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National Conference Convenes Education Leaders Around ‘Future-Focused Schools’

Event focused on the shifting education landscape, from artificial intelligence to more relevant career planning and postsecondary opportunities.

Welcome sign at the Future-Focused Schools Conference. (Hannah Vinueza McClellan/EdNC)

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Hundreds of education leaders from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for Successful Practices Network's (SPN) 2024 Future-Focused Schools Conference.

The three-day conference discussed a shifting education landscape, changing student and employer needs, and successful strategies being implemented across the nation — including in North Carolina.

This shifting landscape includes generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), a different generation of students, and the desire for more relevant career planning and postsecondary opportunities, said SPN Founder and Executive Chair Dr. Bill Daggett.

“How do we truly prepare our students for their future, and not our past?,” Daggett asked during the conference's opening keynote. “Schools are not structured to prepare for the unknown. Too often they just react after the unknown has happened.”

Daggett said the pandemic exacerbated challenges students and schools faced prior to spring 2020.

In recent years, he said, student social media use has drastically increased.

In North Carolina, the 2023 NC Youth Risk Behavior Survey included questions on social media for the first time. According to survey results, more than 80% of high school students reported using social media at least several times a day, with 37% of those students reporting using it at least once an hour.

At the conference, Daggett's presentation included studies showing that overexposure to screen-based devices can lead to mental health issues, social deprivation, addiction, attention deficit disorders, and sleep deprivation, among other things.

“Schools, too often we react to the symptoms… rather than the cause,” Daggett said.

At the same time, the prevalence of generative AI technology is presenting schools with another challenge. School leaders are working to update their policies to account for AI, while teachers are trying to teach students how to use AI responsibly.

During his keynote, Daggett said AI also poses great opportunity for schools — if school and district leaders are willing to invest in it. Among other things, the conference highlighted opportunities to use AI for teacher planning, student career planning and personalized learning, and a shift to developing durable skills for students.

Daggett said schools must teach students how to use AI, so that AI isn't a tool only used by students from the most privileged families.

Schools must “figure out some way to help close that gap,” he said.

As schools adapt to AI and other shifts, Daggett said leaders must “refocus our North Star.” The entire education ecosystem must shift, he said, including reexamining how schools organize curriculum programs and expectations.

Ray McNulty, SPN president, said such refocusing requires that schools embed “foresight thinking” into education systems.

“It's not about adapting, it's about anticipating and preparing,” McNulty said. “The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in their lives outside of school... We must make the future more powerful than the past in meeting the needs of all our learners.”

What is a future-focused school?

According to a SPN presentation, a future-focused school system “is one that cultivates and champions:”

  • Proactive culture: This includes “inspiring vision,” foresight, digital learning, technology, AI, experimentation, coaching, and adaptability.
  • Cognitive skills: Literacy, math, creativity, adaptability, organization, problem-solving, prioritization, planning, critical thinking, and communication.
  • Interpersonal skills: Honesty, trust, teamwork, empathy, humility, collaboration, motivation, relationships, and role modeling. (These are also known as durable, or soft, skills.)
  • Proactive instruction: Inquiry, project and problem based learning, voice and choice, collaboration, experimentation, risk-taking, and assessment.
  • Self-leadership skills: Persistence, integrity, self-control, coping, risk-taking, self-motivation, self-confidence, passion, achievement oriented.

In a 2022 paper, SPN, a nonprofit, said that the following phases “accelerate a district’s success at becoming future-focused:” Portrait of a Graduate, strategic planning, and executive coaching.

At last week's conference, McNulty and Daggett both highlighted North Carolina's Portrait of a Graduate efforts. In fall 2022, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt unveiled seven durable skills the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) hoped public schools across North Carolina would incorporate into day-to-day learning — adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, learner’s mindset, and personal responsibility.

As employers turn to AI to automatically complete certain tasks, Daggett said such durable skills are crucial because they are skills employers cannot replace with AI.

“Most people aren't going to replaced by AI,” Daggett said. “They're going to be replaced by somebody who has skills that AI does not have.”

During a breakout session, McNulty said that schools working to become more “future-focused” must first start with a clear and focused vision. Next, they must evaluate if their current culture supports that vision.

After completing strategic and action planning, McNulty said districts must start implementation — with frequent evaluation to see if what they are doing is actually working.

“Implementation is critical,” he said. “And implementation is tricky.”

McNulty and Daggett said that moving forward, school systems should invest in AI, durable skills, and career planning to better serve students.

Such practices should be research-based, and implemented systemically, with teacher supports in place.

“This means starting with what you believe, then checking if you have systems in place to do it,” Daggett said. “Then, you might have to take some things off your plate.”

The importance of career exploration

During a breakout session — “High School Reimagined: Why We’ve Been Wrong and How to Get it Right for Every Student” — one superintendent talked about his district's efforts to embed individualized career exploration into school curriculum.

Dr. Ken Wallace, superintendent Maine Township High School District 207, said that career exploration is “the essence of equity.”

“The idea is if we can get your child into a career path responsibly… that pays a living wage, has growth potential, and is in high demand, it doesn’t only change their life, it changes the lives of their family, their children,” Wallace said.

Wallace noted rising student debt in the United States, along with the rising cost of postsecondary education. At the same time, he said, many students are taking out student loans to study one thing, but then end up shifting paths.

Career exploration after finishing college is expensive for students, he said.

“Our young people — they’re saddled with debt,” Wallace said. “I felt like it was irresponsible to not pay attention to this… where I’ve got a lot of first-generation kids who absolutely need us to get this right.”

Maine Township High School District 207 focuses on individual career planning for students, Wallace said.

The district begins formally preparing students for career exploration in eighth grade, including information about school counselors, the districts’s Career & College Resource Center (CCRC), and postsecondary education opportunities.

In ninth grade, students create a SchoolLinks account, which allows them to take a survey to learn about possible career paths.

Students continue to update their SchoolLinks profile, survey, and career goals throughout the rest of high school, and also receive resources to create a resume and apply for internships and apprenticeships. The district partners more than 1,000 local partners to provide students with career experiences during high school.

Students also work on their career plans and goals during a weekly advisory period that is built into the school day. In addition to their teachers, students can also receive guidance from counselors and career coordinators.

“Students have equal access to rigorous curriculum, helping them have all kinds of possibilities, and pushing them based on what they want to do,” Wallace said. “And all exploration has to pay a living wage.”

Here are a few tips Wallace gave school leaders:

  • It's never too soon to talk about careers.
  • Focus on passions and interests, not just making money.
  • Explore options with students, and then ask more specific questions when the child enters high school.
  • Invest in research and analytics to determine effectiveness of initiatives.
  • Create a plan that provides a baseline level of resources for all students, along with specialized layers of support for students that need it.

“What I’ve found with our students is give them capacity, give them space, and they will rise and exceed your expectations,” Wallace said.

Screenshot from Maine Township High School District 207's SPN presentation.

North Carolina spotlights

Surry-Yadkin Works

One breakout session of the conference focused on North Carolina's Surry-Yadkin Works, a work-based learning program created in 2021 to connect high school students in Surry and Yadkin counties with internship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities in local high-demand fields.

The partnership brings together all four public school systems in the counties. As of December 2023, Surry-Yadkin Works has assisted more than 350 students in finding 450 internship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities, according to a playbook from the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research.

Last week, Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves and Surry Community College President Dr. David Shockley spoke about the origin and impact of the partnership.

Approximately 65% of the district's students are economically disadvantaged, Reeves said, and agriculture is the No. 1 industry. That means that many students who are not interested in agriculture end up moving out of the county after graduation.

“We need to showcase the opportunities at home before they leave,” Reeves said.

Both leaders have more than a decade of experience in their current roles.

In 2012, Shockley said he started on a journey to answer one question that kept coming up with community stakeholders: “How do we prepare our students beyond the high school diploma by providing them access to college courses within traditional scheduling?”

Surry-Yadkin Works is part of the answer, Shockley and Reeves said, but the journey started earlier than that — with North Carolina's investment in dual enrollment in 2011, with the creation of the Career and College Promise (CCP) program.

The program’s design provides structured opportunities for high school students to earn college credits tuition-free that “lead to a certificate, diploma, or degree as well as provide entry-level jobs skills.”

Around this time, Reeves said the school district had to shift the mindset of what traditional high school looks like, in order to take advantage of CCP.

“How do you create this environment where you’re earning more than the high school diploma?” Reeves said. “So you're earning all these other experiences, so you will be career ready once you leave.”

Surry County Schools also pays for all textbooks and transportation, Shockley said, “so there is truly no cost for students.”

In 2016, Surry Community College enrolled 412 CCP students, Shockley said, with 3,109 college credits earned.

In 2023, the college enrolled 702 students — who earned 4,540 credits.

Shockley and Reeves said Surry-Yadkin Works was meant to capitalize on the gains the region had already seen through dual enrollment.

Reeves said the expected outcomes of the partnership included all students in the program graduating with either a credential and work-based learning opportunity. They also wanted to help create a stronger local workforce pipeline.

“We've tried to streamline and align our resources and create the most opportunities for our students in rural North Carolina,” Reeves said.

Here are tips Shockley and Reeves gave session attendees:

  • You have to have the relationships to create far-reaching partnerships. Surry-Yadkin Works convenes government, education, and business stakeholders.
  • It is important to find sustainable funds to keep program offerings consistent for students. In the case of Surry-Yadkin Works, the partnership found “sustainable money” from local county commissioners, in addition to grant funding.
  • Be clear on what the expected Return on Investment (ROI) is of the initiative — and promote this ROI once you have results. “It is critical for you to always show your investors what they are getting for their investment, to keep them sold,” Shockley said.
  • Celebrate victories! The partnership hosts job signing event ceremonies for students at local event spaces. “If we don't take time to celebrate this, no one else is going to,” Reeves said.

Currently, Surry-Yadkin Works includes internship, apprenticeship, and pre-apprenticeship opportunities. In the fall, the partnership plans to launch FLEET — which stands for Fostering Learning Through Education, Employment, and Trades — to further expand its offerings in the manufacturing sector.

“When you create synergy around things that are good, good things happen, especially when you have good people,” Reeves said.

UC Guarantee

Another breakout session highlighted UC Guarantee, a partnership between Union County Public Schools, South Piedmont Community College, and Wingate University.

According to Wingate University's website, the partnership aims “to make sure every student graduating from high school has a clearly defined, affordable, and easily accessible plan that leads to a meaningful career.”

Union County students are notified of the opportunity in ninth grade. Under the partnership, Wingate guarantees eligible students a $100,000 scholarship to attend Wingate.

South Piedmont and Wingate University already offer the Gateway to Wingate scholarship, which allows students who earn an associate degree from South Piedmont to transfer to Wingate to earn a bachelor’s degree for no more than $2,500 per year. The new piece of the partnership will allow Union County students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher to receive at least a $100,000 grant awarded over four years to attend Wingate University.

“We are essentially creating a continuous highway for lifelong learning with on and off ramps to show students they are never limited to one path but can customize their plan so it’s the right fit, at the right time, for them,” said South Piedmont Community College President Dr. Maria Pharr.

During the breakout session, panelists said building strong relationships between stakeholders was crucial to getting the partnerships off the ground.

“We’ve looked at each other as partners in this, not competitors” said Eva Baucom, vice president of enrollment management at Wingate University.

Panelists discussed the value of early college programming for students, and the need to communicate with students early about postsecondary education options.

“As a community college, we deal with a stigma that a community college is a lesser-than educational pathway, when we have a lot of very meaningful programs that lead to high earning careers,” said Kamisha Kirby, South Piedmont Community College's associate vice president of student success.

Together, each of the partners are working to increase access for all students, while promoting awareness of the programs they offer.

Moving forward, the partners are working toward data-sharing agreements, a formal communication plan, aligned pathways for students, and on-campus student programming.

“We want to continue to grow this,” said Jessica Garner, Union County Public School's director of College Readiness and Innovation. “And as many things that are future focused, you can't really imagine what some of the next steps are and we don't want to hem ourselves in. We just continue to find things we can do for our students.”

You can learn more about the programs within the partnership here.

What's next?

During the closing keynote, SPN Senior Vice President Dr. Robert Peters spoke about the importance of looking to the future with all students in mind.

He asked attendees to think about the different connotations between the phrase “our kids” and “these kids.”

One phrase, he said, denotes the desire to inspire, protect, and engage. The other often reflects a desire to control.

“As professionals, we have to understand that we are the common denominator,” Peters said. “We are the ones who make these kids, our kids. These are all of our children.”

With that guiding principle in mind, Peters asked: “Are our systems right for all of our children? Are our systems created for success for all students?”

Peters said creating a future-focused system required first aligning your mission and vision around all students. Then, school leaders must build out structures and systems of support for leaders and teachers, followed by instructional support in order to successfully implement new curriculum goals.

As schools and districts implement these ideas, McNulty cautioned that policy is often the last thing to change.

“But I need to have something that I know gets results before I can change policy,” McNulty said. “We can be agents of change.”


You can learn more about SPN on their website.

This article first appeared on EducationNC and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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