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KASB’s First District Showcase Spotlights Student Success in Kansas

Posted Date: 11/20/2023

KASB’s First District Showcase Spotlights Student Success in Kansas

In today’s world, it is easy to worry about education. While educational attainment is currently high, growth has slowed, and academic measures like state, national, and college prep tests have faced challenges, particularly during COVID. However, there's a positive shift underway. Although low-income, disabled, and special needs students still face obstacles, educators are addressing the increasing behavioral, social, and emotional needs with resilience.

However, I found many reasons for hope at the Kansas Association of School Boards annual convention when 17 school districts came to Wichita with innovative efforts to help students succeed. It was called the District Showcase, but it was really a “student” showcase because it was students, from grade school to high school, who told their stories with teachers mainly in the background. It was these young voices I found so powerful. 

These students are empathic. They care about each other, their schools and their communities.

The students talked about character education and service organizations and clubs. They talked about helping their peers who come to school dealing with family and personal issues and supporting “quiet kids” who may feel left out or overlooked.

Many schools have now decided to group students across grade levels, which helps them build stronger relationships like a family. I heard about service projects where older kids are greeters, guides and mentors in the playground, lunchroom, library and classroom. Many of the student teams presenting at this showcase spanned grade levels, and it was impressive to watch them work as a team, share responsibilities and encourage each other.

Several programs included a community service component, and you could sense young people wanting to give back to their community in a way I don’t remember from my peers in the 1970’s. And they are responding to special needs that are unique to their community.

These students are learning by doing and are engaged by what they do.

When I was in school, students sat in rows, listening to a teacher, answering a few questions, reading a textbook and trying to remember the material for long enough to pass a test. To some, that may seem like a golden age. But the dropout rate was far higher, graduation rates were much lower, and far fewer students went to college at any level.

The students I talked to aren’t sitting passively in class. They are operating banks and businesses, farms and gardens. They’re designing model wind turbines and cities. They’re doing projects for clients in the school system and community and building portfolios of their work. They are getting chances to explore career options earlier and enter “pathways” that lead to technical knowledge, workplace skills, real job experience and credentials validated by industry and higher education while still in school.

These students are learning about adult expectations.

If you have ever watched the situation comedy “Thirty Rock” you might remember super capitalist Jack Donaghy’s explaining the pillars of the Six Sigma business philosophy, including “handshake-fullness.” I’m reminded of that when I talk to students who have learned about introductions, including eye contact and clear speaking. You didn’t have to pull information out of the students at the showcase; they were prepared and eager to talk about their activities.

Many studies have shown that most employers aren’t worried about academic skills that can be measured in a standardized test. They want employees who demonstrate traits like responsibility, initiative and teamwork and who can effectively communicate from person to person. The State Board of Education calls these the “Kansans Can Competencies” and has encouraged schools to work them into every student’s learning experience.

For many of these students, this activity is more than just a class assignment or a homework project. It is a job; it has tasks, their fellow students are coworkers and team members and their teachers are guides and supervisors, not just lecturers and graders. They are practicing what it means to be an employee, a leader, an entrepreneur and a community member.

These students want to take charge of their future.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing I heard from students and teachers is the goal of having the skills to control their own destiny. Few people set out to be poor and socially dependent, but some fall into this condition anyway, requiring social services for assistance, sometimes over generations. There is much debate over whether this assistance is too much or too little. But there is little debate that giving more students the skills to access higher paying, more secure jobs, the personal qualities to earn and keep those jobs, and the ability to understand and advocate for oneself would lift more people into greater prosperity and happiness.

What struck me about many students I spoke with was their understanding of those goals. It wasn’t just cheerful optimism. These young people seem pretty realistic and I saw a lot of determination for their desired future.

These programs show what CAN be done and is happening in districts across Kansas.

My final thought: Seeing and experiencing these programs made me much more optimistic about the future. I imagine our community leaders, legislators, and others would feel the same way if they could have this experience. I'd encourage everyone to think of ways to share this information with people who are not already aware and supportive.

These are tangible examples of preparing students for their future (and ours), and students themselves are the best ambassadors.