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NCW schools finding creative ways to engage students

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If our kids are going to be successful in life, we need an approach to education that inspires creativity, collaborative learning and engages kids differently than our schools have done in the past.

The good news is that some compelling and promising approaches are being developed in North Central Washington schools that show signs of unleashing the creative power of teachers and students and result in a much richer educational experience. 

Those are some key insights I gained from Rich McBride, the superintendent of North Central Educational Service District during a conversation at his Olds Station office. 

Unfortunately, many of the approaches being pushed by lawmakers in Olympia and Washington D.C. these days would turn the clock back on education fifty years and ill-serve students by putting in place rigid plans that emphasize a model of learning that doesn't work for kids today — having the teacher be the  'sage on the stage' while kids sit passively in their seats absorbing information. Maybe that worked in the industrial era, but not today.

Students are in a different place, McBride told me. The vision he keeps in the front of his mind is of a 3rd grade girl with a tablet at her desk waiting for schools to come up with an experience that meets her needs. 

McBride believes we ought to be unleashing  the creative power of students and teachers. When kids have a sense of ownership of their education and when teachers are given the flexibility to use their talents and when students and educators are held accountable for meeting meaningful progress rather than just test scores, we'll be on the right road. 

To do that means bucking Olympia and D.C. and takes great courage. A growing number of educational leaders here are taking that principled stand and the work they're doing is promising. 

Wenatchee, Cascade and Manson are just three examples of districts where innovation is occuring and standard assumptions are being challenged. Innovation looks different at each of the schools. Similarly, Waterville and Brewster have seen significant success in engaging students differently. Some common themes include tapping into the power of the local community, focusing on what kids need rather than what  policy makers want, and a willingness to adapt and adjust as they learn what works, McBride said.

Reconnecting schools with their communities is crucial. For too long, school have operated in silos. Wenatchee is developing a partnership center for community engagement, Cascade is having students do consulting projects for local businesses, to name two examples. 

What's happening in our region is part of a nationwide effort to create schools that work. The term coined here is "New School" and it means creating approaches that work for kids, inspire their creativity and allow them to have greater ownership of their education.

Accountability comes hand in hand with the New School approach. 

There is a $30 billion Race to the Top grant that North Central ESD is a part of that will support the efforts here regionally to reinvent educaton. If approved, that will free our districts from some of the top-down, onerous and counterproductive prescriptions currently imposed on the districts by policy makers. 

A key aspect of the grant is that union representatives, school boards and superintendents were required to make written commitments to support these innovative effort so that everybody has skin in the game. 

We should all be encouraged by the initiatives happening here in North Central Washington. To be successful in education, McBride is convinced, our communities have everything necessary. We need to quit worrying about the policy makers and do what's right for our kids with the resources we have locally.

It's a bit scary, uncertain and fraught with challenges, but that's world we live in these days. Let's embrace this new era and charge forward with confidence.

As McBride says, "our kids are waiting for us." They're already far ahead of us and we need to catch up.