Neihof wants to reshape school district’s vision

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A new committee would be charged with innovation for classroom and streamlining costs.

Shelby County Public Schools is preparing to change the face of learning in the county.

By February, Superintendent James Neihof said he hopes to have a recommendation in place to alter the vision of the school district and the board for the next five years.

In a report during Thursday’s school board meeting, Neihof announced his plans for a Strategic Leadership Committee. The committee will be comprised of about 40 teachers, 15 administrators, 10 parents, six students and two board members.

Board members Doug Butler and Karen Sams volunteered to join the committee, with Brenda Jackson as a backup. Neihof said he is close to having the committee formed, but he remains in search of a few parents.

“It [the vision] will be big – bigger than we can implement in one year,” he said. “We may have to phase some things over multiple years as we retool our own skills, retool our infrastructure and design new learning opportunities.”

That vision, he said, would be built around curricular wisdom and 21st Century skills.

“Curricular wisdom is the ability to apply the skills and knowledge gained by mastering standards to make sound decisions in a democratic society,” Neihof said. “Decisions that make the world a better place to live, work and raise families.”

To do that, Neihof will use a focus on 21st Century skills, which include an emphasis on collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

His early vision includes moving technology to larger role, but not just with students.

“Technology has to play an exponentially bigger role in how we teach and how kids learn in the next five years than it does now,” he said. “At the same time, this is not just about technology. It is about preparing 21st Century learners. I’m finding countless examples of the use of technology to give teachers time and opportunity to personalize learning.”

Using that innovation and personalized learning, he said, could help close gaps in learning and to help impact learning while spending less money per pupil. He said he hopes to have the committee visit other districts where innovation like this is already occurring.

“This will be a total game changer,” he said. “For example, what if we looked at high school like this: A group of four high school teachers agree to team together to take a group of kids through to graduation. They teach all the of the core courses to their kids. They adjust time with each other as needed for their team. They have access to a full online instruction and assessment system at their disposal so that they can blend learning to suit their kids.”

Other possible ideas: “What if every student had a laptop and every teacher had access to a variety of digital instruction resources? What if high school were no longer bound by time, years and walls? What if we had a system that provided not just twenty-four-hour learning access but twenty-four hour instructional access?”

Although early in the process – the first committee meeting isn’t scheduled until today –board members expressed intrigue in this process.

“I, for one, am excited about this,” said Butler, the board chair, who mentioned other districts with innovative and technology-based ideas.

“What about access to technology?” Jackson asked and expanded the question to mean students’ access at home.

“We’re scheduled for a big bandwidth increase this year, and it will increase again next year,” Neihof said. “That’s something that has been an hindrance for us in the past. As far as in the community, we’re resourcing some districts that have tackled that. It takes a whole community effort.”

Added Sams: “I know one family where the student has an online textbook, but no access, and another’s that is so slow they couldn’t access it either.”

“That’s something we’ll have to discuss and take into consideration with how we move forward,” Neihof said. “How connectivity works will affect our plan. The goal is to eliminate haves and have-not divides.”

The remaining question, Sams posed, is what kind of cost the district could be looking at.

“We can make a plan that allows for greater impact for less money,” Neihof said. “There are some very innovative things being done that we want to look at.”