School of Innovation aims to modernize education

The Shelton school district is working to modernize the way its students learn.

“Public education has not changed in over 180 years in terms of the subjects we teach and what we’ve done, but the world has changed dramatically,” said Shelton Intermediate School Headmaster Ken Saranich. “If we want to save the profession I love and am a part of, we need to make some dramatic changes to prepare these students.”

Saranich said the latest effort he and his team have undertaken to address the needs of his students has come in the form of the pilot year of a school within the school called the “School of Innovation.”

SIS’s School of Innovation is made up of eight classrooms, two groups of seventh graders, and its curriculum focuses on teaching its students skills other than those related to math and science.

“We’re preparing kids for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” said Saranich. “With that being said, we need to emphasize more than just math, science, social studies, and what we’ve been studying for years. They still get that core content, but it’s more focused on skills.”

New curriculum vs. traditional curriculum

Saranich credits all the teachers who have volunteered to teach in the school within the school for being “brave” in this trial-and-error style of education.

“Anything the teachers in the regular school are required to do, these teachers do also,” said Saranich, explaining that the teachers in the School of Innovation are still required to administer the standard statewide tests as well as the same math, science and social studies lessons taught to the rest of the seventh graders in the school.

According to Saranich, only two of the school’s five seventh grade classes are a part of the School of Innovation. All students at the Shelton Intermediate School have access to the learning lab within the School of Innovation, despite not taking part in the classes within the separate facility.

The basic idea of the School of Innovation is student choice about style of learning, according to Saranich.

“The school is all about allowing students to express how they learn, what they choose to learn, and how they demonstrate that assessment of learning,” said Saranich

At the beginning of the week, students get to choose which lessons they’re interested in and then the teachers assign them to learning groups. It’s not guaranteed the students will get put in the lesson of their choice, but if not, they typically will get their second choice, according to Saranich.

The two groups of seventh graders will undergo the same testing as students who are not learning under the new curriculum and will also still receive the core material taught in the rest of the school’s math, science, and social studies courses. However, the information is taught in a way that encourages students to enhance their problem-solving skills and be less dependent on direction from their teachers.

In a recent visit to the School of Innovation, the city’s Board of Education members got to see the students at work. While most had no idea what to expect, they were all excited to see the number of students who appeared to be more engaged and enthusiastic about what they were learning.

Upon their arrival, the Board of Ed members saw cohorts of students working in the hallways and in the classrooms to solve problems and exhibit their understanding of the week’s “Habit of Mind.”

“In order to make sure students are still meeting their standards in each course, teachers focus on Habits of Mind,” said Saranich.

Saranich explained that each week teachers roll out a Habit of Mind that students are expected to grasp in order to be more attractive candidates for top new-era jobs. He said that one day the students might be working on Habits of Mind and other days they might be working on material that’s taught throughout the rest of the school.

“It’s not about what we know, but about what we can do with what we’ve learned,” said Saranich.

The school’s most recent Habit of Mind was “Perseverance.” Teachers designed activities such as assigning the kids to small groups to collectively build a house of cards, with one team member being blindfolded, another having one hand tied behind her back, another with headphones on, and the last being unable to speak. The activity forced the students to communicate with one another, think critically and persevere through the obstacles thrown in their way.

Board of Ed member David Gioiello said that while it’s important that students know how to arrive at a given solution, it’s more important for them to know why a solution works.

“That’s the important part,” said Gioiello.

Saranich explained that in order to assure that students fully understand what they’re working on, they meet up as a class later on in the day, after having time to discuss with their peers, to debrief with their teachers. This is where the lessons come full circle, according to Saranich.

The lessons are also reinforced at the end of each week, when the students are required to address the following four issues: “What is the definition of today’s Habit of Mind? What guideline skills and strategies did you gain? Describe the specific time you have used the Habit of Mind or how you could use it in the future. How can this Habit of Mind help you in the real world?”

“Top organizations are looking for people who are collaborative, cooperative, critical thinkers, creatives,” said Saranich.

Board of Ed Chairman Mark Holden said he anticipates students will retain lessons more efficiently because of this new style of learning.

“The things they learn they will retain because of how they obtained it,” said Holden. “We still want to see the improved math scores. The goals here are pretty much the same, we’re just trying to achieve them differently. I think it will be important for these kids to grasp these skills in order to be successful down the road.”

Only time will tell whether this new style of learning and teaching will be more effective than the traditional curriculum taught in the rest of the school, according to Gioiello, but Saranich said he and his staff are committed to seeing what works and adapting the curriculum as required.

Inside the School of Innovation

Equipped with a “think tank” or innovation lab, similar to those of companies like Apple and Amazon, Saranich said, the new learning space was designed to provide students with a more creative environment to think outside the box.

The area that was formerly the school’s language lab is equipped with tables designed to encourage collaboration, as they can be formed into larger tables, a table with a dry erase surface to encourage students to work through problems by writing their thoughts out right in front of them, and beanbag chairs to help students relax in an effort to get them to think creatively.

“It was formerly our language lab with extremely out-of-date computers, but now it’s stocked with Chromebooks,” said Saranich.

The School of Innovation also adopted a more Web-based filing and grading system that is designed to be more friendly to parents. With digital portfolios that are accessible via Chromebooks, parents have instant access to what their children are working on and learning in school.

Teachers within the School of Innovation said they’ve seen a dramatic cut in the amount of time they spend passing out and collecting papers or materials.

Dr. Beth Smith, headmaster of Shelton High School, said she’s working with the School of Innovation staff to help these students with the transition to high school.

“Graduation requirements for this class have changed,” said Smith. “Kids don’t need to have Carnegie units in English, social studies and fine arts. It’s now humanities. There’s no longer a separation between science, math, technology, and engineering. It’s now STEM.”

Smith said this new style of learning and teaching is designed to provide the Class of 2023 with opportunities for more personalized learning.

While teachers are still expected to grade their students based on performance, and still have the same grading periods, Smith acknowledged that the needs of students are changing with the world.

In order to assure that they’re all on the same page, the teachers within the sub school have a meeting every day, and Saranich meets with what’s called the Innovation Advisory Council to learn what’s going on and what decisions need to be made. Saranich explained that the Innovation Advisory Council is composed of three teachers from within the School of Innovation.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chris Clouet then meets with all four staff members who are involved in the meetings.

Since the beginning of this year, Saranich said, there has been a 25% increase in overall attendance for students enrolled in the School of Innovation, and there are currently 64 students with perfect attendance in the School of Innovation.

“It’s really exciting to see kids so excited to learn,” said Saranich.