MISSOULA –America’s public education system was once seen as a beacon of American democracy. Most Americans regarded public education with a sense of pride. Decades later, that narrative has shifted. Today, there is rising concern that public education in America is not producing students able to compete in a global economy.
“The impression of many people across the country, including many public policymakers, is that our schools are not challenging students or meeting standards and that teacher education programs are mediocre at best,” said Roberta Evans, dean of the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences. “We have the opportunity to change that national narrative by inspiring teachers and re-engaging students. By investing in the strong potential of our public schools, we are taking a radical approach to reform. And it’s already working in Missoula.”
Three years ago, UM partnered with Missoula County Public Schools in a groundbreaking effort to ensure students graduate from high school with strong critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication and teamwork skills. With major support from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, they launched Schools and Higher Education Advancing Public Education across the P-20 Spectrum (SHAPE P-20), a set of initiatives aimed at creating a 21st century learning environment by transforming the relationship among universities, teachers and student experiences from preschool to the doctoral level.
“SHAPE P-20 delivered on many levels: increasing high school retention and graduation rates, developing family and community investment and engagement with the school district, teaching relevant skills and promoting professional development for teachers,” Evans said. “But, we never foresaw the greatest outcome of all: The powerful partnership that emerged between the university and the schools.”
SHAPE P-20 initially started as a way to connect MCPS teachers with training opportunities and other educational resources on the UM campus, but it was the collaboration between UM and MCPS that became a major game-changer for the participants.
“We are truly better together,” said MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane. “Schools reach students, but often don’t have time for research. Universities already do research, but need access to students, teachers and administrators to show the capabilities of new models of education as well as the vast array of expertise and academic resources available at UM. When we collaborated with UM for SHAPE P-20, we realized the incredible impact we could have together in building an educational environment focused around helping every student succeed.”
This month, thanks to a second $1.5 million grant from the Washington Foundation, the program will take a big step forward. During the next three years, SHAPE 2.0 will harness the momentum of a successful pilot program, expanding the impact of a state-of-the-art education to reach more school districts.
SHAPE 2.0 refines the original initiatives from SHAPE P-20 to focus on programs that incorporate cross-cultural studies and an understanding of global issues; STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math, plus arts integration); early intervention for at-risk toddlers and preschoolers; universal design for learning environments and strategies that are flexible for students’ needs; pioneering digital education; and professional learning communities that allow teachers to investigate and improve teaching practices. These programs place the focus on learning, which empowers students and staff to create a globally competitive learning environment in every MCPS school.
Missoula’s Big Sky High School, for instance, challenges students to employ science and math skills to solve a mystery. Incoming freshmen receive details about a fictional crime and must sift through clues over the course of the school year to crack the case.
“We had to analyze the [crime] scene and look for evidence,” said Big Sky student Bri Canning, who now is a junior. “It was hard. But it was really interesting and engaging.”
The scenario might sound like something out of a kids’ detective series, but it’s all part of the school’s Health Science Academy. From freshman through senior year, students in the academy learn how to explore problems in a hands-on way, through the lens of science and medicine.
Students also shadow professionals at a local hospital and take out-of-state field trips to cutting-edge medical facilities. All of their classes are tied into the health science curriculum. The International Baccalaureate program at Missoula’s Big Sky and Hellgate high schools is another example of an inquiry-based approach to learning. With an IB diploma, students can earn college credit for the work they do in high school and directly engage with campus life.
“These programs have expanded the opportunities for students who are interested in a particular career path to have hands-on, relevant and rigorous experience,” say Big Sky’s Principal Natalie Jaeger. “They take kids out of the defined boxes that courses are traditionally in and encourage interdisciplinary thinking, inquiry, problem-solving and international-mindedness. SHAPE initiatives have really changed our teaching and learning at Big Sky.”
The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation’s support will allow SHAPE 2.0 to offer solutions at multiple stages of a child’s education. Not every child comes into high school is ready for IB or the Health Science Academy – but that could change with early intervention programs. Kindergarten Readiness, a program spearheaded by UM Professor Trent Atkins, develops tools for parents of preschoolers who need help with the basics, from ABCs to sitting still at story time. Those tools can significantly level the playing field, so that by the time kids reach high school, they’re likely to embrace – and succeed in – the same projects as their peers.
SHAPE 2.0 also focuses on the most important component of any classroom: the teacher. UM’s role as a nationally recognized training ground for MCPS teachers means research and cutting-edge techniques are available to educators locally, without having to invest in costly out-of-state training.
“Although everything we do is ultimately for kids, teaching also needs to be fulfilling for educators,” says Trevor Laboski, executive regional director for MCPS. “Those trained in various strategies, programs or approaches don’t just apply their new learning in specific classes. It impacts every student they teach and helps create opportunities for every child to succeed.”
An assessment report in April showed that the number of students served, teachers trained and schools impacted met and often surpassed the goals of SHAPE P-20. But the numbers are only a glimpse into a larger story.
“UM and MCPS have taken the lead in reimagining education,” said Mike Halligan, executive director of the Washington Foundation. “The success of SHAPE P-20 proved that these are not just pie-in-the-sky ideas; they are practical ways to implement reform and impact generations of educators and students to come.”
SHAPE 2.0 is the beginning of a new national narrative. Americans know it's time for a change, and Missoula is leading the way.
“We need to seek avenues of engagement that test our comfort zone,” says Thane. “[SHAPE 2.0] is a way to enhance the relevancy and vibrancy of public education. It’s giving us the opportunity to become recognized as such a leader that ultimately there may be a demand regionally, nationally and internationally for seats in our schools.”