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MISD plans for a ‘digital, cognitive’ world ahead

It may be 2008, but Mercer Island School District leaders are thinking like it is 2020.

This year, administrators developed a district-wide “2020 Vision” for Island students, one that prepares them for the “cognitive, global and digital world.” Throughout 2008, members of the school district brainstormed ways to push Island education to its pinnacle. The district established The Really Big Idea Committee —a group of teachers, parents, administrators and members of the Schools Foundation —to develop a vision for the future. This past fall, after much discussion, the 2020 Vision was adopted as the new road map for Island education.

Part of the vision, as set forth in its definition, is to “create an intensely personalized learning environment with a flexible, dynamic curriculum that inspires students to achieve ambitious, individual academic goals and prepares them to thrive and lead in the new, highly interconnected global and digital world.”

Superintendent Gary Plano, who was selected in March after serving as interim for six months, will lead the Really Big Idea Committee in developing a concrete plan to meet 2020 vision ends.

Meanwhile, the Schools Foundation will use this educational plan as a blueprint for fundraising and academic spending.

So far this year, the Schools Foundation has raised more than $418,000. The majority of these funds, donated by Island residents and businesses, were earned during the November phone-a-thon. The Foundation hopes to raise a total of $730,000 by the end of the academic year. These funds will go toward: project-based mathematics and hands-on science; new textbooks and curriculum; meeting 2008 state high school standards; encouraging right-brain thinking through the arts; before- and after-school learning programs, technology integration, Enrichment Grants for teachers, as well as National Board Certification support and specialized AP training.

As part of the 2020 Vision, educators are stepping away from standardized testing and toward more creative and individualistic methods of assessing student achievement. Earlier this year, the district invited renowned Ph.D. Yong Zhao, a leader in the field of education, to share his insight on providing a “21st century education” without high-stakes testing.

“It is almost impossible to say that any test scores can predict a person’s future,” Zhao told a packed auditorium of teachers, administrators and parents on May 14.

His speech, however, was designed to spur ideas, not provide answers. Indeed, it was a launching pad for the Really Big Idea Committee and its developing 2020 Vision.

“Zhao’s ideas were provocative, and he has ignited interest among teachers and parents about our vision of the future,” Plano said.

Embracing technology in the classroom is a key step in the 2020 Vision — one that Mercer Island has already taken.

In March, Islanders passed the Capital Facilities and Technology Levy with a 69 percent majority vote, allocating $9.9 million for district schools.

“We’re delighted with the results, which are another indication of how wonderful the community is about supporting our schools, students and staff,” School Board President Pat Braman said at the time.

The four-year levy will cover a set number of projects, from school remodeling and facility improvements to replacing outdated computers and introducing new classroom multimedia. Approximately $6.7 million of these taxpayer dollars will go toward technology upgrades.

Meanwhile, teachers are busy training to get caught up. With new computer software and online education tools already in the classroom, MISD educators have spent hours learning the digital ropes.

In August, Director of Technology Services Jennifer Wright led a two-day district wide technology training camp — paid for by levy dollars — for k-12 teachers. The district also hired two tech-ed specialists, Sarah Olson and Julie Hoven, to work full-time in the classroom, helping teachers and students with individual computer questions.

“Julie and I explain to teachers how to use the software to make their curriculum stronger and gain better understanding of their topics,” Olson said.

Online content in the classroom varies from blog assignments (when a student has an online discussion with classmates and posts individual “journal” entries or reading responses) to iVideo projects and interactive math equations.

According to the 2020 Vision, Internet education is key to preparing students for a global, competitive future.

“This is their world,” Wright said during a presentation about online curricula.

Yet celebration over MISD technology funds can be misleading. Faced with a teetering economy and dropping enrollment, the school district has been forced to work with a slim budget this year.

For the second year in a row now, the superintendent opened enrollment to off-Island students. This past September, the district accepted more than 80 students through open enrollment from kindergarten through 12th grade. Each student brings in approximately $4,577 in revenue. Thus, open enrollment has been one of the district’s primary means of boosting funds.

According to Plano, who has the final say in open enrollment, the number of new students has not affected the average class size, which hovers around 23 students per class.

While nearly 100 students commute to Mercer Island this year, a surprising number leave the Island as well.

Concerned by the growing number of Island students — especially high schoolers — attending private schools or taking off-campus classes (more than 300 total), the school district publicized a parent survey about the matter last spring.

Results of the survey, which were addressed at a School Board meeting in June, show that 92 percent of the parents polled feel their children’s individual needs are better met at private schools. Ninety percent of parents said that they chose private schools because they offer smaller class sizes, 83 percent because private school methods “build their child’s self-esteem and confidence” and 74 percent because the setting is “more suitable to their child’s learning style.”

Also, a high number of students struggling with the MIHS math and science programs take private courses to cover these credits.

Around the time of the survey, Plano organized a meeting with Island parents to discuss their concerns with the district’s academic program. The superintendent and his administrative team are now working to improve the MISD curriculum and keep Island students attending Island schools. Plano emphasized that he would continue speaking with parents, teachers and students in what is one of his most important 2008-09 goals.

“As superintendent of one of the highest achieving school districts in the state, I want to hear about how to improve the quality of education on the Island,” he said.

Go to page A8 for more on the Mercer Island School District year in review for 2008.

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