With the start of a new school year, change is inevitable. Sometimes that change is not immediately visible, but it definitely was for at least two Newton schools — Chisholm Middle School and Santa Fe 5/6 Center — at the start of the 2018-2019 academic year.
Both Santa Fe and Chisholm are currently going through the Kansans Can redesign project spearheaded by the Kansas State Department of Education. Santa Fe fully implemented its redesign this year, while Chisholm is piloting parts of its plan. Both introduced the new Summit Learning curriculum — building-wide for Santa Fe and in one of four class pods at Chisholm. It wasn't long before parents took notice, and issue, with the implementation of the new curriculum.
"I first became concerned about the redesign changes at Santa Fe in late September, when students began asking me if they could go to a different school. Every night they would beg me not to send them to school the next day and plead with me to enroll them somewhere else, anywhere," said USD 373 parent Jennifer Rose. "Then, I started looking into the Summit thing and that's when I really became concerned because I started seeing multiple stories about schools around the country who had been using it and decided to stop."
Rose, who voiced her concerns to the Newton Board of Education at its December meeting, noted her children were coming to her complaining about taking the same test dozens of times and being unable to pass, leading to a great deal of frustration.
Summit Learning was implemented to help students move at their own pace to learn skills, apply those skills to real world projects and reflect on their learning. Another facet of the model is to have one-on-one mentoring sessions with teachers each week, but Rose said — according to her kids — that was not happening on a regular basis.
Doing her own research, Rose came to find out that parents in school districts (i.e. McPherson, Wellington) where Summit Learning has also been introduced recently had similar concerns about the curriculum that have been brought up with those respective school boards.
Jen Smith, Santa Fe 5/6 Center principal, noted with any new curriculum there will be a bit of a learning curve — and that has certainly been the case with the Summit Learning model, as building staff continue to tinker with its implementation in the classroom.
"Anytime you implement something, there's always some things to work out. I know it's been a positive change for us overall and we're working through that," Smith said. "I think the biggest challenge for us, because we're doing it building-wide, is gaining consistency. We go through all the training and everything, and every teacher has a different flair. They lead with a somewhat similar, but sometimes a little different, understanding of implementing something."
Being both an administrator and a parent (with one child attending Santa Fe), Smith said she has been kept up to date in both roles thanks to the new learning model and sees more uniformity in the classrooms in terms of progression.
However, she noted there have been complaints brought to her from a handful of parents, and she encourages those parents to come and observe what is actually going on in the classroom to alleviate those concerns.
"Most of it I would say, if not all of it, has been what I would (consider) some misconceptions because I think it's easy to think if it's an online platform that your students are on the computer all day," Smith said.
Observing in the classroom for three and a half hours one afternoon last week, though, that is exactly what Rose said she witnessed. She noted it was only in the last 40 minutes of the day where the students had educational time away from the computers.
Forming a group to address the concerns over Summit Learning (which first met a couple of weeks ago), Rose noted about a dozen parents showed up initially. A Facebook group (Newton, Ks Summit & Redesign Family Discussion) was then organized this week and already has 56 members as of Dec. 21.
While Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Sheila Wendling pointed out that staff — particularly at Santa Fe — have been training for implementation of this new curriculum over the past year, concerns about a new learning model are to be expected. That has been the case in the past and, as before, she said the model will continue to be fine tuned to best serve the needs of the students of USD 373.
"Any feedback that we're getting from parents, obviously we're going to be taking that in, talking about it — what does that mean — and sorting it out as to how is it being framed. Is it something that causes us to completely change something different? I don't know if we've had anything like that," Wendling said. "I think a lot of it right now has been getting that basic level of understanding from a parent of what is it that you're doing in school now, because this feels so different than what they had the year before."
Rose admitted she doesn't have a specific suggestion for how the Summit Learning model should change (though making teachers, not computers, the center of learning would be a start). While she agrees that the redesign project is a good thing overall, the curriculum has to be reviewed based on the testimony she has heard.
"The implementation of Summit Learning into Newton schools was ill-prepared and recklessly administered. Students who used to like going to school no longer want to attend. Instead of enjoying their youth, kids are increasingly anxious and stressed out about mounting due dates," Rose said. "I implore you, as administration and board, please don't let this harm continue."