Marietta vision

School district holds first day of input session

MICHAEL KELLY The Marietta Times Phillips Elementary School fifth-grader Jocelyn Arnold holds up the priority list for her six-member group, which included Marietta City Schools superintendent Will Hampton, at the beginning of a two-day visioning session to discuss the direction of the city's public school system in the coming years.

Public education has looked pretty much the same for 100 years in many respects: closed classrooms furnished with rows of uncomfortable desks, connected by narrow hallways, students moving from one subject to another when the bell rings, cafeteria at lunch, teachers with knowledge conferring it to children, whether they want it or not.

How well does that system work? A group of more than 50 people, ranging from educators and students to business professionals and people from the community at large, gathered Monday morning at the Marietta Shrine Club to start two days of discussion to determine whether – and if so, how — the community wants to challenge the status quo in education.

Facilitator Frank Locker, a New England education consultant who has helped districts around the world transform their schools, led the session.

“I am a messenger for a lot of emerging practices, and a provocateur,” Locker told the session, which was divided into six-member small discussion groups in the big Shrine meeting room. “I don’t presume that what’s right for you is what’s being done elsewhere. We’re here to craft what’s best for Marietta.”

Marietta City Schools is embarked on a campaign to rebuild, with a citizens’ group hoping to persuade voters in November to approve financing for a campus of three new schools to replace the six aging, overbuilt and geographically scattered buildings it now uses to educate the city’s children. Locker told the gathering the visioning sessions – 12 hours over two days – would begin by determining what K-12 public education in Marietta ought to be, what it’s meant to achieve, and how to achieve its goals.

MICHAEL KELLY The Marietta Times Working with a small group, Washington Elementary School fifth-grader Kalis Bigley writes her group's priority decisions on a flip chart at the visioning session for Marietta City Schools held at the Marietta Shrine Club on Monday.

“Our work will be two-thirds talking about education, then we’ll segue into facilities. If you start with facilities, you’re going to end up with a new version of the same thing you’ve already got,” he said.

The participants, invited by the district, had been sent foundation materials, including videos, by Locker, part of which was to ensure everyone was familiar with what for many might be strange terms and new concepts: project-based learning, multiple intelligences, brain-based furniture, social-emotional learning.

Locker offered alternatives to the status quo that schools elsewhere had pursued with success – schools laid out with small-group education and collaborative work among teachers in mind, schools that combined the functions of cafeteria, auditorium and library in a single space, schools in which the students are given a single home working space for the day and mobile teachers who come to them, not the other way around.

Discussion included demands of the workforce for the remainder of the 21st century, which – to the extent they can be predicted at all – differ wildly from those of 100 years ago, when students were being prepared for production line work and considered to be as interchangeable as the parts in industrial machinery they were expected to produce.

Locker offered several examples of schools using project-based learning, in which students are given projects to do as teams, requiring them to solve all the problems inherent in the project. One group was assigned to prepare a cafe business for launch in Paris.

“They needed to develop the business concept, the location, the business plan,” he said. “They had to communicate with people in Paris, to speak French, call real estate agents, set up a budget in Euros, not dollars.”

Doing the project touched on linguistic skills, geography, economics, communications, design, and detail in every aspect, along with developing collaborative skills as team members.

Another class had taken on a project about an African nation by asking the simple question, “Does this country have a sustainable economy?” To answer it, the students had to investigate every aspect of life in the country.

The nine groups of six people, nearly all of them including at least one student, began narrowing down priorities, with each choosing its top priorities from among dozens of possibilities, attempting to grapple with the fundamental purposes of education and how best to achieve them.

At one table, Harmar Elementary School fifth-grader Sam Beaver shared the discussion with a school board member, an accountant, two business people and a community member. He was vocal about what he had seen.

“There are kids at my school who don’t get good grades, but it’s because of the way school is run,” he said. “I know one kid who’s really creative, but he’s just bored because he’s a hands-on person. He could get good grades if it involved building things.”

Beaver said after the small group discussion sessions that being involved in the visioning exercise was both rewarding and eye-opening.

“I like helping, putting in my ideas to make something better,” he said. “I like the ideas for the classroom design, it’s better than what we have now. I just never used to think about it, but this session has done that for me, made me think of different things.”

The visioning sessions continue today.

Visioning for Marietta City Schools

• Purpose is to discuss education and its direction for the coming decades.

• 54 people in attendance, including educators, students, parents, interested members of the general community and representatives of business and local government and agencies.

• Two full days of talks led by education consultant Frank Locker.