Two KC Schools That Use Projects to Engage and Transform

By Corey Scholes & Tom Vander Ark

Human beings grow when tested.

Outward Bound asks people to take on physical challenges they are not sure they can complete. The goal is to build some skills, accomplish some big goals and, in doing so, change how you feel about yourself. Outward Bound challenges inspired the formation of Expeditionary Learning (now EL Education) schools where students take on projects they initially think they can’t do. When they finish the projects and present the public products, it’s often transformational.

Unlike a worksheet or spoon fed assignment, a big project (or choral work, or play, or big game) creates the butterflies of uncertainty: “Can I really do this?”

A good challenge has the potential to change young people’s belief in themselves and their understanding of the world. An extended challenge uniquely builds self-management and growth mindset. A team project builds social awareness and collaboration. A well-developed project builds communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

We recently visited two Kansas City area elementary schools combining personalized and project-based learning to help young people develop valuable knowledge, skills and dispositions.

EPiC Elementary is north east of Kansas City in Liberty, Missouri. EPiC strives to be “an innovative, project-based learning community designed to inspire students to be creative and think big.”

Serving 300 learners in the renovated district office, the EPiC architecture features double classrooms and partner teaching. Many of these “studios” have big roll up doors (below) and share common space (like the mini-theater below) and quiet small group rooms.

Each studio is home base for about 50 learners and use iPads to promote mobility and creativity in learning. Every studio also has access to a cart of MacBooks.

The grade level studios have theses that are reflected in projects: K: Builders; 1: Leaders; 2: Storytellers; 3: Connectors; 4: Changemakers; and 5: Designers.

Morning in the kindergarten studio includes seven literacy stations (projected below). Students had learned to navigate the blended learning stations and software in the second week of school.

EPiC lead learners (teachers) uses i-Ready (on laptops, below) to promote comprehension, Lexia for phonics, RazKids for leveled reading, Think Through Math and Dreambox, and Codable (starting in K).

The Buck Institute trained staff uses project-based learning (PBL) across the curriculum to empower, equip and engage students. Principal Michelle Schmitz (@mschmitz_1) said students often decide how to present their work in a final product.

The EPiC learning model is well aligned with Buck’s gold standard for PBL. EPiC learners:

  • Produce authentic work and showcase their learning
  • Learn at a personalized pace while acquiring key academic and social skills
  • Identify, propose, and defend solutions to real world issues
  • Work independently and in teams to accomplish goals
  • Engage in a collaborative culture to impact the larger community

Lead learner teams start with standards to plan a sequence of projects for the year. The staff meets daily from 3-4 p.m. to look at student data and work. They meet frequently to promote vertical alignment.

Launched in 2014, Jeremy Tucker’s first year as superintendent of Liberty Public Schools (@LIBERTYSCHOOLS), EPiC quickly became an Apple Distinguished School.

Dr. Tucker said EPiC has served as a tremendous conduit of “‘what is possible’ and ‘what could be’ across Liberty Public Schools, our region and beyond.” He sees evidence that the pilot school and project-based learning has started changing teaching practices on the other 18 Liberty campuses.

The Liberty High faculty, big users of open resources, is considering ways to combine project-based, competency-based and work-based learning experiences.

Apache Elementary (above, @ApacheIS512) in the Shawnee Mission School District (@theSMSD) on the Kansas side of the state line and in the southwest metro area, is a slice of new America; of the 650 students, about a third are white, a third black and a third Hispanic.

As part of a 2014 district initiative, every Shawnee Mission elementary student has an iPad. Apache remains print rich with a complete library and leveled classroom reading sets. Principal Britt Pumphrey (@brpumphrey) encourages strategic use of iPads when they can add feedback or support creation.

In 2016, Apache was named an Innovation School by the district with the goal of reimagining learning and focused on developing content mastery, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Both schools made wide use of Hokki stools from VSamerica (below) and modular tables that flex quickly from small group to large group.

Apache teachers loop with students for three years (grades 1-3 and 4-6). The Buck-trained staff supports two large projects per year.

The Apache team uses the Behavior Intervention Support Team model to promote productive behavior and lifelong skills. In every environment and experience, Apache staff encourage students to be Safe, On task, to Act responsibly and be Respectful (SOAR). Morning meetings are another structure they are using to promote mindful behavior.

Both schools showed classroom by classroom evidence of common practices indicating a high level of collaboration. The atmosphere at both schools was positive and the staff seems really committed to making the schools work for all students.

They both combined personalized and project-based learning but in unique ways–EPiC uses wall-to-wall PBL while Apache uses periodic projects.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment


I appreciate the editorial, but these aren't Kansas City School District schools. These are Shawnee, KS and Liberty, MO School Districts.
Can we have any insight to what a parent might look for within the KCMOPSD, Charter, or Private school boundaries, south of the river, on the Missouri side?

As a parent with challenges in finding recent & reliable information with our KCMO schools, I'm constantly led to sites touting "Kansas City" schools that aren't actually within Kansas City boundaries; Missouri or Kansas. They point to locations that are a completely different county, 45 minutes away.
I have children that might need those alternatives, too, and don't have the means or the want to move from our historical area home to a new housing area with highly inflated contractor grade HMO homes, sitting on overly taxed flood lands, just to utilize their specialty schools.
I know KC schools are difficult to promote at times because they compete with a metropolitan tax budget, their accreditations are challenged from long term, poorly manged BOE tax dollars and accountability checks. Sometimes the best schools get overpopulated because parents are desperate while apathetic to the outcome of not supporting their local community schools.
With all this in mind, what is the most recent data on our (KCMO) public, private, and alternative schools? Whats working? Whats been tried? Who reveals the most success with their efforts; acknowledging a modern childs needs while supporting teachers? It can't all be private or religious schools can it?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.