Once the decision was made for Newton's Slate Creek Elementary to join the Gemini I group participating in the Kansans Can School Redesign Project, principal Tenae Alfaro started to put together a team to help shape the new vision for the school — including art teacher Beth Burns, kindergarten teacher Brooke Pickerill, second grade teacher Sarah Vogt, fourth grade teacher Alyssa Miller and social worker Coleen Werner.
Beyond that, though, the team wanted to make sure the entirety of Slate Creek felt involved in the redesign. With that, a document was created to allow for all staff to share their ideas in answering the main question behind the redesign: what would your ideal, no-limits school look like? From there, the seeds of the redesign were planted — which is currently being piloted at the Newton school this year.
"Just as a whole staff, we brainstormed and shot out tons and tons of ideas. That really kind of jumpstarted a lot of our ideas and thought processes. Then, we did a lot of research into those things; we talked with the district office about a lot of those things," Vogt said.
"That's one thing that we've been very blessed with is a staff as a whole who did not take the redesign as, 'oh, I've been doing it wrong.' It's not that at all; it's what can we do differently for our kids," Alfaro said. "As a whole, our staff said, 'let's try something different. Our kids need something different, let's do it for our kids.'"
From the crowdsourced brainstorming, three areas of focus emerged for Slate Creek. The redesign, it was decided, would be built around the pillars of academics, social/emotional health and family/community relationships.
More specifically, it was noted the academic element was aimed at implementing project-based learning into the curriculum with the goal of each grade level participating in at least two such projects once the redesign officially launches in the 2019-2020 school year.
Pickerill noted the idea behind that was to give students some "choice and voice" in their learning in an effort to build to the overarching goal of the redesign — to increase student engagement.
Work on the social/emotional health aspect has been done to help equip both students and teachers to approach behavioral situations more efficiently (with an eye towards that goal of engagement), while the redesign is also aimed at engaging the entire community in the learning process — from the student body to their families and even businesses/organizations throughout Newton.
"Relationship building is really a big part of it, with our students, with us, with our families and then also with the community," Burns said.
Currently, all of Slate Creek is involved with the pilot year of the redesign. While not having to launch officially until next school year, the redesign team wanted to do a test run with the changing elements — some of which have been extremely well-received in the trial year.
Particularly, Alfaro and the redesign team noted the students have really taken to the family groups. Those groups meet twice a week for 30 minutes a day, bringing together students and staff from different grade levels, and the teachers began to notice the relationships forming almost immediately. They noted they would see third-grade students stop to talk with kindergarteners in the hallways, sharing with and encouraging each other, and nearly all of the building staff (90 percent) have seen it make a difference with students towards that engagement.
As the redesign gears up to officially launch next year, family nights (where some additional input was gained) are also a key part in preparing for that — as staff continue to share with patrons and explain the changes going on in Slate Creek.
Some of those changes continue to be fine-tuned, with the redesign team specifically pointing to the need for more time to communicate and collaborate between staff members — especially when it comes to the focal area of project-based learning.
"We need to have some time where grade level teachers can meet with specials teachers. The district has set a goal that we will start incorporating PBL. That's something the district wants to see all buildings doing and we don't have a lot of time for that collaboration, so that's something we need to really look at and fine tune," Pickerill said.
In searching for inspiration for the redesign, Alfaro noted a lot of that came internally from staff members. While the redesign team did visit some schools while preparing to launch, that did not play a significant role in shaping the elements included in Slate Creek's redesign.
Similarly, while there have been some schools coming to visit Slate Creek in its pilot year — with redesign to be required among all Kansas schools by 2026 — staff do not expect that to play a major role in shaping their visions. The redesign process is one that is very unique and one that each school has to work through on their own, ironing out the wrinkles along the way.
"As we're changing and growing, I feel like the culture of Slate Creek is now very much, 'it's okay if we try it and it didn't work.' It's not a one and done, but continuing to try things and change things, knowing it's okay if it doesn't work out," Alfaro said.
"That's a great life lesson for our kids as well," Burns said, "that it's okay to do something and if it's not perfect the first time then you can keep trying and do better the next time."
Given that there is no "one size fits all" elements tied to redesign, Alfaro and the redesign team said there is a general excitement — rather than any sort of pressure — as Slate Creek prepares for the official launch of its new educational look in 2019-2020. Teachers are creatures of habit, they admitted, so breaking the mold now is something they expect to benefit the school community for many years down the road.
"We know that the world is changing and how people live their lives and do everyday things is different. Traditional school has not changed and it doesn't work in a changing world with families that change and ideas that change. The way we learn needs to change as well," Pickerill said. "I think the coolest thing about it (the redesign)is just that it's open-ended. Just because we've made some changes and we've set some goals doesn't mean that's all we're ever going to do. It just opens more doors for more change and more flexibility. I don't think we'll ever really be done redesigning; we've just really gotten started."