Carlson said. “I think our focus has to be on student achievement and instruction, and I think this is an achievement in instruction.
“We’re going to get better. I think one of the things we’re going to be open to this year is we’re going to have some trials and tribulations, and that’s OK. What’s not OK is getting these devices and not implement. ”
Teachers were meeting during the Havre Public Schools Tech Ed Camp last week in the Havre Middle School library to participate in a few iPad instruction sessions, from “iPad 101” to “iPad Apps For The Classroom. ”
The classes were taught by speech pathologist Karen Gibson, who has been using iPads in her program with significant success over the past year.
The trustees approved the substantial purchase, by a close margin, because there just happened to be enough of a budget surplus to do so.
Carlson said at the time that he doesn’t expect to make such a large jump again, and this year’s enrollment figures back him up. Though the district’s goal is eventually to have an electronic device in the hands of every student.
Another long-term goal for Havre education is making progress this year, as changes to the Students United for New Success program take effect.
The alternative program will begin following principles the school system has been exploring, at least since it brought education reform advocate Jamie Vollmer to speak at Montana State University-Northern last August.
Vollmer said then that it is no wonder we get such differing results from students when schools hold time constant, 13 years from K to 12. If schools focused on holding results constant, and letting the education take as little or as long as has to take, that students would be a lot better off.
Despite being a fairly radical idea, overturning a century of Industrial Revolution-era educational traditions, Havre Public Schools decided to integrate some of it while reorganizing SUNS after the program’s founder Debbie Kirby retired this spring.
Carlson said that the SUNS experiment is a part of a state-wide Reinventing Schools Initiative that includes an alternative school in Bozeman and Lame Deer Public Schools. Bozeman is even reportedly eyeing the changes for its “entire high school, ” Carlson said.
“I’m pretty excited to see how that’s going to go, ” Carlson said.
Carlson wanted to clarify these changes are not an excuse for SUNS students to slack off.
“It’s not a lessening in standards or a move-at-your-own-pace program, ” Carlson said.
Kipp Lewis, Havre High School assistant principal, will head the new program.
This past school year, the districts made some massive changes to the entire math curriculum, which came out of months of planning and rewriting with teachers from all grades and former Assistant Superintendent and Director of Instruction Tom Korst.
Korst is starting his first year as the superintendent of Hamilton Public Schools this year, but his replacement, Leland Stocker, will continue the curriculum review.
This year the focus is on the communication arts, or English, curriculum.
While Stocker trains in Helena before the year begins, Carlson said that the changes will encompass all aspects of English education, with some thought on how to use the schools new technological resources.
One main component to last year’s math review was the establishment of “common course assessments, ” that allow students’ performance to be compared across classrooms and through their school career, from year to year.
This year’s work will bring the benefits of common assessments, such as recognizing and playing to a particular student’s strength or weakness, to the world of words.
On top of all of this, this is an election year, which means that this school year is a legislative year, overlapping with January’s upcoming legislative session, which Carlson said the district is already preparing for.
Carlson said he anticipates a lot of talk about how Montana schools could be improved, possibly by importing new models from out of state, but he doesn’t think that’s necessary, especially considering Montana’s relatively high graduation rates.
“I think it’s important that people get accurate information about what is already occurring in the state, ” Carlson said. “Sometimes I wonder why we look at other states for a model when other states should be looking at us. ”