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Think differently

Innovation status allows districts to think differently
Kentucky School Advocate
December 2016
By Matt McCarty
Staff writer
Ten districts are now recognized as Districts of Innovation by the Kentucky Department of Education, and the program’s director, David Cook, says the distinction of being in the program can unleash a district.

“There’s a certain amount of freedom that comes from being identified as a District of Innovation in the community,” Cook said.

He said he would like to see some revisions made to the legislation that authorized the program to allow for even more flexibility, including making it easier to get teachers certified in certain areas.

“I’m sure you can imagine one of the pieces they really struggle with, particularly in smaller, rural districts, is finding the right people to teach some of the programs that they want to have,” Cook said. “And they have qualified people, people who could really teach the programs they want to have but they’re not qualified in a formal sense through (the Education Professional Standards Board).
“I would love to see us be able to sit down and go, ‘Can we fix this and can we fix this?’” he added. “By virtue of doing that, I think we would have a fairly quick influx” of districts who would want to apply.
(Editor’s Note: After publication of this article, EPSB Executive Director Jimmy Adams contacted the Kentucky School Advocate to say that the EPSB has never denied a waiver request from any district in the districts of innovation. Adams said “the EPSB has never had to grant a waiver request because all requests that have been made were allowable under current regulations. Certification is not solely about content and pedagogy knowledge, it is also about the safety of our students and public trust. The EPSB has the authority to hold certified educators accountable if they violate that trust.”) 
Embedded Image for:  (2016112311848762_image.jpg) The program didn’t have any new districts added in 2015 after receiving only one application.

As the state looks at ways to make the program better, Cook said the state education department knows it has value – up to a point.

“We are seeing in most, there are pieces of data that aren’t necessarily on the upswing, (but) Districts of Innovation districts aren’t falling behind in their academic achievements and in most cases they’re actually performing better on key indicators like college and career readiness and graduation rates, so it’s not like there’s any kind of big, big data thing that says Districts of Innovation are a failure,” Cook said. “I don’t know that you could walk out and say Districts of Innovations have made these districts that much better than they were, but they certainly are learning how to stay on the ball with accountability but allow for these new approaches.”

He said the districts in the program have a mindset of “don’t tell me what I can’t do, here’s what I want to do. Is there any way I can do it?”

“These folks say ‘I know there’s a barrier, I’m going to figure out a way to work around that barrier as long as I have to, until you tell me that barrier doesn’t exist anymore.’”

When a district applies for District of Innovation status, its application is graded on a rubric to determine if it will be admitted into the program. Once selected, a district remains a District of Innovation for five years.

“At the end of five years we make an overall recommendation to the board about whether or not these districts should continue as Districts of Innovation,” Cook said.

Four districts were selected in 2013 and three more the following year. The most recent crop was selected this year.

“One of the things that’s really started to organically grow is their ability to work together on particular ideas,” Cook said.

He said one example is the first seven Districts of Innovation received a waiver of graduation requirements. The waiver allows a student’s ACT score to replace taking a class, if the score meets a certain benchmark.

“The obvious notion here is, well, if a kid meets the ACT benchmarks and hits our accountability goals at the high school level, then they are college ready,” Cook said. “Why would we care what courses they are taking because they’ve demonstrated that they have the math and science and English/language arts skills to be able to be successful in college?”

“We’ve seen tremendous numbers of kids in those seven districts who weren’t planning to even go to college and saw opportunity to do something they liked to do in high school, which they weren’t able to because of the course restrictions. And they have been motivated to get their ACT scores up and to get those EOC (end of course exams) scores up and thus, in their senior year, be able to do whatever they wanted to from a class-schedule perspective.”

He said as more districts seek to do this and have success with it, the graduation requirements could be modified to make it the rule rather than the exception.

As the program continues to expand to more districts, Cook said having District of Innovation status is not a silver bullet.

“It’s not a silver bullet if you don’t have the culture in place that really can reach out and go after things and these 10 districts all seem to have that kind of a philosophy at the board level, at the superintendent level and the staff level to think differently about what they want to do,” he said. “It’s a mentality.”
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