Living in Beta with Donnie Piercy

Donnie Piercey loves the tech world concept of “living in beta”—a reference to the last phase of testing a new application or program when users try it out in the real world. As a teacher and technology integrator at Eminence (Kentucky) Independent Schools, he’s become accustomed to trying out new approaches to teaching and learning. Eminence is a Kentucky District of Innovation, a designation that exempts Eminence from certain state regulations and encourages innovation in the classroom and beyond. Piercey and several of his students were virtual participants in CTL’s Inventing the Next 20 Years forum in September.

“Innovation doesn’t always necessarily mean the newest technology, application or website,” Piercey says. “New technology doesn’t make (a school or district) innovative. To me it’s more of a mindset—living to see what’s new, what’s next, what’s a new approach, a new use of a tool.”

One example of what Piercey describes as a “big, crazy idea” that he got to try out in the classroom was having his fifth graders learn about multiplication and decimals by playing fantasy football. The students learn to compile data, read spreadsheets and make calculations—and, Piercey says, the kids buy into it and learn, because they, “feel like it’s fun and…something different.” He cites one student who said he liked Eminence because, “A class doesn’t feel like a normal class. It’s more like an experience.”

Last year, several Eminence high school students approached the administration with a proposal to do project based learning—studying and then traveling over spring break to Nicaragua to build latrines and work with villagers, then returning to Kentucky with cultural knowledge they’ll disseminate around the state via an old school bus that they’re turning into a mobile learning lab.

Piercey notes that like other districts, Eminence has to help students prepare for and navigate the waters of standardized testing—but the focus is less on how students do on the tests, and more on where they’ll be when the graduate. Are students college and career ready? “Are we in school to take a…test, or to become better adults?” he asks.

Piercey acknowledges that the compact size of Eminence—just 800 students in Kindergarten through grade 12, all housed in a single building—itself creates a sense of community and collaboration that supports taking chances on new ideas. It’s one of the first school districts in the nation to have one elementary and one high school student, elected by their peers, on the site based decision making council, with real input into curriculum planning and school policies.

But, he says, with support from school leaders and the community, all schools can re-think what schools should be. “That’s the thing that can be copied,” he says. “Always trying to see what’s new, what’s next, what’s out there. Asking those questions and not being afraid to change is something any school should be able to be a part of.”

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