by Kim Cameron
The West Grand school year began Monday. However, for West Grand Superintendent Dr. Darrin Peppard focus on positive school climate is ongoing.
Earlier in July, Dr. Peppard accompanied a group of students and staff to Florida for the Jostens Renaissance national conference to help build and maintain positive school climate and culture in West Grand School District.
Dr. Peppard said of the experience, “I knew they would gain a better understanding of taking ownership of the culture and climate of their schools.” Peppard has attended the Jostens Renaissance conference for the last 12 years and was a presenter once again this year.
“Kids in our schools are our future community leaders. Why should education be something done to them? It should be something done with them,” he theorizes about his philosophy of education.
Dr. Peppard explains everyone should feel valued and feel they are part of something special. “We want every child to have at least one significant adult at school, someone they know sees them, hears them, and cares about them.” He stressed children should be recognized for all their achievements whether they are academic, behavioral, activity related, or athletics.
“The traditional culture of schools, across the country typically put our athletes on pedestals. There is nothing wrong with that, but schools are institutions of learning, and we should put our academics on pedestals too. We should put our kids in the fine arts on pedestals. Everyone deserves to have that moment where they are recognized for something they achieved whether it is raising their GPA, or improving their attendance, or achieving a 4.0, or a 25 on an ACT. Whatever the case may be.”
He expands, “We want to develop a culture of excellence where we are very clear what our values are and that we recognize, reinforce and reward those who are achieving and meeting those core values.” The core values extend into areas of excellence: learning, leadership and engagement.
Gina Manguso, a senior chosen to attend the conference based on her positive leadership, says she learned how to positively impact her school and her community and was taught successful fundraising techniques. She was also prepared to start the year actively,
“Already, we have painted the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms on the auditorium side of the school. We thought it would bring a little life to the school.
While we were at the convention, we saw a huge rally to pump people up so we took some of their ideas and used them. On the first day of school, we had a ‘frozen fruit and whipped cream parfait’ and then our version of a rally with lip sync battles and cheers,” Manguso said.
Angel Castillo, a junior at West Grand, explains his experience at the Jostens Renaissance conference. “When I first arrived all the speakers told me this conference would change my life. I honestly didn’t believe them. How can a few words make someone’s heart change? Well, it did. I became a new person when I got back. It taught me to be myself no matter what other people thought of me and to use my weaknesses as strengths. This mindset has made me believe we can make the school a better place for students and staffulty. WE CAN DO THIS!”
Creating student ownership with Project Based Learning
With students such as Manguso and Castillo acting as leaders, Dr. Peppard hopes others will take more ownership of their education in the classroom too. This year, students will be more responsible for their own learning with a project based learning (PBL) approach. Dr. Peppard explains, “Students will have an opportunity to learn and meet academic standards through solving real-world problems. This will increase their connection and ownership of their community and lead to more authentic learning.”
PBL will look very differently for students in different grade levels as teachers help guide students through challenging problems. For instance, an upper high school mathematics teacher might ask a driving question such as, ‘How can we develop a strategy to minimize forest fire risk and minimize potential fire risks in Grand County?’ Students could then use mathematical models, rates of change, graphing, Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus to solve the real-world problem.
PBL can also be accomplished through collaborative groups, but will stress individual accountability. “There are very key elements in project based learning,” Dr. Peppard explains. Project based learning begins with teachers identifying the standard students need to learn and incorporates direct teaching as well as individual workshops. “The difference is the ownership the students take through this the process, and the most powerful piece of project based learning is students have a voice of how they demonstrate what they have learned instead of just regurgitating what they have learned on a test.” Dr. Peppard also hopes it will lead to more connections throughout the community. “It is a great opportunity to increase the engagement between our community and our schools. One of the tenets of project based learning is having an authentic audience to present your final project and get feedback. There will be times the authentic audience may be a business or community partner.”
It could also present opportunities for students to learn from community members.
To accommodate the PBL model, block scheduling was also incorporated at both the high school and middle school. The longer sections of time will allow students and teachers to go deeper into some content, raise opportunities for students to interact with community and business partners, and will reduce the time used each day for transition between classes, which can be used more for learning. As well, all district teachers were a part of a three-day training on PBL planning and implementation over the course of the summer.
Changes in Staffulty
In changing the culture and climate of the district, Dr. Peppard has also adopted the Jostens Renaissance term staffulty to incorporate both staff and faculty, and takes pride in reevaluating how best to use the strengths of his instructional staff. Keeping staff numbers constant from last year, Dr. Peppard has added more certified staff including an additional special education teacher. The district now employs four highly qualified special education teachers. An instructional coach was also added in lieu of an ELL (English Language Learner) director. The responsibilities for ELL were transferred to the instructional coach. “We have done a lot of work to support our teachers with ELL strategies and developed a strategies to take care of the ELL paper work previously done by the director… Now we have provided support for all students instead of some.” Veteran teacher, Laura Gore will serve as the instructional coach.
Reading skills at the K-8 will continue to be a focus. Jane Janssen, formerly a 4th grader teacher, became the school’s reading specialist, and technology classes in the K-8 will be incorporated in the classroom with PBL. This allows Brian Strathman to teach 7th and 8th grade health, which was not offered in the middle school, and to teach at the high school offering outdoor education and other courses. Becca Bailey will now teach 6th grade health in addition to elementary PE with Cori Kassib teaching health at the high school.
The work done last year by the board of education and by Dr. Peppard to complete a visioning plan translates into two important elements, both well in play for this school year. The two, building positive culture and climate, along with ensuring instruction and learning is relevant and authentic for students have brought a lot of energy to the staffulty. The first day of school this year brought welcome back rallies at both schools. As Dr. Peppard stated, “no program, no effort will accomplish our goals if we don’t have the right culture and climate in place first.”