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New Farmington High School principal talks about learning

New Farmington High School Principal Dan Pickens (left) joins Jason Berg, the new executive director of educational services, who stand in the new collaborative learning space on the second floor of the high school. Photo by Kara Hildreth

The new Farmington High School Principal Dan Pickens cannot wait to welcome students and staff into the new school year.

Even though he is anxious to start a new journey as the new principal with a student body of about 2,239 freshmen through seniors, Pickens, 36, is not new to Farmington School District.

In fact, his skills have been called upon within five different jobs in the past five years throughout the school district.

Pickens worked as a math teacher for six years at the former Farmington Middle School West and then he taught high school math for a few years. Then he worked as a Farmington District 192 math specialist who coached teachers.

"Then I worked on STEM-focused learning and STEM teaching for the district, and then I took the job as a district digital learning specialist when Farmington schools rolled out the iPads," Pickens said.

Pickens took over as head of instructional technology that evolved into director of technology. Then when Jason Berg became principal at Farmington High, Pickens worked as assistant principal.

"I have a passion for what I am doing and I love this community and this high school, and I don't want to go anywhere else and it doesn't matter what office I am sitting in — I am going to do the same thing," Pickens said.

"The biggest thing I want parents to know is that I am passionate about education and I am going to work my tail off and do whatever I think is best for kids always and that is the bottom line," he added.

Back in high school, Pickens recalls how he liked math and understood he was comfortable calculating math, but he did not have a defined career path. Pickens plans to lead teachers to be able to assist students so they can work on finding their spark or passions while still in high school. Pickens believes this will give students a step ahead in pursuing education or their life after high school.

Jason Berg, former principal at Farmington High, is now the executive director of educational services for Farmington Public Schools who took over after Barb Duffrin left the district.

"I think we are both examples of being ready when opportunities arise," Berg said.

Today educational roadmap looks very different than a generation back, Pickens said. "You can't just talk about ideas in a homeroom class and do a lesson and know the kids are getting better at them."

"Students need to have the opportunity to practice them and apply them, and actually manage their time and begin to make a choice like I am going to go work on this, so we want to give kids the spaces here to be able to do that," Pickens explained.

The new remodeled spaces throughout the high school allow students to take part in collaborative group study or study alone in quiet spaces. In the Tiger commons area, students can work on group projects that allow for louder work study.

Last year students named a new space The Chamber of Silence on the second floor. This space served as a former teacher planning center framed with glass windows and is quiet because it is enclosed with walls and doors.

Another new nearby space on the second floor offers an open learning space with cushion booth and table seats with tall tables to study or do homework with iPads.

This space replaces unused locker bays that occupied wasted space for years. This space will give students a place to practice study and time management skills, as well as work together in a more collaborative learning environment, Pickens said.

"Our new space is like a coffee shop atmosphere that is more open and kids can practice the skills they need," Pickens said.

When students leave Farmington schools, the goal is to have them ready to encounter academic and rigorous challenges to learn, manage a workflow at school or a job, and advocate for themselves, Pickens said.

"They (students) need to be able to handle the idea of failing and that is okay for building perseverance and grit and supporting those things," Berg said.

"We have taken a much more global look at quote, unquote what achievement is and there is an academic component, no doubt, but what the student's post secondary plan is, those can all be different and those other skills can be just as important," Berg said.

The old learning model was to design a learning space first and then ask teachers to use the space and that was backwards, Berg said.

"We used to keep kids so contained and tell them what to do all the time, and then they go off into a job or go off to a two or four-year school and now nobody is doing that," Berg said.

Recently, Pickens met with new, incoming freshman student s and parents. He wanted to communicate how the school may push students to feel a little uncomfortable with different styles of learning.

"If you believe this, like I do, then you have got to take some risks and talk about having kids advocate for themselves and you can't just talk about it because they are not really going to improve," Pickens said.

"We need to give them a chance to do it and that is what we have different from most schools, and it does not look a whole lot different when you walk around the building," Pickens said.

"It still looks like a high school, but we just give those students way more opportunity to practice," Pickens said.

As an authoritarian high school principal, Pickens still wants to be a disciplinarian and connect with students.

"I am going to be honest and authentic every time I speak to them," Pickens said.

"I believe 100 percent whole heartedly in our strategic plan and direction, and that is why I am here because I was part of the original committee when we started to look at that and I think and I know we are helping kids be successful later on in life and obtain the skills way better than my high school did," said Pickens.

"I never had a chance to practice those skills in high school because it was really about compliance," he said.

"We act like we know what the future will be and our schools were designed around a fixed future that is no longer reality, and our economic system and our society has different needs and by no fault of its own," Berg said.

Berg said "For us to meet the needs of whatever the future will bring to us, we need to transform the system, and I think we are beginning to do that and give our kids more opportunity to be creative and more opportunities to produce things and more opportunities to leverage their own skills that will serve them when they leave our building regardless of what they do."

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