Natrona County School District officials are preparing to roll out their biggest effort yet to combat the district’s below-average high school graduation rates and mediocre test scores.

The program, which will be partially implemented in the fall, will shift focus in the district’s middle and high schools to project-based learning and allow students to enroll in one of four academies based on their interests. The district’s goal is to engage more students, increase graduation rates, close achievement gaps throughout the district and better prepare students for a transition to college, the workforce, or other training programs.

It’s called Pathways to 2025, and the ideas at its core are not new, said Mark Mathern, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at NCSD.

The idea surfaced as each of the district’s high schools rose on the state’s list of schools needing improvement around 2008, Mathern said. Funds would likely be available to either significantly upgrade or rebuild the district’s high schools, and the board took the opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

“We had never really looked seriously at the high school system as a whole,” he said. “So this conversation was about, well, what do we want [our graduates] to look like?”

The result of a year-long community planning process was a list of soft skills the district began calling the “portrait” of a graduate. On the list are skills like analytical thinking, adaptability and self-direction. Not on the list are sets of requirements for the number of math courses a student should complete, or how many credits of a foreign language a student should master.

That’s intentional, Mathern said. While credit and course requirements are not changing in the district, the way classes are taught will change, he said, based on those soft skills that members of the Natrona County business community said any employable graduate needs.

The transition in teaching will require buy-in from teachers, who will do most of the work to increase the district’s emphasis on project-based instruction.

For the roll-out of the district’s Pathways system to be successful, professional development of teachers and staff will be key, Doreen McGlade, President of the Natrona County Education Association, said. McGlade’s organization represents all certified education staff who are not administrators in Natrona County.

“This is a tremendous investment of time and resources that could have wonderful opportunities for our students to be engaged in meaningful learning, to increase their engagement,” McGlade said. The CAPS facility has potential to reach students who have felt disconnected to their education and to connect high-performing students with areas where they may be interested in going beyond high school, she said.

McGlade said she has heard concerns that the Pathways system would cause a student to pick a career focus too early in their education.

But the system is not intended to do that, she said.

“It’s not to declare a major,” Mathern, the district curriculum supervisor, said. “It’s to cultivate an interest.”

Students who are engaged in what they’re doing and feel like they have some choice in their schoolwork peform better on tests, stay in school longer and ultimately have a greater chance of graduating, Mathern said.

Too often, high-stakes standards and test scores can overwhelm classrooms, according to Patti Kimble, a science teacher with the Natrona County School District who works with students at Star Lane Center, a program that delivers core content by guiding students through an open-ended problem every four weeks.

“And we forget about transferring that knowledge to real problems, real issues,” Kimble said.

For students like Rayshell Kalkofen, 17, being engaged in school made all the difference.

Kalkofen is a senior at Kelly Walsh High School who spends half her day at the Star Lane Center.

“[In middle school,] I’d find myself zoning out and missing a whole class period while I was sitting there,” Kalkofen said. “Coming here, we have to engage.”

Her grades suffered in middle school because she didn’t like what she thought was a “bulimic” teaching style — cram as much information as possible into a course just to regurgitate the material onto a test.

For Chandler Gray, 17, a junior at Natrona County High School, his grades increased dramatically once he joined the half-day program at Star Lane, which introduces students to real-world problems and asks them to develop solutions.

Students at Star Lane already do something similar to what many students will be asked to do once the Pathways system takes effect in the coming years. Though the district’s format will look different, the philosophy behind the teaching is the same. The school district will still follow its semester-long course program, but will incorporate more project-based learning. The goal is similar to Star Lane’s: Give students a context for the information they learn and make the content applicable in the real world.

“I wasn’t probably even going to finish high school,” Gray said. “Now I want to go to college, I want to really further my education more. ... Here I realized I can go a lot further than I thought.”

Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

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