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Mitchell schools expand education opportunities

It's all about options. From extended school year programs to individualized learning plans, the Mitchell School District continues to embrace alternative learning styles for all ages. School district Superintendent Joe Graves said the additional...

Seventh graders Laney Titze, left, and Kiersten Bathke work their projects in Mrs. Kelli Mueller's science class on Tuesday morning at Mitchell Middle School. Mueller's class is one of the mass customized learning classes offered at the middle school. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Seventh graders Laney Titze, left, and Kiersten Bathke work their projects in Mrs. Kelli Mueller's science class on Tuesday morning at Mitchell Middle School. Mueller's class is one of the mass customized learning classes offered at the middle school. (Matt Gade/Republic)

It's all about options.

From extended school year programs to individualized learning plans, the Mitchell School District continues to embrace alternative learning styles for all ages. School district Superintendent Joe Graves said the additional options, all of which are voluntary, provide a number of positives for students and parents in Mitchell.

"First of all, it provides more opportunities for students," Graves said. "Whenever you give the customer, so to speak, more options, it makes the business more valuable in the customer's mind. We want to give people options."

Each school in the district offers a learning opportunity beyond the traditional classroom setting. Some of the most recent additions include last year's pilot Longfellow Lions Academy extended school year program (which the Mitchell Board of Education recently approved for a second year) and a Makerspace at the L.B. Williams Elementary School library this year. The newest is a Personalized Learning Community, or mass-customized learning program, coming to Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School for the 2016-17 school year.

It makes sense to have different ways of teaching when students have so many learning styles, educators say.

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"Not everyone learns the same," Graves said. "This way, we have more ways for students to achieve mastery."

Other administrators and teachers in the school district seem to agree.

In addition to Makerspace, L.B. Williams has multi-age classrooms and problem-based learning; Longfellow offers the Longfellow Education Achievement Program (LEAP) in addition to the Lions Academy; the middle school has mass-customized learning; and at the high school, students have access to the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy (and Project Lead the Way), Advanced Placement Program courses, dual-credit enrollment and Second Chance High School. And that's not counting the Gifted and Talented Education and Begindergarten programs offered at each elementary school, special education services, other after-school tutoring options like the middle school's "Intensive Care Unit," and programs through the 21st Century Learning grants (like LEAP).

Some of the programs are have built on one another, like Begindergarten, which Graves said is one of the benefits of the size of Mitchell School District.

"I love the idea that we have enough schools that we can be a lab for one another," he said.

Meeting student needs

Mitchell Middle School Principal Justin Zajic said mass-customized learning is in its third year at the middle school, and educators are noticing its effects. Right now, there are about 62 sixth- through eighth-graders in MCL at the middle school, which Zajic said is up from last year-a good sign. He said the school district is accepting applications through Friday for the program, which is voluntary and open to any middle school student who wants to apply.

MCL is four core courses: science, social studies, math and English. Within those four courses, Zajic said the students pursue the coursework at an individual pace. It also gives students the option to-as the name would suggest-customize their lessons to an extent, to learn more about what interests them. A lover of history, for example, could delve in-depth in the Civil War, beyond what the curriculum sets.

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It differs from the traditional classroom model, Zajic said, by allowing students to learn at different speeds, and allows teachers to spend less time in front of a classroom and more time one-on-one with students.

"It's very much individualized instruction," Zajic said.

It also gives students a chance to work ahead and take ownership of their education, Zajic said. So, a sixth-grader who works through the math curriculum before the end of the school year could start on seventh-grade math right away, then continue. By the time they leave as an eighth-grader, they could be done with Algebra 2, freeing up time in high school to pursue more advanced classes.

"Students are seeing that they can take these courses to get some more flexibility in their schedule. And then in the end if they do this, in the last couple years it starts to pay off with the AP courses," Zajic said.

At the high school, students have a chance to keep building on that advancement, according to Mitchell High School Principal Joe Childs. He said students can choose dual-credit courses, in which students can earn both college and high school credit for the class, or AP courses. For AP courses, Childs said students have to take the AP exam and score high enough to earn college credit for the course.

Students can earn dual credit in a number of ways, one of which includes taking classes on-site at Dakota Wesleyan University or Mitchell Technical Institute. He said the number of students utilizing dual-credit enrollment has been growing, and cited it as a positive for students looking for options. It's also one more way to offer students real-life skills and experience before they graduate.

"We are trying to cater to our students' needs and offer them relevant coursework, things they can see as being an option for their future," Childs said. "We feel like we have just a ton of offerings for our kids. Things that are interesting and challenging, and presenting some real relevancy for the future."

'Something for everyone'

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G.B. Rogers Principal Vicki Harmdierks said the upcoming Personalized Learning Community, or mass-customized learning, will help bridge the gap between the elementary and middle school levels by allowing elementary school students to create individual customized learning plans and receive credit for working ahead.

"What we want to do is have students drive their instruction, as far as what they're interested in learning about," Harmdierks said.

She and other educators emphasized that these options, all voluntary, may not be for everyone-and they aren't meant to replace the traditional classroom model.

"We are not saying this is the best option for all students," Harmdierks said.

Some students prefer, and are better suited to the traditional classroom model, they said. Zajic said students need to have the right "learning personality" for a program like MCL, noting that his own style probably was better suited to traditional classroom instruction.

"I kind of like to sit back and listen to what the teacher is saying and absorb, so I don't know if MCL would be a good fit for that learning style," he said.

Graves echoed that sentiment, noting that of his own four children, it's a 50/50 split. Two of his children would have likely been well-suited for MCL; two would have been more suited to the traditional classroom. That's why it's important for the programs to be voluntary, he said.

"I don't want to take either one of those off the menu for students," he said. "One of our goals is to have something for everyone. We want to be a place where you can have lots of different experiences."

Seventh graders Morgan Tegels, right, and Madisyn Sheesley work on a project in Mrs. Kelli Mueller's science class on Tuesday morning at Mitchell Middle School. Mueller's class is one of the mass customized learning classes offered at the middle school. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Seventh graders Morgan Tegels, right, and Madisyn Sheesley work on a project in Mrs. Kelli Mueller's science class on Tuesday morning at Mitchell Middle School. Mueller's class is one of the mass customized learning classes offered at the middle school. (Matt Gade/Republic)

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