Ray Huard ….Look for this to be a stellar year for the Vista Unified School District as the district celebrates its 100th anniversary, Superintendent Devin Vodicka said as students headed back to classes.Speaking to more than 1,200 teachers, counselors and administrators who gathered at Mission Vista High School for a recent professional development day, Vodicka said, “it’s an exciting year.
Among other things, “This is the year where our graduating seniors will be the first ones affected by our guaranteed admissions agreement with Cal State San Marcos,” Vodicka said. Under an agreement the district signed with California State University San Marcos in 2013, students who maintain a C average or higher and who complete prescribed courses are guaranteed a spot in the college. “This is a great thing for our kids,” Vodicka said.
Looking over the past year’s achievement, “I think we’re making great progress,” Vodicka said. “Our students are more and more energized by their learning.” That progress has drawn national attention, Vodicka said, with more than 2,000 educators from across the country visiting Vista Unified schools last year.
“They’re coming because they’re hearing lots of things that make them curious about what’s happening in our school district,” Vodicka said. “Personal learning is one of those things that is drawing a lot of attention.”
As the district moves ever more strongly into personal learning, where lessons are tailored to the needs of each student individually, “What we’re trying to do is get away from the one-size fits-all model,” Vodicka said.
“The school system has pretty much been set up like a train station, where students arrive at a certain time, get on the train, the train takes them from one place to the other. The train goes to the same place at the same pace,” Vodicka said. “Your experience traveling in that train is pretty much the same, regardless of what you bring into that journey.”
With personal learning, Vista Unified is moving to a system that Vodicka said is more akin to driving a car, where students have more control over their learning and teachers help develop their strengths instead of looking at their shortcomings.
That shift is paying off not only with improved student achievement, but with higher approval ratings from parents and teachers, according by the University of California San Diego. The survey showed “a very consistent trend” in parents’ satisfaction with their students’ teachers, trust in school principals, and trust in the quality of education their children are getting, Vodicka said. “To see this is really quite affirming,” Vodicka said.
The 2016-2017 school year also is the first time classroom teachers from kindergarten through eighth grade will get to try out the Next Generation Science Standards which Vista Unified is piloting – one of eight school districts and two charter schools in California that are helping to develop and refine teaching methods that fit the new standards.
Instead of relying on rote memorization and teacher-directed lessons, the new standards stress critical thinking and require students to research, analyze, experiment and rework projects based on their findings just as scientists do on the job, said Sue Ritchie, project director for Vista Unified.
In the first year of the project, 12 district teachers underwent training. Last year, those 12 teachers trained 60 of their colleagues, and those 60 teachers led sessions for other elementary and middle school teachers during the Professional Development Day.
“We’re asking all the teachers to start trying it in their classrooms so they have a feel for it,” said Sue Ritchie, project director for Vista. In another year, the new standards will be the rule, Ritchie said.
During the professional development day, Vista teachers tried their hand performing experiments that show how the new standards can be applied in their classrooms. “We just want you to fall in love with science again,” said Grapevine first grade teacher Kristi Gann, who was among the teacher/trainers leading the sample lessons. In one, a group of third grade teachers were given a challenge – make an aluminum can move across a desk without touching it using a balloon and a wool cloth.
Next door, a first grade teacher picked out a Cutie mandarin orange and wrote a description of it. Then another teacher would have to find that orange based on the written description when it was mixed in with other Cutie oranges.
The can challenge was a way for students to learn about static electricity through their own exploration. The teachers figured out quickly how to create static electricity by rubbing the cloth against the balloons to push the cans. Teachers were not quite so successful with the Cutie orange hunt. The idea was to demonstrate how scientists make and record their observations, in this case, a description detailed enough to find one Cutie among many.
Most of the teachers hadn’t provided enough details, so they had to add more. Along with trying out the new science standards during the professional development day, teachers got their first look at new computer software systems that will help better track student progress and find each student’s strengths in developing personal learning lessons.
Sessions covered everything from how to improve the writing skills of their students to prepare them for college and career to an update on special education.
“There’s a little something for everyone,” said Larry White, executive director for curriculum, instruction and educational technology.