Natrona County plans to revolutionize education system

Apr 20, 2012

As most know, school reform is far from novel.  It has been a catch word for many years.  But at a time when Casper was looking a building a new high school, school officials thought that a new approach in education should be part of new construction.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports…

BOB BECK: It’s the end of day at Natrona County high school one of the oldest school buildings in the state.  In fact it’s on the national register of historic places, which means making it a high tech school is a challenge.  But that’s the plan.  The legislature granted the school district 175 million dollars to build a new high school teaching facility and to upgrade Kelly Walsh and Natrona County high schools as well as provide a new facility for the alternative school Roosevelt high school.   Because of its age, it will require 119 million dollars of that money to renovate NC alone.  The most intriguing facility is the Center for Advanced and Professional Studies known as CAPS.  That is where those who are Juniors and Seniors will spend half their days applying their classroom knowledge to practical projects.   Superintendent of Natrona County Schools Joel Dvorak says this will shake up the school system…

JOEL DVORAK:  We are trying to create an experience where we’ll raise our graduation rate, we’ll have better prepared graduates, better prepared citizens and really trying to make that whole experience that they have one that’s much greater connected to learning then it is to that old model of teaching.

BECK: Dvorak says students will advance into the CAPS program, where they have group discussions and will work on projects that will be connected with professional studies.  Much of this will be hands on.  For example when you currently learn math you get the basics but may not know how to apply it.  Curriculum Coordinator Kelly Hornby under the new plan when you get to CAPS…you can use those math skills while learning about things such as architecture or engineering…

KELLY HORNBY:  Allows them to learn skills and fundamental components of engineering as well.  And upon graduation they’d be able to enter into maybe a college and have a very rounded experience, but more importantly if they chose to go into industry right out of graduation they would have the knowledge and components and the framework to be successful in that environment too.

BECK: Dvorak says they are making this big change because the current model was stale…

Dvorak Why:   We have a 70-75 percent graduation rate.  We have based on state assessment a high school system that’s underperforming.  We have a strong need for us to raise the academic rigor, to raise the connectiveness from schooling to learning for these young people, because our customers require it. 

Right now the district is in the midst of designing how the curriculum would all fit together and how this will all work.  But District Curriculum Coordinator Kelly Hornby says if this works as planned…students will have skills….

HORNBY:  Ultimately when they graduate they are going to have choices to go and be successful in the post secondary experience or enter into the workforce with skills that assist them to be employable and successful in that environment too.

BECK: Hornby says setting up the curriculum has been a challenge as has the process of getting teachers on board.  He admits that many are still trying to understand the changes. 

But a former teacher loves the idea.  Elizabeth Horsch was a chemistry teacher in the Natrona County School system for 30 years and for the last eight years has been a school board trustee.   She says it is time that students take charge of their education…

ELIZABETH HORSCH:  To me the big challenge is to say to kids, you know, we’re providing you opportunity, success is up to you.

BECK: But don’t get her wrong…she’s scared to death…

HORSCH:  Yes of course, (laughs) we’d be foolish not to be petrified.  Because it’s changing a complte culture of high school.

BECK: Superintendent Dvorak jokes that this effort may end his education career, but he’s obviously excited about what they are doing.  He says feedback from the business community has been positive.  Some parents have expressed concern, but Dvorak assures them that while this will allow for more group and project based learning, all the required components will have to be mastered….

DVORAK:  We have to meet all the requirements, we will meet all the standards, credits, kids are in the Carnegie units, all those structures of public education….we need to meet all those.  What we want to do is meet all those and create an experience that is much more about learning, than it is about schooling. 

BECK: Natrona County officials are hoping to have buildings built and for the new system to be in place by 2016.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.