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Training seeks to ensure no teacher left behind

Sandy Arseneault, in the far back of the room, speaks to about 60 other educators about developing their student learning objectives, or SLOs. Arseneault is the president of the South Dakota Education Association, which sponsored the four-day conference. (Anna Jauhola/Republic) 1 / 2
Cindy Gerlach, nutrition and culinary arts instructor at Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, and her children, Maddi and Daewood, receive a standing ovation from 60 educators Wednesday afternoon. The Gerlachs, along with Loren Paul, of UniServe, back left, prepared meals at Granite Springs Lodge for a group of educators Sunday through today. (Anna Jauhola/Republic) 2 / 2

ALEXANDRIA -- Educators throughout South Dakota want to improve the way their students learn.

A group of 60 educators met this week at Granite Springs Lodge outside Alexandria to develop a better system of evaluating student needs.

"It's about what's going to be good for kids," said Sandy Arseneault, president of the South Dakota Education Association and a teacher in the Custer School District.

The educators arrived at the lodge Sunday for the conference, which ends today, to each begin developing their student learning objectives, or SLOs.

After House Bill 1234 failed in the 2012 South Dakota legislative session and in a subsequent November vote, the state Department of Education decided to opt-out of the national No Child Left Behind initiative, said Carla Leingang, administrator for the state Office of Certification and Teacher Quality.

After the state opted out, the Department of Education partnered with other educational leaders and created the Commission on Teaching and Learning. About 25 educators and administrators are a part of the commission and developed the model for SLOs, Leingang said.

In 2013-14, a few pilot schools implemented the SLOs, and schools can choose to implement SLOs during the 2014-15 school year. Starting in the fall of 2015, every school must implement SLOs or something similar, Arseneault said.

Leingang said districts can either adopt what the state has done for best practices, or create its own system of evaluating each classroom and show the state how its system works. Each teacher will create an SLO for his or her classroom based on where students are academically.

"Teachers will be able to ask, 'What do I want my students to know?' And out of that question, they can decide, 'How much do I need them to grow by the end of the year?' " Arseneault said.

The teacher will determine benchmarks the students need to meet throughout the year and adjust their teaching accordingly to ensure students meet the end goal.

The group of teachers who gathered outside Alexandria volunteered to be at the training, Arseneault said.

"I think it's important to acknowledge the teachers who came together and stepped up to be leaders," she said. "Teachers get a bad rap of working nine months out of the year. But here they are working in the summer to help students become more successful. They're working to improve their instruction."

Amanda Chada, a sixth-grade teacher at Mitchell Middle School, attended the conference to be ahead of the game.

"I asked to do this because I knew something was coming. I like to be on the front end of things," she said.

She said the SLOs will help teachers "take ownership of their classrooms." They'll be able to show anyone the progress made through data.

Nancy Larsen, a second-grade teacher at Parkston Elementary School, also attended the conference to get ahead on the new requirements.

"I just wanted a jumpstart on this so I understand the process," Larsen said.

She said the SLOs will empower teachers to communicate with students and parents, help to better document student growth and allow teachers to take an initiative in how their classrooms operate.

"I'm able to look at my students and see what my individual class needs are so I can tailor my instruction to meet their needs," Larsen said.

The educators will bring their knowledge back to their respective districts. In addition, at least 5,600 teachers throughout the state have already registered for 177 two-day training sessions.

Professors from Dakota Wesleyan University also attended the conference to learn more about SLOs in order to prepare education students for future curriculum. Dr. Rene Pruitt said she will begin instructing her student teachers about SLOs in the fall semester, because they will be seeing the process in classrooms. Education students at DWU will begin implementing SLOs in their method courses in the 2015-16 school year.

"This puts us on the cutting edge, being able to train them with the latest in the state and national programs," Pruitt said.

Dr. Mark Halling, also a professor at DWU, added that South Dakota is at the forefront of improving student learning.

"It's not a reactionary 'wait and see what everyone else does,' " Halling said. "We're really at the front. We're at the cutting edge."