By Maria Libby | Apr 14, 2016

I have been working in the field of education for nearly 25 years, both as a teacher and administrator. Throughout that time, I have also been a student, learning everything I can about education and learning itself. In synthesizing that information, I have come to appreciate the fundamental ingredients for optimal learning, some of which are beyond a school’s control. Optimizing those factors we do control is what motivates me as superintendent. Students learn best when education is characterized by the following: strong relationships with adults, active participation and ownership, a sense of belonging and being valued, meaning and purpose, and a supportive environment. I want to continually strive for excellence in these areas and inspire others to do the same.

Our system is strong and continually improving. We pride ourselves on a depth and breadth of programming that enables students to find their niche and nurture their sense of belonging. At the same time, I am committed to being open to new ideas about programming as we expand the definition of learning to places beyond our walls. We have a staff and student body that is very respectful, open, and kind. During my mock interviews with juniors and seniors, they often cite strong relationships with teachers as a hallmark of our school. At the same time, I am committed to ensure that every student and every teacher experiences the strength of those relationships. I know that many students awaken their passions on the stage, on an athletic field, in the community, or in the classroom. Evidence of that is all around us as we enjoy accolades from onlookers about our top performances. At the same time, I want to make sure we aren’t inadvertently dampening some students’ passion by the very experience of school.

The place where I believe our system has the most room for improvement is in putting students in the driver’s seat of their education — designing instruction in such a way that students are learning by doing. Where they have some choice in the learning and they are actively creating a product that they care about. And what they are doing has a connection to the world outside of school — has some authenticity connected to it. That is where the best learning happens. Although there are pockets of where this is happening already, I am sure students still “sit and git," passively listening to teachers talk. We need to shift to where that is the minority of the instruction in a minority of classes. Just going through the motions of school is not going to prepare students for the world as adults, where initiative, passion, and creative problem solving are highly prized attributes. The traditional model does not motivate students, it mostly bores them; it does not foster independence, it nurtures dependency; and most of all, it rarely inspires.

Two weeks ago we presented two screenings of the film, "Most Likely to Succeed," which featured a school where students are truly vested in the learning process, High Tech High. It offers a different approach to learning where students are thoroughly engaged. We showed the movie to the staff at the middle and high schools followed by a community screening that evening. The movie generated important discussion about education in our community and I am committed to helping bring more project-based learning to our schools. I want our students to experience a variety of instructional models, from hybrid or online courses to lecture style to project based. It should be varied, as their learning in their lifetimes will be varied. On the whole, however, it should inspire, it should inherently engender an intrinsic motivation for learning, and students should actively experience their education. They will learn more by doing. We all know that to be true. I don’t want them in the passenger seat passively along for the ride. Ultimately that doesn’t really help them, our community, or society as a whole.

My vision is that our school is not a place students come to every day because they have to. It becomes a place they want to be because they value its importance and it works for them. They will understand these four years are a time when they gain valuable, enduring skills, when they learn what it means to be passionate about an intellectual endeavor and persist in mastering it because it is important to them, and when they see the connection of this time in their lives and their commitment to it as directly related to their success as an independent adult. It is an incredibly valuable step in their journey to finding their place in society.

I realize that we are lucky — many of our students love coming to school every day. We have worked hard to create a supportive, loving, and joyous culture with many opportunities. We have great teachers, students, and a great community, but I know we can do even better and it matters. It matters because a great public education is a gift that knows no boundaries and making a difference for even one student can impact hundreds of people in generations to follow. As a society, we need secure, happy, well-equipped young people to enter the workforce and adulthood, ready to take on the complex challenges they will face. I am committed to doing my part to making a difference for our students.

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