MITCHELL, S.D. — Something will be missing from high school biology, physics and physical science classes this fall in Bonesteel: the science teacher.
The high school had been borrowing two science teachers from nearby Burke, but that agreement ended this summer when a consolidation plan fell apart. When the search for a replacement yielded two underqualified candidates, South Central Superintendent Tim Rhead decided to work with what he’s got.
The science classes will be led next year by a high school English teacher; a middle school math, science and computers teacher; and a middle school paraprofessional who used to be a veterinary technician.
“It’s extremely hard to find science teachers to begin with ... especially one qualified to teach all four subjects,” Rhead said.
The teachers are not expected to know the science curriculum; they just have to know students and how to connect them with resources and experts who can teach it, such as Sanford Health researchers and online lectures.
“Everything you’d ever want to learn is on the Internet,” Rhead said.
South Central is one of four rural school districts that will experiment next year with nontraditional methods of delivering instruction. Education Secretary Melody Schopp calls them “innovation labs.”
The plan is different in each district, but common elements are a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and project-based learning — instruction that introduces projects at the start as a vehicle for instruction, as opposed to a culminating exercise at the end of a lesson.
In a project-based learning situation, everything students learn is connected to a group project about a real-world problem or question. They work with classmates, researching online. Teachers stay out of it until they’re needed. It’s designed to be more engaging and relevant.
It’s a concept participants say will get students and the communities excited about their local schools. It also aspires to take advantage of technology to bring the best possible instruction to schools that often struggle to hire qualified teachers. If they succeed, the schools will be held up as models for rural schools throughout South Dakota.
“You can provide an education that is top notch,” Schopp told a room of educators earlier this month at the start of a week of unpaid training in Mitchell. “(Gov. Dennis Daugaard) wants to really showcase this as what we can do in small schools with great educators.”
As these school officials tell it, the problem with K-12 education is that it looks too much like it did 50 years ago. Educators did well when they were students, so, “We teach as we were taught,” said Charlotte Mohling, South Dakota’s 2007 Teacher of the Year.
Teachers largely stand at the front of rooms and deliver lessons on a single subject, while students sit in desks and take tests to see what they’ve learned. What’s missing is connections among multiple subjects and between school and the real world.
Schopp said the Colorado high school she attended was unusually hands-on, which made lessons more meaningful and memorable. Her school’s student body had its own House and Senate, which passed school legislation that created a student lounge with a vending machine.
“The governmental process is stuck in my head,” she said. “We lived it.”
The Sioux Falls School District was the first in the state to dive into project-based learning when it opened New Technology High School last fall. With full-time access to their own computers, students learn all the state educational standards through cross-disciplinary group projects. For example, an algebra and physical science class project asked students to create a business plan for a new coffee shop, through which they learned such state-mandated standards as first-degree equations, thermal energy and conservation of mass.
Platte-Geddes 7-12 Principal Steve Randall admires New Tech’s instruction model, which he thinks holds promise for re-engaging his largely disinterested group of students. From kindergarten through 12th grade, Platte-Geddes is asking each teacher to use projects next year as the foundation of at least two lessons.
“Interest (in school) has been lost a lot over the last 10 to 15 years,” Randall said. “The kids need to find some value in it themselves.”
Similar to Platte-Geddes, Wessington Springs is introducing projects across its K-12 math and science curriculum next year. Mohling, who teaches technology and family and consumer arts at Wessington Springs High School, said project-based learning is worth a try.
“I think education needs to take a look at something different,” Mohling said. “I don’t think what we’ve been doing has been the most effective method.”
The idea man behind this experimentation is Dan Guericke, director of the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, which serves 13 school districts in and around Platte, all with fewer than 450 students.
Guericke and Schopp hatched plans for the innovation labs over dinner in Minneapolis a year ago. They agreed the traditional classroom model was built for urban schools and set out to create something better for small towns.
It rarely comes up when they talk about their vision, but to a large degree, money drives this experimentation. In a state that already is among the lowest spenders on K-12 education, the Legislature froze per-student state aid last year and cut it by 6.6 percent this year.
Rather than focusing just on survival, Guericke said, rural schools need to find ways to improve. One way he thinks schools can get better and more efficient is by changing the role of the classroom teacher, as South Central is doing.
Guericke imagines a one-room schoolhouse in which a single teacher covers all subjects but might not be an expert in any of them. With a wealth of educational resources online, the teacher doesn’t have to be a content expert. The Internet makes this possible.
“You’re about seven keystrokes away from any information you could want,” he said.
This teacher-as-facilitator concept seeks to solve a couple problems. It allows schools to stretch their dollar by assigning more students to each teacher, and it asks students to take an active role in their own education, seeking out information instead of following a teacher’s instructions.
In a perfect world, Guericke said, rural schools would be able to hire expert teachers for each subject. But in small high schools, it’s usually one person who teaches every science class. Those teachers probably focused only on biology or chemistry during college, but they don’t have that luxury on the job.
“At most of our schools, on paper, our teachers are highly qualified. But I’ve been there,” said Guericke, a former White Lake science teacher.
School leaders who work with Guericke generally agree with his approach, even those who aren’t participating in innovation labs. But they recognize getting teachers to buy in is a major hurdle.
In her pep talk at the start of the project-based training in Mitchell, Schopp told the group it takes courage to try a teaching method that is so unfamiliar.
“I really have to credit you for taking this risk,” she said. “This is messy. It’s really messy.”
Of about 40 teachers in the Platte-Geddes district, nine showed up recently to hear Schopp’s introduction. When it came time to present their project plans, two remained.
“Our biggest problem is going to be getting everybody on board,” said Randall, the Platte-Geddes principal.
In Armour, the administration’s strategy is coercion. Science teacher Slim Schneider said he was “voluntold” by CEO Burnell Glanzer that his sophomore biology class would be very different next year. He will be teaching through cross-disciplinary projects alongside his wife, Mary, a high school English teacher.
The project the couple came up with covers all the state’s required content standards for biology and English while playing on an Armageddon theme. Students will have to figure out what they would need to survive in a post-apocalyptic biodome.
Mary Schneider said the weeklong training was the best professional development she’s had. It wasn’t a throwaway series of meetings to satisfy the “co-op guy,” she said. “This is bigger than that.”
Annalise Corbin, founder of the Ohio-based PAST Foundation, which ran the training, said most schools stick with project-based instruction after making the change, but some have gone back to what’s familiar.
“It’s a risk because people are confused by it,” she said. “It really takes an administrative team that’s committed to it.”
Rhead, the South Central superintendent, expects that as one teacher takes on project-based instruction and does a good job with it, others will follow.
“If it is successful, the students will be driving the change,” he said. “They’ll say (to their other teachers), why aren’t we doing this in your classroom?”
Rhead hopes that happens. He knows something has to change. Far too many kids were just “taking up space” in classrooms last year, he said, bored because they didn’t see how classes were relevant to their lives. He wants to give farm kids the freedom to study plant genetics and give kids interested in medicine access to real-world researchers.
“There’s times that I’m real excited about it,” he said. “There’s other times that I think, oh, my gosh, what are we doing?”