Janesville62.4°

Whitewater schools modernizing

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Kayla Bunge
September 5, 2009
— Suzanne Zentner, the new superintendent of the Whitewater School District, has a vision of a learning community—not a school district.

She wants it to foster academic excellence; physical, emotional and social wellness and sustainability.


“We are living in transformative times,” she said. “It’s time for schools to look really, really different than they have. We have to approach our business in a completely different way—especially as we’re forced to do more with less as resources continue to shrink.”


Zentner has been studying the concept of a 21st century learning community for a few years.


“I’ve been on this quest for a long time,” she said.


Her vision is influenced by author and journalist Thomas Friedman, who penned the 2005 book “The World is Flat” exploring the idea of globalization, and Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the leading advocacy organization focused on infusing modern skills into education.


Zentner said the movement is gaining momentum among educational ranks.


“It’s not a fad. It’s not going away,” she said.


The idea is to equip students with hard and soft skills, she said.


Hard skills include critical thinking, problem solving, literacy and numeracy, oral and written communication skills and technological understanding.


Soft skills include initiative, creativity, time management, organization, interpersonal relations and adaptability.


Zentner said the same ideas have been a part of education for a long time, but the focus now is on setting the bar higher.


“We’ve been looking at minimums,” she said. “We talk about minimums when we talk about No child Left Behind. But these conversations (about 21st century learning) are about how we go about setting these minimum bars higher. We’re talking about the top instead of the bottom.”


It’s an experiment, she said.


“There’s no one prescribed way to do this. It’s for Whitewater, by Whitewater. We’re going to build this together.”


The district has taken steps in the two months since she took the reins, including:


-- Establishing relationships with UW-Whitewater and Gateway Technical College to offer classes for students and staff and the community.


-- Planning for classroom exchanges with schools in China, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, among others.


-- Planning to work with the Farm to School program, a national project to bring healthy foods from local farms to local schools; Local Dirt, a private company that connects local sellers, including farms, with local buyers, and Red Barn Family Farms, a Wisconsin company that distributes milk from local producers.


-- Drafting agreements with several fitness centers to offer employees discounted memberships.


-- Working with its health insurance provider, WEA Trust, to create an innovative plan that rewards people for taking care of themselves.


Zentner said the district is just getting started and big changes are on the horizon.


“But it takes a while to lay the foundation,” she said. “I want Whitewater to be the intellectual epicenter of the state—and to be completely progressive and entrepreneurial and to have people look to us for ideas. That’s what I want.”



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