At Farmington High School, kids are cutting out of class early in the name of innovation.

Principal Ben Kusch recently instituted "self-directed learning time," which allows students who aren't behind on schoolwork to leave class 10 minutes early to work on projects or catch up on other assignments. With fewer students in class, teachers have more time to focus on those who need extra help.

"What do you do with the kids who are behind the curve or ahead of the curve? This is one of the ways we've begun to contemplate that," Kusch said. "How to we begin to empower our students to take more control of their learning?"

Because the Farmington district was recently named an Innovation Zone, they'll soon be able to try more experimental projects like these.

The five-year designation by the Minnesota Department of Education gives districts that apply the chance to partner with another district to try new things with less red tape and paperwork from the state.

Beginning next school year, Farmington will work with Spring Lake Park to form one of two Innovation Zones in Minnesota. Among their goals is to offer online classes that enroll students from both districts, sharing costs and hiring teachers together.

"Public education has been fairly risk averse to trying new things," said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's education commissioner. "If we don't evolve while the whole entire learning environment is evolving around us, we will eventually go out of business."

In part because students in both districts have their own iPads, many Innovation Zone projects will be technology driven.

But "it was never really about iPads. We just couldn't get started without them," said Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen. "Now it's really about what is that learning environment like? How do we literally individualize for every student?"

Technology simply lets teachers and students re-imagine time and space during the school day, Kusch said.

At the high school, teacher Julian Buss said the designation validates some of the unique things he's already doing in his earth science class. Because it's a hybrid classroom, students spend several days a week in class, doing lab work. On the other days, they listen to Buss's YouTube mini-lectures on their iPad and work independently in the media center.

The arrangement allows Buss to have just 17 students in class at a time, resulting in smaller lab groups and individualized attention.

"Now everyone is doing science and no one can sit on the sidelines," Buss said. "I'd never go back to having 34 kids."

Thinking differently

Being an Innovation Zone is "almost like getting permission to think a bit differently," Kusch added.

But clarifying just what "Innovation Zone" means or what kinds of projects the districts will now undertake is tricky, Kusch said.

"The concrete stuff is kind of tough," Kusch said. "If we had a whole concrete list of things we wanted to do, I think we would've already done them."

"It's things that haven't even been thought of yet," Cassellius said. While the meaning is different for every district, the goal is to motivate schools to try new things by waiving certain state requirements, she said.

For example, if Farmington and Spring Lake Park were collaborating to offer an online class and thus sharing students, being an Innovation Zone could "remove the strict boundaries on teacher licensure — who teaches in which district and how they're coded — or in calculating enrollment," Cassellius said.

However, the districts are "not relieved of any testing burden," she said.

Another aspect of the state's aims with the Innovation Zone relates to workforce development, Cassellius said.

The South Central Education Consortium, the other group of districts that received the designation, plans to offer apprenticeship programs. Being an Innovation Zone will let them calculate credit hours differently and allow members of the business community to teach classes that still meet graduation requirements, she said.

Farmington and Spring Lake Park are still in the planning phase, meeting regularly to iron out details, Haugen said. Last week he began creating the "request for proposal" forms that teachers can fill out if they have a new idea to try.

He believes being an Innovation Zone will "free our teachers to do that which they love — why they got into the profession in the first place," he said.

Whatever they try, the state will be constantly evaluating their work, even acting as a third partner, he said.

Haugen said he's excited for the innovation to begin.

"We really do think we're up to the challenge," he said.