Lakin, Garden City show LFT class programs that lead to student success

By Leah Fliter,

“If you believe in it, it will happen” was the overarching theme of KASB’s Leadership for Tomorrow trip to Lakin and Garden City. Although the school districts are markedly different in size and student demographics, their belief in the mission of serving students is the same.

Leadership for Tomorrow offers school board members and school administrators the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the Kansas public school system and increase their leadership skills. Over the course of five two-day visits, the LFT class travels across the state to observe and discuss issues and opportunities in Kansas education.

The September trip began in Lakin USD 215, a “Gemini II” Kansans Can redesign school. The southwest Kansas district serves 685 students. Of those students, 52 percent are Caucasian and 43 percent are Hispanic. Slightly more than 50 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged.

School redesign is the Kansas State Board of Education’s effort to retool K-12 public education to focus on student success for the 21st Century. It’s named after the space program that took the U.S. to the moon and beyond.

Each of Lakin’s three schools is participating in the redesign program, with a strong emphasis on integrating student social and emotional needs into instruction. “We’re looking at the future and where we go from here,” said Superintendent Larry Lyder. “We’ve come a long way in just a couple of years.”

Lakin redesign: Hard work and well worth it

At Lakin Elementary School, the staff’s goal is to increase kids’ love of learning. The district asked parents what they wanted to see in a “redesigned” school and learned they wanted more collaboration between the school and the community and opportunities for project-based or real-world learning. Those goals dovetailed with teachers’ interest in emphasizing student needs rather than system-based, one-size-fits-all instruction.

In one example of the focus on students, Elementary Literacy Coach MaryJane White has worked with teachers to create a “homemade” reading curriculum that focuses on the elementary school’s pre-k to 4th-grade students’ specific needs around fluency, phonics and vocabulary, and analysis of non-fiction text. Each grade-level’s materials align with the state reading standards, and teachers receive notebooks with daily lesson plans and the rubrics and strategies they need to help their students meet those standards. The project has required a lot of work by the teachers and staff and they’ll revise some things as the school year progresses, but students are beginning to show progress.

The student-centered focus continues at Lakin’s middle school and high school.

At the middle school, the staff is working on creating a community that prepares students for the future. Plans include establishing a school bank, restaurant, thrift store and coffee shop to teach real-world skills. Teachers are also interested in implementing standards-based grading and working with the students to construct an outdoor classroom. The middle school “artification” program encourages all students to create and display art that not only serves as creative expression but also beautifies the building.

An impressive group of student ambassadors led the LFT class on a tour of the school, including a t-shirt design and silk-screen production facility, and arts and crafts program offers students the opportunity to create and sell projects at the school’s annual “showcase.” The popular quilting class teaches sewing and design skills and includes a “Quilts of Valor” program that presents quilts to area military veterans. Every student locker features “sticky notes” of positive messages from staff or peers that strengthen the school culture.

At Lakin High School, the focus is on giving students “voice and choice.” High school students serve on the district’s Student Redesign Team and the school is offering new electives like the video production class and bringing back electives like Family and Consumer Science and debate. The video class has built a studio featuring a homemade “green-screen” and has constructed a “Jumbotron” of nine large-screen TVs for the high school gym.

Reflecting on the district’s still-evolving redesign work, the Lakin staff was enthusiastic and energetic yet frank about its challenges. “It’s a lot of hard work,” said one teacher, and redesign involves risk, but the district strives to accept risk as part of the learning process. “Change is hard for teachers and students,” said a Lakin High School redesign leader, “but I do think it’s worth it in the end.”

LFT class members were impressed with the energy and dedication of the Lakin staff and their commitment to offering opportunities to students.
“Lakin offers a multitude of options to draw kids’ interest,” said South Haven USD 509 Superintendent Dorsey Burgess. “When you’re getting kids to come to school early to start on their projects, you’re doing something right.”

“Lakin’s focus is on students,” said Blue Valley USD 229 Assistant Superintendent. “When the focus is on engaging the students, the learning follows.”
Lakin Board of Education President Dan Patterson and LFT class member said any Kansas school can embrace change, regardless of its size or unique challenges. “It boils down to belief,” Patterson said. “If you believe in it, it will happen.”

KASB Leadership Services field staff Gary Sechrist worked with the class to connect Lakin’s redesign work to broader themes of leading change in a school district. “To make your vision what you want it to be, you have to find common ground,” Sechrist said. He led the class through an engaging discussion of how community members perceive change and how that affects their response to it. Sechrist, a former teacher, principal and superintendent, helped the class understand that change represents a break from the past or requires new skills or knowledge is difficult for some community members to accept. Board members and administrators must understand how to respond to the community’s reaction if they want to be effective leaders.

“When you’re leading change, you have to realize not everyone is like you,” Sechrist said.

Garden City’s commitment to quality education

LFT’s second day in southwest Kansas began at Victor Ornelas Elementary School in Garden City USD 457, where two young students offered a bilingual welcome to the class. The Garden City school district serves 7,442 students, of whom 70 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent are Caucasian and 6 percent are “other”, including Vietnamese and Burmese. More than 70 percent of district students are considered economically disadvantaged and 42 percent are English Language Learners (ELL).

Superintendent Steve Karlin said Garden City’s population demographic has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades but the school district’s commitment to a quality education and responsible citizenship remains strong.

At Ornelas, more than 80 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 65 percent are English Language Learners. The school administration and staff offer a wide array of programs to ensure their students succeed academically and socially.

Ornelas and four other USD 457 elementary schools have used the Kansas Reading Roadmap (KRR) program to improve student reading skills and close achievement gaps among the diverse student body. The KRR program in Garden City includes after-school and summer reading instruction and the LIFE program that encourages family literacy support and child development support.

Following morning school announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, three young students, none of whom are native English speakers, shyly yet confidently told the LFT class about KRR and how the program has helped them reading and improve their skills and achievement. The students like the games and other activities that make reading fun and they especially enjoy snack time.

Karlin noted Kansas Reading Roadmap programs have been offered through a grant administered by the Department of Children and Families using funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In August 2019 Gov. Laura Kelly announced the state was cutting ties with the private firm that administered the KRR funds, citing waste and mismanagement of the TANF money. Karlin said USD 457 currently pays about $150,000 for KRR while the KRR grant covers the remainder of the district’s $650,000 in costs so he hopes the program will continue.

Principal Tracy Leiker noted with pride that Victor Ornelas Elementary has a “long history” of 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences in spite of the economic and language barriers facing its families. She said teachers work to accommodate parent schedules.

“These are people who want the best for their families,” Karlin said. “They’re aren’t many people who want to work on the killing floor of a meat-packing plant (one of Garden City’s biggest employers), yet our families want to be engaged and they set aside the time [to attend conferences]. It’s incumbent on us to help them understand we want them here.”

Karlin and Leiker said the statewide teacher shortage makes it difficult for the district to recruit racially diverse and multilingual staff to serve USD 457’s multiracial student body. The district encourages teachers to get an ESL endorsement by offering full tuition reimbursement for those classes. The Human Resources department travels widely to recruit teachers and the district works hard on cultural awareness training.

Deputy Superintendent Heath Hogan said recruiting teachers “is not for the faint of heart.” He said potential employees often prefer to stay closer to home and aren’t willing to relocate to southwest Kansas with its unique challenges. Hogan said the district has risen to the challenge by offering “grow your own” and teacher apprentice opportunities.

The “grow your own” initiative gives Garden City High School graduates and school district paraprofessionals tuition reimbursement and mentoring support while they pursue a teaching degree through partnerships with Garden City Community College and the state’s Regents universities. The aspiring teachers can stay close to home while pursuing an affordable credential. In return, the district asks them to commit to teaching in Garden City schools for two years.

The effort has recently expanded to include a “teacher apprenticeship” program in cooperation with GCCC, Wichita State University’s Teacher Apprentice Program (TAP) and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Recent high school graduates can earn a teaching degree in three years without leaving Garden City and will be positioned to enter the middle class.

The district also offers financial incentives to student teachers to come out to Garden City and work for two years. “This has opened up kids to come to Garden City,” Hogan said. “Students come out, see the schools, and want to work here.”

The LFT class visited Garden City High School to learn about its “academy” structure and its emphasis on postsecondary success. The GCHS student body is one of the most diverse in Kansas, with 22 languages spoken and 31 nations of origin.

The high school’s Freshman, Public Service, Arts and Communication, and Trade and Health academies offer students the opportunity to transition to high school and explore possible career paths. Although the academies help focus students on postsecondary options, students are not “locked in” to those paths and may take other classes as well. The school’s philosophy is that students should have the option to explore their interests before they graduate and head to the work force or postsecondary education. GCHS also offers Junior ROTC, AVID, and CTE classes like welding and offers 13 dual-credit class opportunities at the community college.

GCHS Principal Steve Nordby said the school’s goal is for students to graduate in four years or less with the skills they need for the 21st Century. “We try to keep a small-town feel, but we’re large enough we can do anything we want for kids.”

A student on the climbing wall at Lakin Elementary.

Lakin Elementary first-grade students talk about their outdoor learning space with KASB Leadership for Tomorrow.

Garden City USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin speaks with LFT members on the bus.

Garden City High School culinary class prepares lunch for the LFT class

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