McPherson pursues school redesign on multiple fronts

McPherson USD 418 is in the unique position of having launched its C3 initiative (Citizenship, College and Career Readiness) several years ago, leading to a national waiver on testing; being one of seven districts approved by the local and state boards of education as an Innovative District; and being the only Innovative District also participating in the State Board’s Mercury Seven school redesign project this year. 

Superintendent Gordon Mohn discussed recently the district’s efforts at restructuring for improved student success with KASB before speaking at the Region Five Fall meeting. 

Despite all the effort, “We know the goal, but we still don’t know everything about how to get there,” said Mohn, suggesting that if the solution were easy, it would already have been adopted. The district’s focus is on the five outcomes defined by the State Board of Education’s Kansans Can vision: kindergarten readiness, social and emotional support; individual plans of study; increasing graduation rates and increasing postsecondary participation. 

To improve kindergarten readiness, the first big area of focus is preschool. “The local board’s long-term goal is to someday allow every parent with a three or four-year-old to attend preschool free of charge, at their choice, not as a requirement,” said Mohn. 

The district already enrolls an estimated 65 percent of preschool-aged students, through Head Start, the Kansas Preschool Program and special education. Mohn believes all low-income families who wish to participate are currently accommodated. 

For the second area of focus, the district is seeking to improve its support for social and emotional issues facing students. “We have a growing understanding that stressful events can overwhelm even adults,” said Mohn. “The impact on young children is even more disruptive.” 

The impact of childhood stress can be seen in graduation rates, the third area of focus. McPherson’s graduation rate is about 85 percent, the same as the overall state rate. “The means about 30 students leave each year without a diploma,” says Mohn. “It’s usually because they fall behind in high school and can’t catch up.” 

Reasons for falling behind are varied: school doesn’t seem fun or relevant, leading to lack of engagement; lack of attendance; discipline problems; drug and alcohol problems. “If we look at students we lose in high school, going to back in kindergarten there are usually things that predict if a student will struggle,” said Mohn. “That means we have a chance to identify early and intervene.” 

However, it’s clear that many issue facing students do not originate at school, but arise from poverty or mental health issues that are often intertwined. “Mental health problems seem to have gotten worse because of the economy, and it has become harder to hide,” said Mohn. 

“Some people say it’s not the school’s problem to fix these issues,” said Mohn. “That’s right; it’s a community problem to fix, and the school is part of the community.” He is big champion of the Circles anti-poverty program in McPherson County, and is intrigued by a mental health partnership between Blue Valley USD 229 and local health care providers to work with parents and address concerns in greater depth, rather than just making referrals. 

Although the district has been focused on improved college and career readiness for many years, there remain many questions. A key strategy is moving toward more project-based learning, which puts more emphasis on students demonstrate skills through activities, rather than traditional testing over content. “Many parents see traditional education methods as the route to success, and for some students it is,” said Mohn. “We will need to show that project-based learning prepares students just as well for college, and offer programs like AP courses. PBL will have to prove itself.” 

An important issue for the district, Mohn said, is to serve both students planning on four-year academic studies and those moving to career and technical programs, without “tracking” students in a way that limits their future options. 

While each of those two groups are expected to fill about 35 percent of future jobs, respectively, Mohn is also concerned about the “other 29 percent” – jobs that still will require only a high school diploma or less. “We need to address citizenship, interpersonal skills and job skills. We can’t forget about or ignore the students who are not going on to postsecondary education, who will still be members of our community.” 

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