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District Dialogue

Using innovation to optimize resources

Clinton Community School District in Iowa implements two programs to move its students to next level
Clinton Community School District Superintendent Deborah A. Olson
Clinton Community School District Superintendent Deborah A. Olson

Iowa’s Clinton Community School District has incorporated two cutting-edge programs into its learning environment in hopes of giving students a better chance at graduating and succeeding in college or career.

The Innovation Classroom, one of the first of its kind in a U.S. public high school, enables teachers to tie technology with inquiry-based, collaborative learning. While the district renovated an underused area within its high school, the nearly 3,000-square-foot Innovation Classroom was an expensive room to build, costing $92,000 for the technology and approximately $30,000 for additional infrastructure and labor.

Data collected by the district’s Response to Intervention program helps educators determine the academic and behavioral support each student needs. Student progress is monitored to better match instruction and interventions with the student’s needs and to improve educational outcomes.

From an organizational standpoint, educators can use RTI to target resources by evaluating which elements of their education system require more development. We spoke with Superintendent Deborah A. Olson about what the district has achieved using these two programs.

DA: What makes the Innovation Classroom so engaging for students and teachers?

Olson: These classrooms are not just about providing technology; they are providing the environment for rigorous learning. First inspired by the efforts of Harvard educator Tony Wagner, our innovation instructional model is a fusion of the work done by educators and authors Dennis Smithenry and Joan Gallagher-Boles.

In their Community of Learners’ approach, teachers and students share a joint responsibility for learning, finding resources and opinions. With Whole-Class Inquiry, students lead the science-focused classroom, propose, explore and complete their own projects.

The Innovation Classroom promotes many skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, agility, adaptability, intuition, entrepreneurialism, and oral and written communication.

It has been a paradigm shift for the teachers as they act as a facilitator for students responsible for their own learning. The large classroom is fitted with advanced technology that allows students to work collaboratively.

The Innovation Classroom can hold up to 60 kids in the room with tables of nine students set up with three laptops each for more interactive team communications. Microphones, whiteboards and multiple monitors enable the students to interact and to conduct live meetings with business leaders outside the classroom.

The teacher gives the students a problem that covers 21st century skills; skills that they will need in the workplace. Students must research information about a project, make decisions, come up with a solution and explain why they made those decisions—all in a specific timeframe.

In an outbreak scenario example, such as the real-life Ebola virus outbreak in western Africa recently, teachers play the role of public health advisors and analysts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The class is split into four groups: epidemiologists, who study the patterns, causes and effects of disease; health education specialists, medical officers and microbiologists.

The group must determine which areas of the building are most infected, make a final recommendation to the school on what they can do to prevent the spread of illness, create a professional public service announcement, create a detailed presentation to deliver to a member of the medical community, and, as individuals, write an article to be published in the school newspaper.

What were the driving forces behind the Innovation Classroom? What barriers did you overcome?

We pursued Innovation Classrooms because of the work that had been done by Harvard educator Tony Wagner. Several counselors were inspired after visiting the University of Iowa’s Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage classrooms. The Innovation Classroom was costly.

We were fortunate to have local businesses and a community education foundation that donated money, in addition to receiving a grant from Clinton County Development Corporation, a nearby casino’s charitable arm. The private community is heavily invested in the district and proud of its viability and their kids.

The Innovation Classroom was actually a rallying point for almost everyone. The hardest part was for the instructors, because the children are driving instruction rather than the teachers. Not only has the response from the community been positive, but local businesses have appreciated the skills the students have learned.

In most jobs, kids have to be able to collaborate, solve problems, persevere, and use their curiosity and creativity. Business owners have said this is exactly what kids need to be successful in the workplace. The students are already coming with soft skills built in and businesses just need to fill in the content.

How did you handle the implementation of Response to Intervention across the district?

We started five years ago with a two-class, ninth-grade pilot program. Principals had committed to providing a common planning time for instruction and intervention for teachers and staff during the school day. Teachers underwent professional learning community training. The timeframe from the pilot program to districtwide participation was over two years.

We provide the interventional support for every student. The first level encompasses all students and then progressive amounts of intervention and observation depending on the students’ needs. In some cases, there are lessening amounts of interventions. The second half or level is about, for instance, a special-needs track that is necessary for certain individuals.

If we are doing something right, it can be replicated to give kids the tools to succeed in a world that is changing every day. Our new middle school will include two more Innovation Classrooms.

What results have you seen with RTI?

Although we did not have an initial 100 percent buy-in, the results convinced the remaining teachers and administrators. The number of behavior incidents in our high school has dropped while attendance has increased.

We have seen a reverse of the typical eighth- to ninth-grade dip in reading, which goes against our 10-year trends. Overall course failures have dropped 58 percent and behavioral referrals by 30 percent. We also have seen a 100 percent increase in the number of AP enrollments over the last five years.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.