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Cascade student innovators impress businesses with their solutions

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A friend who is a public school skeptic told me recently that he believed school initiatives in North Central Washington focused on making learning personal for kids, using technology effectively and connecting with the community amounted to little more than talk.  

I wish my friend could have witnessed the Cascade Learns Live experience in Leavenworth last week, in which the entire student body participated in small group innovation teams helping local business come up with solutions to challenging issues. In the space of a couple of days, those student teams did an extraordinary job working together to use their creative skills to propose ideas to 35 or so businesses.  

This was a unique learning experience in which students were assigned to teams and were therefore working with people they didn't necessarily know well. Furthermore, they were given the freedom to work on their own for a full day on the project and were expected to come up with a meaningful proposal the next day. The businesses paid $250 each to participate, so the pressure was on to perform. It was also a different experience for the teachers and administrators who had to let go of the steering wheel for a day or two to let the students do their magic. That's not how schools normally operate.  

The Cascade High School students came through with flying colors. The business owners I spoke with after the project was finished expressed delight and enthusiasm about the quality of work the students had done and the fresh thinking they brought to real issues.

  Here at The World, we had two teams of students working on the following issue: How can our newspaper engage more effectively with younger readers. They came up with two slick and thoughtful ideas — developing a Wenatchee World app geared for the interest of younger readers and developing a YouTube channel. These ideas have merit and we're studying how we might capitalize on their ideas. Each team presented their ideas complete with revenue opportunities, design elements and concepts for future development. It was impressive.  

Other businesses had similar success, I'm told. Student teams have been asked to present their ideas to boards of directors and in some cases are being asked to further refine their ideas.  

Kirk Sunitsch, whose Future Business Leaders of America students were intimately involved in developing the all-school innovation team concept, said business owners were tapping into the expertise of individuals who think differently. "They do a lot of things different than the way we grew up," he said. "It's an interesting target market."  

Doing this project took an amazing amount of courage and Cascade Schools Superintendent Steve McKenna was the driver. The school board backed him up, the teachers and staff rose to the occasion to make it work and student leaders stepped up to test and refine the process. Everybody pitched in and great learning was achieved.

"It never fails to amaze me when I see students step up to a challenge and perform beyond our expectations," McKenna wrote to me in an email.    "Our students far exceeded the expectations of teachers, community members and more importantly themselves," he continued. "Collectively, we experienced the creativity, knowledge and experience these young innovators brought to the challenges posed to them by local business owners. So why do we all get excited and amazed with the process? Because the realization of years of work by all parties, including the students, has produced very special people."  

The quality of the presentations was consistently outstanding, considering the short amount of time they had to work on the project. I spent an hour or so looking at the work the students had done and you could tell they took it seriously and thought deeply about the issues. By giving these students meaningful, real-life business challenges and allowing them the freedom and the responsibility to find ways to use their skills and abilities, the Cascade School District created a powerful learning opportunity.  

This was a magnificent success. Businesses are already clamoring to do this again next year. I can't help but believe that those business owners have a greater respect and admiration for the kind of education and quality of kids in the Cascade School District.  

Schools also have to make sure the kids can pass assessment tests but with the high level of engagement of the students in this project, experiential learning has a place in education. This experiment suggests that we must continue to find creative ways to challenge kids and make education relevant.