Mesa County Valley School District 51: A Conversation with Steve Schultz

Q&A   09 June 2017
By Steve Schultz

 

Take the time to wrestle with the messy work of real collaboration and build a model that fits the unique needs of your local community.

Steve Schultz
Superintendent, Mesa County Valley School District 51

Q: What excites you about working in education and, in particular, working on learner-centered transformation in Mesa County Valley?

A: I have always had a passion for teaching and a burning desire to see every student succeed. I believe EVERY student can learn. It is the responsibility of school districts to meet students where they are and not the other way around. I agree with Tony Wagner when he proclaims that the industrialized model of education is obsolete and that we need to reinvent education in the United States. I am very excited because Mesa 51 is committed to doing just that.

Mesa 51 is two years into a transformation process in which we are building a Personalized Learning model. Students will eventually move through school at a pace that is right for them, while demonstrating mastery of content before forging ahead. Student voice and choice will be critical to this model’s success, as will the integration of social and emotional learning.

Q: At what point in your 35 years at Mesa 51 did you have this “ah-ha” moment that learners needed a new system of learning?

A: I can’t pin the need for a new system of learning for Mesa 51 students to a single “ah-ha” moment. Years of teaching experience, observation as a principal, and data confirmed that too many students had been graduating unprepared for their next step. Seeing and hearing from teachers and parents that many students were not engaged and did not see the relevance of education made it clear something had to change. The old Industrial Age Model was not working. Students not learning, their lack of engagement, and the changes driven by a global economy prompted us to develop a performance-based policy in 2006.  

This first step defined multiple pathways to graduation and gave more flexibility to students, teachers, and principals to design individualized programs for students who needed it. Though this was a breakthrough for our students, we found regulations from the state’s then accountability system, along with other regulations, acted like a cargo net and limited our efforts. Nevertheless, this first step to a more personalized learning model began breaking the mold of the traditional industrialized model in D51. In 2010, senior leadership worked with our Board of Education to update district goals. Personalized Learning was identified as a priority, and we began researching and planning how we could take personalized learning to a whole new level. Reviewing the literature, plus visits to Lindsay Unified School District in California and to Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, allowed us to develop our plan for a new D51 Learning Model. We began the first of our phases of implementation of a performance-based learning model in the fall of 2015.

 

 

It has been exciting to see the language of growth mindset showing up at school, at home, at student’s athletic events, and around the community.

Steve Schultz
Superintendent, Mesa County Valley School District 51

Q: Mesa 51 has taken a measured approach to transforming their system. From what you have learned in the last decade or so, what would you suggest is the fastest way for educator/pioneers to make an immediate impact in transforming learning in their community?

A: Build relationships and build trust. Take the time to wrestle with the messy work of real collaboration and build a model that fits the unique needs of your local community. Lifting a model from one place and dropping it into another won’t work. Be sure to bring all segments of the community to the table to create a vision to drive behaviors, define core work, and long-term district goals. There are no shortcuts.

Q: What do you find unique about Colorado that gives your district an extra boost in exploring this transformational work?

A: The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has gone to great lengths to encourage innovation and pursuit of personalized learning implementation. With the help of partners like CDE, Colorado Education Initiative, KnowledgeWorks, the Gates Family Foundation, and the Great Schools Partnership, a network of districts interested in personalized learning has been developed. Even though each district may be pursuing various kinds of personalized learning, the network provides critical support through collaboration and shared professional learning opportunities.

Q: How have adjustments Mesa 51 has made to date affected the engagement of learners at each level of learning?

A: District-wide, we have been emphasizing our 5 STEPS to developing a “growth mindset” culture. The impact of this is very evident.

Students and their teachers talk about it, and there is increasing evidence they are applying what they are learning. We’ve also heard many parents commenting on it. It has been exciting to see the language of growth mindset showing up at school, at home, at student’s athletic events, and around the community. For example, one parent shared with me a situation where, during a family meeting, her fourth grade son pointed out: unless the family acquired a growth mindset, they would not be able to resolve the issue at hand. Multiple volunteer coaches from community soccer, baseball, and lacrosse leagues have described young players reminding each other to have a growth mindset as they work on acquiring skills.

There is an increasing level of excitement around this new mentality, as evidenced by teacher participation in professional learning opportunities and an increasing number of students achieving personal learning goals. Though we still have a long way to go, momentum is growing.

 

 

The more students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, and staff understand the “why behind the what” of performance-based learning, the more enthusiastic about the transformation they become.

Steve Schultz
Superintendent, Mesa County Valley School District 51

Q: What changes do you see on the horizon that will make things even better for these learners?

A: We have collaborated with students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, and other staff to put flesh on the D51 Learning Model. This includes:

  1. Developing a district-wide Shared Vision and identifying the Core Behaviors that will define how we operate. By the end of fall 2017, we will have collaborated with key stakeholders to define our core work. The completed vision will solidify our district direction, guide decision making, and provide anchors for long-term goals with measures of progress.
  2. Creating a Teaching and Learning Framework that brings clarity to instructional practices and expectations, while still allowing for professional autonomy in how expectations are met.
  3. Designing growth model rubrics for transparency of expectations in each content area to provide consistent measurement of student mastery.
  4. Creating professional learning, including interest-driven “design hubs,” to support further implementation district-wide.
  5. Expanding the use of a district-wide learning management system (LMS).
  6. Expanding the use of our newly created Social and Emotional Learning Framework to assess student developmental progress on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
  7. Allowing schools to proceed at their own pace of implementation with collaborative support from initial demonstration schools, colleagues, and district-level personnel.

All of these structures provide students and teachers the basic tools for students to know where they are in mastering the standards, to set personal learning goals, and to establish an environment of individualized support for student voice and choice.

Q: Why is an SEL focus important to Mesa 51’s learner-centered transformation?

A: Social and Emotional Learning needs to be emphasized for students to develop growth mindsets, healthy habits of mind, and mental health. Our conscious attention to it drives meaningful student engagement. It provides the confidence and tools for students to “own” their learning and find relevance in their education. We believe it is foundational to a meaningful personalized learning model.

Q: What unintended effects have you seen throughout this transformation journey?

A: The more students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, and staff understand the “why behind the what” of performance-based learning, the more enthusiastic about the transformation they become. Though we have a long journey ahead, taking the time to collaborate and listen to people along the way builds ownership, trust, and commitment—adding to our momentum. Success will only come with patience, mutual support, and understanding along the way.

Transformation Requires Conversation. Let’s Talk.

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Check out the first series of Learning Out Loud with Education Reimagined where we dive into the possibilities of community-based ecosystems of learning.