15 School Districts Worth Visiting

Leading a public school district is difficult and complicated work. But done well, there is no other job that can change how a community thinks about itself, its children and its future. The following are 15 districts that are changing the trajectory of both education and their communities by working on personalized and competency-based learning. They are making career preparation—including communications, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration–a priority. They are big and small, urban and rural, east and west, and as such are representative of the American education challenge.

Encouraging Innovation

1. Microschools & Talent Development. Kettle Moraine School District, west of Milwaukee, is a small district working on personalized and competency-based learning. The district has authorized four charter schools including three themed flex high schools (check out our podcast with superintendent Patricia DeKlotz as well as our most recent feature).

2. Makerspaces & AI Ethics. Montour School District (Pittsburgh airport) is a great place to see a student-first, growth-mindset learning culture. They are a leader in active learning with an elementary Lego Makerspace and a Minecraft lab. A new middle school AI program features exploration and ethics (Follow @JustinAglio for more).

3. Computational Thinking. South Fayette School District, south of Pittsburgh (and next door to Montour), has four schools on one campus and a P-12 focus on computational thinking (developed with CMU). Students learn to code, to attack complex problems, analyze data and sprint in teams to public products (see feature).

4. Student Engagement in Multiage Environments. Albemarle County Public Schools serves just over 13,000 students in Charlottesville, Virginia. They provide extensive project-based and maker opportunities. Spectacular and versatile multiage spaces, like Woodbrook Elementary (below), are added as schools are renovated (See 9 lessons, a case study, and podcast with Pam Moran).

Competency-Based Leaders

5. Early Leader. Chugach School District, serving remote Anchorage-area villages, kicked off the modern age of competency-based education 20 years ago (Read an iNACOL report).

6. Growing into a Framework. Mesa County Valley School District 51 serves 21,000 students in 44 schools in Grand Junction Colorado. The district is in the middle of a thoughtful transition to competency-based education where schools have been invited to grow into a framework with pilot schools showing the way (See our podcast and seven-part series from CompetencyWorks).

7.Using Data. Lindsay Unified School District, in California’s central valley, is a leader in competency-based (they call it performance-based) education—“Students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” See how they are “leading the global shift to competency.”

8. Personal Plans. In the hops fields west of Boise is the tiny Wilder School District where every student develops a personal learning plan with their mentor. Students have voice and choice in learning; they can choose the best way for them to learn: in class, online, or through projects (See 10 more things we liked about Wilder). With 18 other districts, Wilder joined the Idaho Mastery Education Network two years ago.

9. “Retooling while flying.” Windsor Locks Public Schools, just north of Hartford Connecticut, is “Trying to become more student-centered as well as competency-based,” said former superintendent Susan Bell (who now directs school engagement for the Mastery Transcript Consortium).

By making learning targets clear, Windsor Locks teachers have been “Putting the power in the child’s hands and helping them become self-directed learners,” said Bell. Rising juniors, the Class of 2020, will be the first class in Windsor Locks to graduate with a mastery-based diploma.

Frequently mentioned but not yet visited are Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, RSU2 in Maine, and 12 districts in Iowa working together.

Career Education

10. K-8 Leader. Cajon Valley, east of San Diego, introduces career options to elementary and middle schools in 54 K-8 experiences called the World of Work Program. It’s the best organized and implement K-8 career education program we’ve seen (Kendra Olson tells Superintendent David Miyashiro about the civil engineering unit in first grade below).

11. Systematic CTE. Santa Ana USD, the dense urban center of Orange County California, offers well developed secondary career pathways. They are coordinated districtwide to ensure an equity of offerings (Check out our November trip report).

Using Networks to Innovate

12. Leveraging networks. Evergreen School District in east San Jose serves a predominantly low-income Hispanic community. New Tech Network is a district partner—notable project-based schools include Katherine Smith Elementary,  Bulldog Tech, and Lobo School of Innovation (See our November trip report).

13. Test Prep Turnaround.  El Paso ISD is a great turnaround story–from test prep to active learning. Earlier this year, we followed superintendent Juan Cabrera on school visits, including several schools that belong to the New Tech Network (See our feature on the district and superintendent commentary on learning spaces and on the role of trustees).

14. Incubating Networks. Denver Public Schools has sustained the most aggressive improvement and innovation agenda of any city with an elected board including incubating and scaling quality school networks including DSSTStrive Preparatory Schools, Roots (below), and Beacon (see feature). (See our recent portfolio summary and our chat with the superintendent and school board).

15. Innovative Staffing. Charlotte Mecklenburg serves 148,000 students in 175 schools and is widely recognized for academic achievement and innovation. Project LIFT and Success by Design are projects that leverage teacher leadership in innovative staffing models.

For more districts worth visiting, see:

We’re sure we missed hundreds of districts doing some great work. Who would you add? Share in the comments section below, and check out other Smart Lists at our Smart List Series Page.

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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Tom V

Claudette Trujillo suggests Westminister (north Denver suburb): We have been implementing competency-based for ten years and just hosted a large summit. Our entire district is fully implemented in all content areas with proficiency scales, success criteria and it is all in Empower. We have partnered with Dr. Robert Marzano and have opened a lab school. We presented at INACOL this year and shared about our struggles and success with implementation. Leadership has had ongoing battle with the state regarding their one time one size fits all standardized assessment. This year several of our schools moved to performance and demonstrated significant growth. It’s so awesome to learn more about others on this journey and network.

Bridget L Ratti

What great schools are children can learn for wonderful future.

Cheryl Bouchez

Unbelievably awesome innovations! Thanks for caring for our children!

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