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District 192 gets OK to innovate

Farmington superintendent Jay Haugen has some big ideas about the future of education, and now he has support from the state to help turn them into reality.

Along with its partner district in Spring Lake Park, the Farmington School District received Minnesota Department of Education approval last week as the state's first innovation zone, a designation meant to encourage new ways of thinking about helping students learn.

Exactly how that will happen is not yet clear, but it appears the department of education will allow the district more flexibility and freedom from some rules and regulations than is available to other Minnesota districts. Superintendent Jay Haugen plans to meet with the department soon to figure out what will be possible, but one of the district's first requests will be to allow Farmington schools to operate under a waiver the Spring Lake Park district has already received to offer classes online. That waiver typically takes a year to receive.

In their application, the district also suggested they might look for increased freedom related to teacher licensure, student supervision and teacher and principal evaluation, among other areas.

Haugen said the district's plans under the innovation zone designation line up well with the strategic plan approved last year.

For now, though, Haugen is excited about the possibilities he believes the Innovation Zone designation will open up.

"It's going to really help propel us faster to the thing we wanted to do anyway," he said. "It's what we're trying to do already, but it's getting a lot of support from the department of education."

The designation comes with its share of responsibility, too. The state expects Farmington and Spring Lake Park schools to serve as a model for the rest of Minnesota's schools, and that means people will be paying attention.

"The legislature put this in motion because they want these innovation zones to help lead the way. Be demonstrations -- places other schools can come see what we're doing and learn as well," Haugen said. "Our responsibility is to carry through with what we promised and really do the job of customizing education."

School board chair Tera Lee said she is excited about the Innovation Zone designation even though it's not yet clear exactly what it will mean. She is happy to have an officially recognized partnership with the Spring Lake Park district, and she likes the idea people are watching Farmington schools to see what they do next.

"It's an opportunity to lead the way," Lee said. "I've been in Farmington my whole life and it sure wasn't a district that was watched when I went here."

Farmington schools are already getting used to outside attention. Haugen said the district has gotten several visits from other districts since completing its iPad rollout earlier this year.

Farmington applied for the Innovation Zone designation in January along with Spring Lake Park, its partner in a plan to hand out an iPad to every student. Getting accepted gives both districts five years of increased freedom to try new things and serve as a kind of laboratory for the future of education in Minnesota.

Among plans included in the districts' application are combining students from both districts to offer classes on subjects where there is not enough interest in either district to justify a class, sharing personnel and aligning district calendars.

The later years of the district's proposal are largely undefined in the application. At this point plans consist mainly of refining the work done in earlier years.

Whatever comes of it, Haugen looks forward to seeing what teachers and other district staff come up with.

"There is no such thing as improvement without trying new things," he said. "Trying new things means you're experimenting. You're growing.... This is our opportunity to do more research and development and you only get better through that process."

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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