Redesigning education in Farmington schools

Technology drives Farmington to apply for innovation zone status

by Jennifer Chick
Sun Thisweek

With an engaging and technology-driven application, Farmington Area Public Schools is asking the Minnesota Department of Education for the chance to be a pioneer in overhauling the Minnesota educational system.

For the past year, Farmington and Spring Lake Park Schools have been forming a partnership for customized learning. Both districts have implemented a 1-to-1 learning system utilizing iPads. Now they are taking that personalized system and applying for innovation zone status through the Minnesota Department of Education.

The innovation zone program was approved in last year’s legislative session and requires school districts to partner in teams to create new and unique ways to deliver quality education.

“The idea behind the law was to have school districts team up … to work together to find ways to reform education and be those test beds for reform in education,” said Farmington Board Member Brian Treakle. He studied the law when it was being proposed last year and is a strong proponent of it.

According to Jim Skelly, Farmington’s communications and marketing coordinator, there is no funding attached to this program, but it will allow the district to look at new ways of delivering education and serve as a research and development arm for the state. If schools are accepted into the innovation zone, the Department of Education will be able to release those schools from certain mandates and regulations, Treakle said. The law does not define which mandates and regulations, instead leaving that to the Department of Education’s discretion.

“Creating that flexibility can create cost-savings that can be like giving us more money,” Treakle said.

No one is sure what the innovation zone will look like, but the district is hoping that by becoming one, it will be able to relax some of the rules and regulations that make it hard for school districts to move forward toward a new type of learning environment.

Within the YouTube application put together by the school district and award-winning documentary filmmaker Anthony Weeks, Superintendent Jay Haugen describes how today’s schools need a fundamental redesign, moving away from the factory model of education. Weeks donated his talent to the project at no cost to the district. The video is at http://youtube/B1bOIcnVI3g.

“This mechanized, standardized education system drains the vitality and creative force of teachers and administrators as students are moved through the assembly line, fitted with predetermined knowledge,” Haugen narrates in the video.

Instead, Farmington hopes to create customized learning that ignites a spark of learning in each student with individualized and personalized processes, connecting learning to students’ passions. The iPads will be a tool to achieve this goal, with 24/7 access to unlimited content from learning networks across the world.

Treakle envisions an educational system where students are allowed to master skills at their own pace. If they excel at reading but struggle with math, they will have to tools to progress in reading while taking more time to master math, all while remaining with their peer group. Instead, students today are held back from excelling in some areas while falling behind in other areas.

“We can’t do that anymore,” Treakle said. “It’s not good for the kids. We need to give students confidence to go on to the next level instead of pushing and losing students. This innovation zone allows, if we get accepted into it, to start making changes along those lines.”

The innovation zone application is the first step. Applications are due to the Minnesota Department of Education by Feb. 1. Then, the Department of Education will analyze the applications. Skelly said Farmington should know by this spring if it has been selected for this new program.

“If they do (approve it),” Skelly said, “it could really be a change for Farmington over the next five years.”

But this process will not succeed without the support of community members, Skelly said.

“It is difficult to enact any kind of change if you don’t have your community members knowledgeable and supportive,” he said.

Educating community members about the district’s vision for a new educational design will be fundamental to its success.