Jason Rooks – Parkway School District
On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, a car carrying four high-school students pulls into the parking lot of a mall in Chesterfield, Missouri. Within a few minutes, three more cars arrive. There are 10 students in total, mostly juniors and seniors, all eager for the day ahead.
Once inside the mall, they thread through the food court, past clothing stores and toy shops. Older shoppers peer at them with suspecting eyes—are they skipping school? As the teenagers make their way through a nondescript double door, a curious onlooker catches a glimpse of what’s inside: office chairs and computer-laden desks arranged in the style of a Silicon Valley startup.
“Excuse me,” the onlooker asks one of the students. “What is this?”
“Technology Solutions class,” the student says with a smile.
Who says no one goes to malls anymore?
The program is called Spark!, and for Jason Rooks and the team at Parkway School District (PARKWAY), the program is doing more than just turning heads; it’s changing minds.
“Our goal was to create something where students could have truly authentic learning experiences that help prepare them for the economy of the future,” says Rooks, director of technology and innovation at PARKWAY. “Spark! gives them a foundation for succeeding in an increasingly tech-centric society.”
Launched in 2014, Spark!! is designed to supplement, rather than replace, the traditional learning experience. Each week, students spend between four and eight hours within the Spark! curriculum, whether in the classroom, on a jobsite or at the district’s innovation incubator at Chesterfield Mall.
With programs ranging from business to engineering to health sciences, Spark! provides real-world experiences in industries where job opportunities are plentiful—and growing.
Take computer programming. Tech media is rife with stories of teenage coders turning good ideas into million-dollar apps. While Rooks admits such success stories are exceedingly rare, PARKWAY encourages students to see their ideas through.
“It’s not just about having a good idea; you have to know how to get it to the marketplace,” Rooks says. “You have to know how to collaborate. You have to know how to organize your work. Spark! allows us to put innovation in a broader context.”
At the Spark! Incubator, students are challenged to reinforce their idea with marketing plans, budgets and industry research. In some cases, industry experts are invited to lead and facilitate lessons, while in other programs—health sciences being one—students will spend as much as half a day shadowing health care professionals in a hospital.
In the tech solutions program, students participate in local hacking competitions, where awards and prizes can total $25,000 or more. There’s even a teaching and learning curriculum, designed to foster the next generation of pedagogical strategies—and the teachers behind them.
Five years into the program; Spark! has earned Parkway a nod as one of the nation’s most innovative school systems.
“We’ve heard from a number of former students who say, that when they got to college, they actually felt like they were taking a step backwards,” says Jennifer Stanfill, one of the founders of Spark! and the director of PARKWAY’s Choice Programs. “In some cases they’re two years ahead of their peers. So they wind up taking more advanced courses, which put them even further ahead of the curve.”
However, students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the program. Not long after launching Spark!, PARKWAY’s innovation team—on which Rooks and Stanfill both serve—invited teachers from across the district to brainstorm ways to make classroom innovation easier to achieve.
Rather than devise and implement projects on their own, Rooks and his colleagues instead focused on removing obstacles to innovation—be they financial, logistical or otherwise. For example, if a social studies teacher wants to supplement her core curriculum with more collaborative lessons, the innovation team ensures her students’ Chromebooks are outfitted with the proper applications.
One idea in particular stands out for Rooks. When a middle school teacher noticed some of her students weren’t spending the same amount of time on homework as their peers, she quickly realized that many of them didn’t have reliable internet access at home, preventing them from accessing the district’s learning-management system.
Within weeks, these devices had been outfitted with Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities, yielding significant improvements to the students’ classroom performance.
“Once we help them work through the issue, the challenge becomes how to provide the right academic and technical support around the clock,” Rooks explains. “So you end up with an even bigger set of questions, but the important thing is that they’re the right questions.”
A duty to data
Better still, Rooks adds, these teachers are taking what they learned and sharing it with others in their buildings. As more and more educators are empowered to pursue classroom innovation, data stemming from the resulting initiatives is being used to inform future endeavors.
Here, PARKWAY’s new data warehouse, another initiative overseen by Rooks, has proven indispensable. Beginning in 2008, not long after Rooks arrived at PARKWAY, the district began collecting information from across its 28 schools—everything from class performance and attendance data to disciplinary records—to provide what Rooks calls a “360-degree view of the student.”
Initially, it fell on the district’s IT team to create detailed reports for teachers and administrators, but before long, Rooks and his team trained the teachers to compile the reports.
With the help of a new data-visualization platform, teachers and administrators can now access and analyze the information from the reports through the district’s learning management system.
Increasingly, the data points to a single, encouraging conclusion: Despite the occasional hairpin turn, PARKWAY is undoubtedly on the right track.
“I think our district has done a wonderful job of aligning technology with curriculum,” Rooks says. “We’ve handed the reins of innovation to teachers and administrators, and that’s how we’ve really been able to take off.”
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