Kansas education leaders are in the middle of an Apollo-inspired program to individualize the public school experience for nearly half a million public school students.

The commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education and two members of the Kansas Board of Education are convinced the 10-year initiative woven into the fabric in 67 districts and 165 schools could be viewed as the state's educational equivalent of President John F. Kennedy challenging the nation to plant a foot on the moon.

"We're trying now to create a whole new system of schooling," said Randy Watson, state education commissioner. "We likened that to Kennedy's challenge. It's the hardest work we've ever done."

Watson and state Board of Education members Jim Porter, of Fredonia, and Kathy Busch, of Wichita, told the podcast Capitol Insider that the Kansans Can School Redesign Project was developed to build a better future through individual plans of study based on career interest, kindergarten readiness, social and emotional growth, high school graduation rates and later success at higher education.

"For so many years, we tried to fit kids into the system," said Porter, who was a school superintendent for 34 years and now serves 19 counties on the state board. "No caveats for any student."

 

Busch, who chairs the Kansas Board of Education, said Kansans Can included specific goals, including elevation of the state's high school graduation rate from the current rate of 87.5 percent to an aspirational 95 percent.

She said the educational experience of children had to continue to evolve to make those goals occur. It's about innovation in many areas, expansion of early-childhood education, raising teacher salaries, hiring more social workers, altering the approach to reading instruction, channeling students into programs offering technical training as well as future college degrees.

Woven into this agenda is the necessity to tackle an alarming reality: rising teen suicide.

"It's a multi-faceted problem that's going to take a variety of different ways of how we're going to look at it," Busch said.

Watson, who previously served as superintendent of McPherson schools, said dealing with bullying of kids had become more complex with spread of social media. Instead of a bully demanding a child's lunch money in the hallway, modern bullies turn to anonymous emails along with texting and Facebook to torment their peers.

"It's a problem, especially starting in middle school and the high schools nationwide," he said. "There are no easy solutions. We need to engage parents and acknowledge it's tough."

Porter said another pressing challenge, which crept up on Kansas education officials, was the surge in interest among K-12 students in vaping with electronic devices that vaporizes a liquid containing nicotine and flavoring. It's an alternative to smoking cigarettes, but students have stepped forward to tell education administrators about the addictive nature of vaping.

The state education board has pressed to introduce a program warning students of the downside of vaping and encouraging students to get help.

"I was actually surprised and appalled because I'd retired as a superintendent just four years ago and that wasn't on the radar," Porter said. "Common sense says it has to be detrimental to your health."

Watson said the unprecedented infusion of more than $500 million into the public schools would support higher teacher salaries and hiring of specialized staff to better respond to struggling students.

The investment resulting from bipartisan decisions, and tied to a complex lawsuit, will allow for expansion of early-childhood initiatives and of summer school offerings, the commissioner said.

"I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity, an unprecedented responsibility," Porter added. "We have to make sure the money is spent wisely. I have been very encouraged with what I've seen."