Smoky Valley looks to transform high school

Smoky Valley USD 400 superintendent Glen Suppes is blunt about the future of school: it’s going to be a lot different, especially at high school. 

Suppes met with KASB on Thursday before speaking to the KASB Region 5 meeting in McPherson to discuss changes the district headquartered in Lindsborg has made and is striving to implement. 

The best description of the vision, which matches the State Board of Education’s Kansans Can ideas, is that school will look much more like the jobs most people have, organized around goals, tasks to be accomplished and personal responsibility for managing time, rather than class periods defined by ringing bells and stand-alone subjects. 

Students will have more ability work at their own pace, with extended time if needed, while learning to stay on task to complete expectations. Much more emphasis will be placed on learning by doing, rather than studying from books and lectors. “Growing up on a farm, the way I learned to drive a tractor was to drive a tractor,” said Suppes. There will be more emphasis on the “soft skills” employers are seeking in addition to academics and technical training. 

He also expects most students will spend a lot more of their senior year away from the school, in job shadowing, work study and internships, providing more real depth to career exploration. 

Smoky Valley, a pioneer in one-to-one student technology, already works to help students explore postsecondary options, with trips to areas colleges and technical schools beginning in seventh grade. 

All of this requires a much more personalized and individualized approach to students. 

So far, the results have been popular with parents and supported by staff, although Suppes acknowledges that each next step in change becomes harder to implement. “Teachers understand why their role has to change,” he said, “but actually making the change is harder.” 

Like almost every district profiled for KASB regional meetings, Smoky Valley struggles with the challenges of poverty and student mental health issues, which are often linked. “The toughest kids to deal with are now our youngest students,” said Suppes. “One issue is when students go off their medication because their parents can’t afford to refill when needed, or have to cut back and spread it among several kids,” he said. “That can lead to a big change in behavior until it gets corrected.” 

“The challenge is figuring out what’s going on with students individually,” he said. “Each kid is wired differently.” That means there is no one appropriate response. 

The school district has also been involved in the “Circles” anti-poverty program, which includes training and support for people living in poverty, with “allies” to provide relationships and resources, and connections to community organizations. Suppes said the district has seen positive change from students of families in the program. 

Suppes also compliments community support, from churches to businesses to individual contributions that support a growing number of scholarships for vocational programs and help meet social needs like food, clothing and even haircuts. 

Also like every district leader interviewed, Suppes is worried about the supply of teachers and other educators. “We would like to have more teachers and counselors,” he said, ” but even if we have the money to pay them, will we be able find them?” 

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