Education and the needs of society run in lockstep, which means secondary schools will look and teach differently in the next decade.

Ryan Cobbs, Ottawa USD 290 Superintendent, has been laying the ground work for these changes with the Gemini Project, which is part of the Kansans Can School Redesign Project.

“The future looks very different,” Cobbs said. “The system the way we have managed kids is the same. What we are realizing now is we have an opportunity to do some things that really give kids a greater desire to attend school.”

Cobbs said today’s children are exposed to different ideas and cultures than previous generations.

“We have a group of students that engage differently than the decade prior them, the decade prior to them, the decade prior to them and the decade prior to them,” Cobbs said. “This group is more about ‘what does this do for me.’ We raised the previous generation to ask those questions. They brought their kids up to believe it. We are really empowering kids to make decisions about what is important to them. We have the opportunity in education to tailor their instruction and learning to their needs. It is not a tracking system. It is not 1960 when we said, ‘you are a college-bound student and you are not, so you need to take these courses so you can get a job someplace.’ This is about recognizing the path we have set and what it takes to be a high school graduate is not necessarily the same for every kid. There are things that are important to kids and we can show how they can have success both academically and professionally by taking their own path. That is the future of education.”

Cobbs said the curriculum and the way students learn continues to evolve.

“I don’t know if any of us enjoy the compartmentalization of what education has become,” he said. “How we have educated kids has changed dramatically. The pendulum in education swings back-and-forth in the different processes we utilize. We have really skilled teachers that do great things with our kids. How we know that education has changed is that many of our courses are set up to meet the needs of our local industries and the state expectations in terms of the job market that is available in our state. That is constantly changing, subsequently our education has to change to meet those needs.”

The next decade will see education become more student-driven.

“The goal for all of this change is to have a very student-focused system that is predicated on their wants and desires while still meeting the expectations of the state to earn a promotion and graduation from Ottawa High School,” Cobbs said. “Flexible scheduling and standards-based grading have been around for years. What is innovative is the culture in our system that is more student-centered. What we want is to really create a system that allows for different paths for kids.”

Cobbs envisions high schools where students will engage with local companies and even receive graduation credit for internships.

“Part of what we are going to have to see in schools over the course of the next 10 years — middle schools and high schools specifically — becoming more focused on workforce and job placement,” Cobbs said. “Understanding what jobs are available to our kids. They will start being a part of our instruction. It is going to be about opening the door and exposing our kids to these things. You don’t have to go to Kansas City to be an engineer. You can do that right here in Franklin County. It will change the face of schools.”

Cobbs said employers will start recruiting students to join their company after graduation, much like colleges have done in the past.

“We have to get those employers into our buildings,” he said. “They have to meet our kids. The have to woo our kids. Jobs are aplenty. Our kids can make a decision on where they want to go. They have to sell them on their product. That is what is going to change our community when we recognize that every year we have about 100 kids that are not going to choose to go to [college]. That is just Ottawa. If you add Wellsville, West Franklin and Central Heights, you have close to 200 kids every year that can be added to our local workforce [right away].”

The school administrator sees school buildings being more open and class hours expanded to meet the needs of the students.

“You will see more and more educational alternatives for kids,” Cobbs said. “You are going to see the school building become something different than it currently is. You may get to the point where you see the high schools in the state of Kansas become like a college campus. They are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and [students] take courses as they need to. The course may be a three-hour long course and they might meet once a week or you might be sitting with 300 kids in your class. The schedule becomes very open.”

Cobbs said students sitting at desks all day could disappear.

“It is OK for our kids to be in the building by themselves,” he said. “We don’t have to have all our kids in a classroom sitting at a desk all the time. Our kids can handle being 100 feet away from the teacher. They can handle being in smaller groups and in larger spaces. These are things how they learn better vs. how we have always done it.”

SLOW CHANGE

Cobbs said changes will come slowly in people’s attitude toward the new educational system.

“When you are changing something that has always been done in a certain way — those of us that are big picture thinkers — we don’t ever visualize the barriers,” he said. “We have to get the detailed people involved to help us understand what we have to overcome to ensure our success. The global vision and the details don’t match up very well. It makes it difficult for us to move forward as quickly as we want to.”

Cobbs, who has been a student, teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and now superintendent in the Ottawa district, said he learned patience from Dr. Jeanne Stroh, the previous superintendent.

“One of the things that is a frustration for me coming into this role in the central office — either as the role of assistant superintendent or superintendent — was what I could do as a principal was rally my staff and say ‘here is what we are going to do. This is the direction we are going,’” Cobbs said. “We could make a substantial change in that building in as little as a week, possibly a day. Big changes within a month. You are talking about the district and a change in culture.

“One of the things that Dr. [Jeanne] Stroh told me, ‘as a principal you are turning a speed boat on a lake and you can turn the wheel and go 180 degrees and go the other direction. At the central office, you are turning an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is going to take you a lot of time to get that thing turned around.’ There is a lot of different components you have to incorporate to make it turn. When we talk about the type of changes we [are going to have], the kids side of it, is not the difficult piece. The kids are moldable.

“The adults are the ones that are difficult to change. The teachers that have done it this way for years. The parents believe this is the system and it works. Communities think this is the way schools are supposed to be. Those are the difficult pieces to change. That is where we have to focus some attention and say ‘here are the reasons.’”

Cobbs said school administrators need to be bold and not be afraid to incorporate different ideas.

“It is either get left behind or lead the race,” he said. “Ottawa would much rather lead the race. We are excited about where we are going. It will be fun to watch and see where we are at [in 10 years].”

BASICS STILL TAUGHT

Cobbs said at the elementary-level the fundamentals of education will still be the focus.

“The elementary-side of school has three major facets to it,” Cobbs said. “One is we have to acclimate kids to the social piece of learning. To be able to work in groups and be around kids all day, understand system rules and appropriate behaviors in a particular setting. The second is the ability to read. This is not something that can ever go away. It is vitally important to our kids they know how to read.

“The third most important piece comes back to math. Reading and math are two of the most vital components of students staying in school. If there are any two courses that create barriers to our kids being able to meet the needs and expectations of earning a high school diploma, it is based upon their ability to read and understand math facts. By the time you get to high school, math plays a role in every course you are going to take and reading certainly plays a role in every course. Social and emotional well-being of kids and understanding the system of how you integrate yourself into a system that has different controls and variables in it, is a huge piece. That has to be the primary focus of our elementary schools and has been.”

Cobbs said the middle school focus will continue to give students an opportunity to be involved in a variety of classes and activities.

“One of the middle school components has always been, you need to try things that may be are not in your wheelhouse,” he said. “It is important for our kids to go through those things.”

GRADING CHANGES

What does an ‘A’ mean? Cobbs said the answer can be complicated.

“There are some misnomers out there in terms of what an ‘A’ means,” he said. “The expectation now is if you do everything the teacher asks you to do, you should get an ‘A.’ That used to be the mentality for a ‘C.’ We have changed our expectation of what those grades are. It does not give us any opportunity for kids to accelerate and move beyond that. We want to push the envelope for kids. We want them to say, ‘I can accelerate beyond this.’ If the end goal is simply the ‘A,’ then if we do what we should do, we will get it. We want to diminish [that] and replace that mentality with something better. Let’s challenge kids. Let’s see if we can get them to the point where they don’t know the answer. They have to be problem solvers and we have to teach skills that allow them to become problem solvers. We would like to create a system that is more about ensuring students can show us they have mastered a skill vs. attaining points through homework and assessment. The end goal is student preparedness. Make sure they have the skills to be successful in whatever the next step in their life is.”

A standards-based grading system in being implemented in the Ottawa district.

“It started this year,” Cobbs said. You are going to see it K-5 next year. It is a huge positive [step] moving forward. We are going to come up with something great. We have already begun to see it.”

The reason behind adjusting the grading system was to challenge students to keep learning.

“A standards-based grading system would ultimately guarantee every student is meeting the expectations they are supposed to moving forward,” Cobbs said. “It does not give them the choice of opting out of learning. It is a constant push to show that these things are important, relevant to your instruction and education. We’re going to ensure you know this skill before moving on. Because of regent requirements, we always have to have a letter system [of grading] until four-year universities say GPAs ares not a qualified admissions requirement.”

The other change is flexible scheduling.

“We will see a pilot coming out pretty quickly that opens up a full hour or may be more of the school day for kids to make decisions where they need to be,” Cobbs said. “You will see pieces of that started next year. These are incremental steps to the greater goal of creating a more student-centered educational system. Really providing student an avenue to say, ‘these are my passions. This is what I want to learn about and these are my goals.’ There is a liberal arts feel to our school system, but it does not mean that everyone of those classes has to look the same for every kid.

“Those are just microscopic components of the major changes overall you will see in education.”