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McKenna's vision at Cascade plays to students' strengths

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Cascade School District Superintendent Steve McKenna is passionate about finding creative ways to approach education. He and the school board are moving forward on some out-of-the-box efforts to engage students and the community in designing a learning environment that works for students and invites them to take ownership in their own education.

These efforts stand in stark contrast to the industrial model of education that once prevailed — where the teacher is the "sage on the stage" and the students are merely vessels into which educators pour information. Doesn't sound very appealing, does it?

It took a school bond failure a few years ago to prompt the district to step back and reconsider the vision of a high school, McKenna told me. The high school has undergone quite a transformation already, but not many folks in the community are aware.   You'll find programs at Cascade High that one might not expect, from Running Start classes on campus that used to be held at the Wenatchee Valley College, college credit courses, certification classes for everything from Microsoft products and even fire science. 

What McKenna, the board and educators have determined is that education works best when schools play to the strengths of the student in terms of their interests and desires and allowing them to pursue those during high school. This runs counter to conventional thinking in which the expectation was that all kids could be put in similar molds — the cookie cutter approach.

Education is more than stuffing information into the heads of students, McKenna pointed out. Like the notion of Common Core standards, it's about figuring out ways for kids apply knowledge effectively rather than regurgitate it.

The Cascade High School staff plus some students and community members are going to spend a day in early November grappling with how to create an approach that builds on the strengths of students and the steps it will take to move in that direction, said McKenna. 

At the same time, the students who aren't participating in that exercise will have the unique opportunity do consulting-like work for local businesses. Students are taking the lead in recruiting businesses to bring a challenging issue to a small team of students and allow them to come up with creative solutions.

Voila! There's an example of solutions-based education where kids are being leaders and accountable to "clients." It's a perfect real-world example that fits perfectly with what McKenna and the school board envision for the future of education at Cascade High School. 

So what do students get out of this? They get a chance to develop teamwork, create real-life solutions to real problems and at the same time learn about professions they might be interested in. It could lead to internships or mentorships with local companies and at the same time connect local businesses more effectively with schools. It gives them a chance to gain experience in taking some risks that will benefit them whether they move on to college or head straight into the work force. 

"I'm pretty excited about this," McKenna told me. The  Future Business Leaders of America class is taking a leadership role in facilitating the Cascade Learns project the week of Nov. 11 that matches businesses with students who are interested in the topic. He visited the FBLA class recently and reported: "It was great to go into a classroom where kids were out of  their chairs, working in teams and engaged while the teacher was coaching on the side — helping and guiding them," McKenna said. 

That's the epitome of students engaged in creating their own education. 

There will be some in the community who may criticize this day out of the classroom in which the students are responsible for helping business "clients" succeed. But to me, if it inspires students to get excited about creating their own future, the district will have succeeded mightily. 

It's great to see these kinds of constructive projects happening in North Central Washington. Hats off the district for thinking outside the box. Here's a link to the Cascade Learns website: