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Internships, taxes, coding: a pilot education program aims to bring back life skills

RIVERTON – At Cheyenne Central High School, one of the schools participating in a pilot initiative aimed at rethinking education in Wyoming, Liz Edington taught her psychology students about mental illness by having them study speculative diagnoses of great American leaders.

When it came time to test her students, Edington asked students to make their own diagnoses in so-called performance assessments, she said Friday from a podium at Central Wyoming College. Unlike traditional tests where students sit silently scratching over papers, these tests require students to demonstrate what they know by working on open-ended tasks. Students construct answers, produce projects or perform an activity – live.

It’s a far cry from what many teachers are used to, Edington told an audience of teachers, students and education professionals. But students “want to figure it out, they want to be creative.”

The testing method forces students to rely on their own resources rather than answers they have simply memorized, she said. “It’s some of the best work I’ve done in my entire career,” she said of the class.

One of Edington’s students, sophomore Sirma Orahovats, vouched for her teacher. The course felt like what Orahovats imagines working in a psychology office with real patients, she said.

“I think this experience was so authentic,” said Orahovats, who noted that she initially had no particular interest in the subject. “I feel like this is probably the lesson I’ve been working on the most all year.”

This story was one of many shared during an all-day event that helped define the contours of Wyoming’s new education initiative. The governor-led RIDE program stands for Reimagine and Innovate the Delivery of Education, but what that actually looks like is difficult to determine.

As pilot districts wrap up the first year of the program and a second cohort prepares to get started, more details emerged Friday of schools using RIDE to experiment with things like internships for credit, teaching tax preparation and student attendance at the legislature session.

Areas of need

Gov. Mark Gordon established the RIDE Advisory Group in May 2021 to study and develop recommendations for improving Wyoming’s K-12 education system.

The group surveyed more than 7,000 stakeholders and held 17 listening sessions to gather feedback from across the state. Most survey respondents identified themselves as parents or guardians. Nearly 60% of respondents said they do not believe children are adequately prepared for the future, and the most commonly identified areas for needed improvement include ‘learning outcomes and expectations’ and ‘lesson content and structure’.

Based on the information gathered, the committee made two main recommendations: first, students should be able to progress through the academic content as soon as they are ready; Progress should be a product of mastery, not seat time. Second, students should be given more opportunities for vocational and technical education.

Other key priorities included improving mental health care and increasing preschool preparation.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder talks to K-3 students at Gannett Peak Elementary in Lander on March 19, 2024. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The pilot program that followed was a bit of an experiment. That’s because the RIDE initiative rethinks some facets of Wyoming’s education status quo — such as traditional assessment or classroom time — and includes concepts like competency-based learning and credit for learning outside the classroom.

The nine school districts selected for the pilot are Albany 1, Converse 1, Laramie 1, Lincoln 1, Park 6, Park 16, Sweetwater 2, Teton 1 and Weston 7.

District representatives gathered at the CWC campus on Friday to share their successes and struggles. Teachers, parents and education professionals from across the state attended. RIDE encouraged all districts to send teams to learn about the options.

A second cohort will begin the program in the fall. It includes Platte Districts 1 and 2, Park District 1, Sweetwater District 1, Weston District 1 and Fremont District 25.

The 15 pilot districts now educate about 43% of Wyoming’s elementary and middle school students, Governor Gordon noted at the Riverton event.

For them to take the plunge, he said, “is a feat of courage.”

Examples, challenges

Fire rockets and use rangefinders. Honing the art of meaningful conversations in an era dominated by mobile phones. Send students to gain clinical experience working in hospital services. Have students prepare their resumes and go through job applications. Guide them through the most adult task: filing taxes. Using code to build electronic birthday cards. Ensuring that a student interested in politics attends the legislative session. Arranging for someone else to work in a veterinary institution.

These are some of the activities that animated education for the pilot schools.

“We need to bring these (life) skills back into the classrooms,” said Park County District 6 Superintendent Shane Ogden. “We need to provide opportunities for children to make mistakes in those critical life activities in a safe environment.”

It encourages children to realize that “they can do so much more than they think they can,” Ogden continued. Performing well on a standardized WY-TOPP assessment test, he said, “is really not a skill they’re going to apply anywhere else.”

Centennial Jr. High Band director Cara Sommers helped welcome students to the first day of K-12 classes in Casper on September 1, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The RIDE effort represents a step back from rigid, arbitrary learning standards, Gordon said, saying, “Maybe we need to refocus on what really matters to our communities.”

The kind of learning it aims for gives teachers more creativity, ensures that school systems better enable learning and “most importantly, we engage students where they want to be involved,” Gordon said.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing and the participants also shared challenges. These include how rigid timetables with 60-minute class periods do not necessarily support innovative teaching, concerns about how this teaching style aligns with assessment and accountability requirements and combating a misconception that ‘sitting in the seat’ is the same as learning . Fear and resistance to change, parental apathy, financing problems due to early graduation and inflexibility with credit were also shared.

These are pain points, said Adam Rubin, co-founder of 2Revolutions, which is working with Wyoming on the initiative, during a breakout session.

“What do we do about the pain points?” he asked before offering advice based on the discussion among the participants. “What can we do with existing rules and regulations to clarify what is misunderstood? Where are there priorities at the state level to change the statute in a way that will improve this work? And is Wyoming interested and willing to go to the FBI for an assessment?