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Franklin West Joins The League Of Innovative Schools

The Franklin West Supervisory Union includes three rural towns in northwestern Vermont—Fletcher, Fairfax and Georgia. But rural doesn't mean behind on technology; the superintendent of Franklin West has championed technological innovation so much that the district was recently selected to join the League of Innovative Schools. It's the only New England district selected to join thus far.

The League of Innovative Schools is a national organization that brings public education leaders together to share research, thinking and approaches to teaching that leverage technology to improve learning. Vermont Edition spoke to Franklin West Superintendent Ned Kirsch to see what his district was doing, and to hear more about the league.

On what the League is

"Well, it's not the superhero league. Even though that sounds really cool," says Kirsch. "It's not the League of Justice."

The League of Innovative Schools is a new organization developed by the Department of Education and Digital Promise that aims to bring like-minded schools from across the country to further innovation in the classroom. 

On technology at Franklin West

"We know we live in a digital world. And we've really tried to structure our schools around our students living in a digital culture, which may seem like second hat to a lot of us," says Kirsch. "I mean, we all live in a digital culture. But believe it or not, not all schools live in a digital culture."

Embracing this digital culture meant implementing programs like 1:1 technology for students. Four years ago, Franklin West provided iPads for middle school students at Bellows Free Academy. Now, students of all ages across the district have increased access to an array of technology; Fletcher Elementary School has iPads in grades 3-6 and at Bellows Free Academy in grades 4-12.

"We really think that that's important part of learning - being able to access the most current information available," says Kirsch.

Four pillars

The Franklin West Supervisory Union has four targets for continuing its schools on a strong path: personalized learning, leadership, flexible learning environments and community engagement. These four pillars emerged from the discussion regarding technology and actions plans completed for the state five years ago, and the disconnect that appeared between them.

Student leadership is essential to the core values of the district. At Bellows Free Academy, there is an athletic council completely comprised of students. Other students are traveling across the country to present research at EPSCoR conferences, or within their own community.

"Leadership takes many forms, and the more that we can have our students become leaders I think the better it is for the community," says Kirsch.

Kirsch says it's important to pull students out from behind their desks to expose them to a variety of learning settings. "They don't have to be sitting in their classroom. They can be in a river. They can be working virtually. You know, high school kids could be working with a group of third graders," says Kirsch.

"I think we just have to continually have to look at how society functions and not make schools different from society," says Kirsch. "I think that's a piece we often miss, and schools want to produce students that are ready to take over the world. But we have an environment that's a little contrived."

On the global approach

Technology has allowed students within the district to make connections across the globe, ranging from Puerto Rico to Argentina to China to South Korea.

"We're also trying to expose our students to the global world because we know that's who not only [students] could be competing with in the future, but just working with in the future. I'm really proud of the work that our teachers do around global education," says Kirsch.

On Vermont law and the Agency of Education

"I think we have a lot of advantages in Vermont, and speaking with the other superintendents from the league, they don't have those advantages [in their states]. They are very tied into 'what the Department of Education says, goes,'" says Kirsch. "We're allowed to be creative, we're allowed to be innovative. So I do feel really fortunate that Vermont has taken the path of Act 77."

Although he says he feels empowered by the Agency of Education, Kirsch says he doesn't necessarily feel outwardly supported.

"I don't feel particularly supported by them on a day to day basis, no," Kirsch said. "We do a lot of the work on our own. There's certainly some support, but our innovative work I feel like is our innovative work. It's not discouraged, but its not outwardly supported on a day to day basis by the Agency of Education."

On creativity innovation and collaboration

Kirsch says that more people talking about ideas leads to innovation. "Really putting people together to talk about it is what makes a difference," Kirsch says.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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