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Kid-Centric Schools: When There’s a Will There’s a Way

Last Updated on 28 August 2023

When I wrote Uncommon Learning back in 2015, the premise was to set the stage as to how we could create schools that work for kids. A good deal of the strategies presented came from what we successfully implemented at New Milford High School where I was the former principal. To get a better gist of the main focus areas check out my TEDx talk.

As I have since transitioned from school principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), my work now focuses on helping schools transform teaching, learning, and leadership to create vibrant cultures that kids want to be a part of. Through the lens of an instructional and leadership coach, I have been able to see firsthand how schools across the country and world are implementing innovative change with this goal in mind.

There are many isolated pockets of excellence that all of us see or experience. It is these examples that we can use to form the foundation as to where we eventually want to move towards. However, the goal should be sustainable changes that impact all students in a school, district, or system. 

In the past, I have written extensively of how Wells Elementary in Cypress, TX has evolved into a prime example of what’s possible when teachers, building leaders, and district administrators work together to move from vision to action. I encourage you to check out the numerous posts that showcase their efforts leading to efficacy. It is now my honor to share some insights from a high school that has accomplished some equally impressive achievements in this area.

As a lead up to some long-term, job-embedded work with all schools in the Mount Olive Schools District in NJ, I had the honor of delivering a keynote to the entire staff on Learning Transformed. After giving the message, I was able to visit with Kevin Stansberry, the High School Principal, and Susan Breton, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

Both of these leaders had been in the district for many years and were able to shed some insight as to where the high school was a decade ago and the innovative changes that had been implemented over the years since. It was a fascinating story focusing on so many challenges that were in dire need of attention. Quite frankly, that school resembled and functioned like virtually every other high school across the country. Then, changes were made.

The prior superintendent, with overwhelming support from the Board of Education, was a genius when it came to finances and the budget. Not only did Kevin and Susan emphasize this, but I saw it with my own eyes as I toured the building. More on what I saw in a bit.

Through numerous revenue-generating programs and decisions, money began to flow into the facility and programs. It is still flowing into the district today and I can’t wait to see how Robert Zywicki, the new superintendent and an innovative leader in his own right, leverage these financial resources to move the district even further. The premise of what was put in place is as simple as it is brilliant – put as many resources and opportunities into the hands of ALL kids to let them flourish.

I was in awe by what I saw, and this says a lot as I spend so much time working in schools across the United States and the world. Ove the past 10 years Mount Olive High School has designed and built with relevant learning experiences and kids in mind. As a parent, I would love for my kids to go there and I can’t even begin to imagine how proud the community is of what has been accomplished. To give you some insight I will now share pictures of what I saw with some brief captions in an attempt to add context from a learning perspective.

Professional TV studio

Professional TV studio
Green screen

Science classrooms outfitted with dry-erase boards on the walls.

Science classrooms outfitted with dry-erase boards on the walls.

Giant-sized Scrabble board on a wall in the library for kids to play the game.

Giant-sized Scrabble board

Drunk-driving vehicle simulators that are used in PE/Health.

Drunk-driving vehicle simulators

A room dedicated to a biological habitat focusing on numerous different ecosystems.  I loved seeing a giant tortoise that had free range of the entire room. Students use this room for turtle rehabilitation. How cool is that?

biological habitat
turtle rehabilitation

Marine robotics lab (M.A.T.E. – Marine Advanced Technology Education) where kids design and test their inventions in a large water tank purchased by the board of education. Not only do the kids develop robots that have received national acclaim, but they also create marketing and branding for their creations. I loved seeing the unique logo they designed for the class on the wall.

Marine robotics lab
M.A.T.E. – Marine Advanced Technology Education
kids design and test their inventions in a large water tank
marketing and branding
Loggerhead ROV

Robotics lab that has a machine (dual CnC mill and CnC plasma cutter) where kids create their own parts to either fix or build their robots.

dual CnC mill and CnC plasma cutter
dual CnC mill and CnC plasma cutter

Music studio that looks and feels like the real thing because it is. I loved seeing all of the electric guitars that the Rock and Roll Academy class uses as well as all the periphery seating to accommodate performances.

Music studio
Music studio
electric guitars
periphery seating

A makerspace, referred to as “The Mill” (The The Marauder Innovation Learning Lab), inspired by some of the most innovative company workspaces across the globe. In addition to the space itself, resources for tinkering, inventing, creating, and making were available everywhere. One of my favorite rooms was the one that housed thirty-six 3D printers. The outside of the room also contained an inspirational slogan to motivate learners to think forward.

A makerspace, referred to as "The Mill"
thirty-six 3D printers
inspirational slogan

A seasonal, climate-controlled dome (Maurader Dome) is set up for physical education classes and athletics. You can't miss the large white bubble when you pull up to the campus. It covers a large turf practice field during the colder months and then is taken down when the temperature warms. From 6:00 PM on the facility is leased out to local organizations for use as a great revenue-generator.

climate-controlled dome
Maurader Dome
large turf practice field

I cannot stress enough that leadership from every level made this transformation happen and epitomizes a shift from “yeah but” to “what if.” Central office administrators worked to make funds available using creative approaches that continually generate revenue outside the budget. Kevin, as the building principal, worked with his assistants to develop a culture of risk-taking, support, and inclusiveness. Every room we visited he made sure to state that what I saw is open to every student. It was awesome speaking to teachers and hear how Kevin is always open to and supportive of their ideas, no matter how crazy.

Finally, I was equally impressed with the teacher leadership. Their willingness to push the envelope and make learning relevant while challenging kids to think was apparent in all that I saw and the many conversations we had.

My job allows me to see first-hand how innovative practices, ideas, and strategies are being implemented with a high level of efficacy. My role is to share all of the awesome work they are doing, but also push and guide them down a path of continuous improvement. I can’t wait to return as a job-embedded coach when the kids are present with the goal of further scaling research and evidence-based practices.

We can learn a great deal from the successful outcomes at Mount Olive High School to empower other districts and systems to design and build schools that kids appreciate and want to attend. How have you worked to make your school(s) more kid-centric and what would you like to pursue?

Source: A Principal's Reflections

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