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School District 192 seeks state support for innovative thinking

The Farmington School District would like to turn itself into a kind of test kitchen for the future of education in Minnesota, and it's looking for some help from the state to make that happen.

School board members on Monday approved the district's application to become a Minnesota Department of Education Innovation Zone. There is no additional funding involved in becoming an innovation zone, but the five-year designation, new this year from the state, could help clear away some obstacles that might otherwise hinder the district as it tries to make changes.

"I'm not sure what it gets us," superintendent Jay Haugen said Tuesday." One of the things they say is, they'll work with us when we need relief or a waiver from various rules or regulations."

Communication specialist Jim Skelly said the designation might also open the door to programs for which the district does not currently qualify.

In order to apply for innovation zone recognition a district has to have at least one partner district. Farmington has proposed to work with the Spring Lake Park school district. The two districts have already been working closely on a plan to provide iPads for students, and Spring Lake Park is currently the only other district in the state that is going to put one of the tablet computers in the hands of each of its students.

The application board members approved Monday is short on specifics - Skelly said the department of education designed the application that way - but not on big ideas. The application complains about a current standardized system that "will snuff out innovation" and sets a goal of eliminating what it calls the "opportunity, expectation and aspiration gaps" among students.

The process could also include cooperating on some classes that don't in areas where one district does not have enough students to justify hiring a teacher.

In an animated video produced to accompany the application superintendent Jay Haugen promises an attempt to "fundamentally redesign" the education experience. That could include restructuring the class day and even rethinking of the way students advance through their school career.

None of these ideas is entirely new to those who know Haugen. He has talked before about a vision for education that might not include traditional grade levels. He has argued that putting iPads or similar devices in students' hands will be important to encourage all students to learn at their own pace.

"I think that's the heart of it, but what that looks like in the school, I think the whole first year is trying to develop that," Haugen said. "It's truly meant to be innovation, something that is new."

In an email message sent to staff members Monday night, Haugen explained the innovation zone and said the district's plans are closely aligned to a five-year strategic plan the district put in place last year.

"Much of this will be about unleashing you as a staff, to work individually or in teams, to create your vision of a great learning environment," Haugen said in the email. "Along the way, we expect you will come to us with hurdles to overcome, things that get in your way, and we will want to support you by removing those barriers."

Haugen told district staff he expects an answer on the innovation zone application within a month.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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