'Explore, create, design': District 303 to roll out elective as part of longer elementary day
Imagine a classroom setting where students gain an understanding of coding and robotics, or work in teams to design their own games, or use various media tools for drama and video production -- all before they reach middle school.
Those hands-on experiences and other innovative learning techniques will be at the center of a new elective, called "Empower," expected to be implemented this fall at St. Charles Unit District 303 elementary schools.
A 40-minute extension of the elementary school day takes effect in the 2020-21 academic year, giving students more time to explore and engage in learning opportunities outside their core subjects, said Jan Geier, assistant superintendent for leadership and school improvement.
The longer hours were negotiated as part of a teachers contract last year.
A "think tank" group of parents, teachers and administrators has spent the past several months developing the possible structure and content of a seven-hour day, compared to six hours and 20 minutes.
Outside the lessons taught by their classroom teachers, elementary students currently have six 30-minute electives, or "specials," each week -- one art, one music and four physical education classes.
The longer school day would allow for a weekly schedule of 10, 40-minute specials, think tank members said during a presentation to the school board last week. That guarantees more time for physical education and fine arts, they said, and also gives schools a chance to weave in additional enrichment opportunities through "Empower."
The learning experiences would be "focused on the whole child, focused on kids being kids, and focused on the competencies and skills needed for the ever-changing world in which they live," Geier said. "We want students to be able to explore, create, design and build during this time."
Adding extra specials throughout the week also gives classroom teachers more time during the school day to plan and collaborate with other educators, St. Charles Education Association President Joe Blomquist said. Much of that work now is done before or after school.
Feedback from parents and community members was a driving force in developing the new school day structure, district parent and think tank member Heather Trask said. They want their kids to experience additional movement, play time and open-ended exploration, rather than more traditional academic content.
Administrators felt that simply offering extra recess wasn't the most valuable use of time. Instead, "Empower" aims to achieve those goals in a structured setting while giving students a "voice and choice in how they learn," said Susie Wagner, associate director of instruction.
Several potential modules have been designed for the new elective that touch on specific skills and social-emotional standards.
In a "Make a Difference" unit, for example, students could be tasked with creating a service project that addresses an issue within their school or community. That assignment would help strengthen their problem solving, collaboration, self-drive and critical thinking.
A "Light it Up" module would allow students to develop an understanding of circuits and electricity, teaching them technical skills while also encouraging them to use their imagination.
Other proposed experiences could encompass game play and design; chain reactions and contraptions; drama, video production and media tools; coding and robotics; creative construction; and world language exploration.
"To me, this is what an elementary day should look like," school board member Rebecca McCabe said. "I'm way impressed, and I'm way impressed that our families asked for this kind of work."
Though supportive of the concept, board President Carolyn Waibel said she wants more information on plans to roll out the program and evaluate its success.
Officials expect additional feedback this spring when student focus groups are formed, Geier said, noting school leaders and other stakeholders also will have a chance to weigh in. Then, the next steps will be to hire and train teachers and design the curriculum.
A more specific implementation plan, along with budgetary details and other logistics, will be brought back to the learning and teaching committee at a later date.
"My focus is to make sure that our team is doing assessments as we go -- (determining) what is working and what we might need to change in the future," Waibel said. "We're creating this program from scratch, so it's an exciting time to have an elementary student."