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Springfield (Mo.) schools turn performance around with project-based learning

From hands-on learning stations to taking kids out of the classroom and putting them in the field, Springfield (Mo.) Public Schools is committed to project-based learning.

From hands-on learning stations to taking kids out of the classroom and putting them in the field, Springfield (Mo.) Public Schools is committed to project-based learning. The benefits are clear: Reading, math, and behavior have all improved. Here, Superintendent Norman Ridder, who attended the 2013 Superintendents Summit in Colorado Springs, gives us an inside look into Springfield’s project-based programs.

You’ve been running an innovative science program at the WOLF School (Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility) for five years. Describe what it is and how students benefit from it.

This is part of our “Choice & Innovation” program. Choice & Innovation programs are designed to meet the needs of the 21st-century learner and the vast number of learning styles within our student population. The programs are highly engaging and transformational. With WOLF, 46 fifth-graders study conservation science year-round, and much of the time, they’re in the field. They canoe the river, work with insects, walk the forest, hunt, fish, work the soil, and trim trees. What makes it really engaging is they then go to the internet to learn about the animal species and plant life. We have found that, for the students who attend there, their performance metrics on reading, writing, and math have moved from average to being the best in the state. The parents can’t believe how their children’s skills have improved.

You have other project-based learning programs in the works. Tell us about those.

WOLF has been an incubator for much of our thinking. We’re launching a similar program at the Discovery Center museum starting August 2014 where we will have two classes of fifth-graders studying science all day, and we’re expecting the same results as with WOLF. We’re also starting another where eighth graders will go to school at Mercy Hospital. They will be taught the same curriculum as other eighth-graders in the district, but through the lens of health sciences using the unique learning environment that a fully operating hospital offers. The goal is to expose students to the many aspects of operating a hospital and career paths within health sciences. The program is a partnership between the district and Mercy, with both organizations contributing to the funding.

At the same time, we’re introducing a program at Glendale High School as part of the New Tech Network, a nonprofit that transforms schools into innovative learning environments. The program will focus on entrepreneurial collaboration and teamwork. It’s an inner-discipline approach where students and teachers of English, history, and science will collaborate with other sites across the country on a specific idea, such as ways to keep farm crop genetics healthy or how to improve the energy efficiency of a light bulb. And every student and teacher in this program will have an iPad.

What is the secret to your district’s success with the Choice & Innovation programs?

It comes down to getting the community to own its children. Sometimes companies approach us and sometimes we approach them. It’s  a win-win for all involved. The sharing of ideas is encouraged as we work together to foster a climate of creativity and innovation for students. It is exciting to hear ideas from the community as they see the impact for students and families and want to be involved. The WOLF program is a good example. Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which is headquartered here in Springfield, spent about $4 million building the WOLF classrooms and curriculum. We can’t even come close to replicating these types of facilities ourselves. That all comes out of the community owning its children.

Have you been able to transfer the project-based learning concept into the classroom?

Yes. We’ve developed a learning model that pushes the students to focus on what we call the three Cs: collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Students enrolled in these programs become very active learners. They collaborate in small groups with their peers to complete projects and hold each other accountable for their work. Students monitor their group and individual progress through an online learning management system. All grades, assignments, projects, and feedback are housed within the system. Parents also have access to this information. This creates an enhanced personalized learning experience that enables students to take full ownership of their learning.

At each learning station, the students conduct research, while the teacher monitors their efforts and helps where they have questions or gaps. Some stations have computers, while others have some type of hands-on material the students put together. For kindergarten, for example, some stations focus on letters while others might focus on diversity, but both are designed to help the students learn vocabulary or the alphabet. At the middle-school level, science is mostly hands-on learning stations, as opposed to lectures.

Attendance has gone up 2 to 3 percent, while graduation rates have increased from 76 percent to 87 percent over the last three to four years. Reading and math scores have improved. In our elementary and middle schools, we moved breakfast into the classroom, and that’s improved behavior tremendously. As a result, I think our kids are better prepared for the Common Core, because it’s all about problem-solving and the ability think creatively.

In early August, Ridder announced his resignation, effective June 30, 2014. After nine years as superintendent, Ridder and his wife plan to move west to be closer to family.

District Profile

Students: 24,876
Staff: About 3,000
Schools: 52
Per-pupil expenditure: $8,494
Free or reduced price lunch: 54.3%
Graduation rate: 86.7%