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Magna Award Winners: Recognizing Innovation Through Student Engagement

When the National School Boards Association’s annual conference kicks off in Denver this weekend, three school districts will be honored for showcasing remarkable innovations and student engagement strategies.

Though the three districts—Upper St. Clair School District (Pa.), Piscataway Township Schools (N.J.) and Vancouver Public Schools (Wash.)—have vastly different challenges, each focus on inclusion as a vehicle for building community trust, improving student outcomes, and keeping families and students enrolled.

This year’s awards seem especially timely, as school leaders across the country strive to face down competition from charters and other school choice options.

Here’s a quick snapshot of each of this year’s program winners.

Business skills for special-ed students

Upper St. Clair School District in western Pennsylvania engages special education students through its SHOP@USC (Showing How Opportunity Pays at Upper St. Clair) program, a hands-on production and business program

Through a combination of community partnerships and grants, the district created an “innovation hub,” a dedicated physical space equipped with new industrial arts machinery, such as a wide-format printer, a digital printing press, and other resources.

A high school elective course was created for general education students and students with disabilities. The students use the equipment to produce products to market and sell, such as t-shirts and greeting cards.

Superintendent Patrick O’Toole explained the approach in NSBA’s American School Board Journal:

“Our students with significant disabilities had great potential to contribute to our school and our community in a very unique way. And taking risks and being creative has always been a hallmark of our staff, and it’s also in our mission that we have a staff that’s committed to new programs and new ideas.”

The risk paid off. The SHOP@USC initiative has spurred several parents to re-enroll their special education students after previously choosing programs outside the district.

Empowered educators empower students

The Piscataway Township (N.J.) School Board knows it has to innovate to meet the changing needs of students.

In a minority-majority district, where nearly 35 percent of students hail from disadvantaged families, the board sought to empower teachers and administrators to help students overcome poverty and language barriers.

The “You, I, We Inspire” program encourages individual schools and teachers to develop new learning approaches and student engagement strategies to serve every student effectively.

Grants are awarded to teachers who develop effective and inventive instruction programs and each school is given autonomy over instruction.

Educators have the opportunity to experiment, to fail fast, and to rethink their approach.

“We’ve asked our teachers to lean on each other,” Superintendent Teresa Rafferty tells ASBJ. “They can’t be the best unless we provide an environment where they can take risks.”

Bringing community resources to the community

Last year, we profiled Vancouver Public Schools in Washington and its community resource program, which provides food, health services, and even housing help to struggling families.

Since 2014, the district has worked to expand this program by providing a mobile community resource unit to schools that don’t have their own community centers.

For more on Vancouver’s community schools program, read “Blurring the line between schools and communities.”

The goal is to provide students and their families with the supplies they need to help them concentrate on learning while they’re in school.

And the approach is working. Since 2016, the graduation rate has risen by over 15 percent and the district reports that the achievement gap is closing.

What do you think of this year’s Magna winners? What innovative student engagement strategies is your district using? Tell us in the comments.

For more from NSBA’s Annual Conference in Denver, be sure to follow us on Twitter, @K12TrustED.