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Farmington plans new school that would feature self-directed learning

  • Article by: Erin Adler
  • Star Tribune
  • December 7, 2013 - 2:00 PM

The Farmington School District is taking steps to provide students with a new kind of school next year, an effort Superintendent Jay Haugen said is in keeping with the district’s emphasis on innovation.

Haugen shared the idea for the “choice school”— so called because parents would have to elect for their child to attend — at the Nov. 25 board meeting.

The option involves self-directed learning, with students working on interdisciplinary projects and moving at their own pace. Students would use iPads to learn, with teachers acting as guides, Haugen said.

The project’s timeline is moving fast, because “sometimes you spend way too long up front” researching an idea, losing enthusiasm along the way, Haugen said.

“I think what we’re sure of is we’re going to design it,” he said. “We’ll make our best run at opening it next year.”

A committee of 15 to 18 parents, teachers and administrators was recently formed to iron out details of the school’s design, with plans to meet five times and present their findings to the board on Jan. 27.

The school would probably serve kindergarten through grade 8, with the first students in fourth through sixth grade. The goal is to have 100 students enrolled at the district’s Instructional Service Center, where there are empty classrooms.

Kids in grades four through six are just beginning to develop strong interests, making it the perfect age to transition to the new school, Haugen said.

“But part of the design is, are we even going to call them grades?” he asked.

Caleb Drexler Booth, a committee leader and the district’s director of teaching and learning, said the committee will use “design thinking” to “flesh out the concept of that idea in a little more detail,” he said.

In recent years, the district has emphasized using technology and taking risks. Farmington was among the first districts in the metro area to issue all students iPads and was designated an Innovation Zone last spring by the Minnesota Department of Education, along with the Spring Lake Park district.

Farmington’s strategic plan, approved in fall 2012, calls for the district to embrace new ideas, and Haugen often talks about the importance of letting students explore their passions.

“So the focus of this school is to put many of these different elements together at one time, building a new school experience from scratch, essentially,” Booth said.

Haugen cited the Lakeville district’s new Impact Academy and an Edina elementary school as models, but Booth said that the committee will first decide what the Farmington community wants, instead of replicating other schools.

At the board meeting, Haugen shared this year’s enrollment numbers, which include 265 students from other districts choosing to enroll into Farmington schools. But there are also 1,198 students who live in Farmington who enroll outside the district.

Haugen said that getting some of those students, who are mostly elementary age, to come back is an ongoing goal, and offering the new school would be part of that effort.

Laura Pierce, the district’s director of innovative programming, said she’s heard that families are impressed with and excited about the school.

Booth said he doesn’t anticipate any problems finding enough students.

“I think [this school] fits with the general tenor that we’re seeing within education, and the need to think and do things differently,” Booth said. “We don’t know what kind of jobs kids are going to walk into.… But we do know the types of skills and the type of knowledge base that kids need to have, which is very flexible and very adaptable.”

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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