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What does the term “innovation” mean in education? What are innovative programs and practices at the district, school, and classroom level? How can every stakeholder in the education system work to support innovation in schools?

On Monday, educators, students, business representatives, and policymakers gathered at the Watson School of Education at UNC-Wilmington to address making innovation a priority in North Carolina’s schools. In partnership with the conference, EdNC has launched a landing page for innovation where we will chronicle innovative practices across the state.

EdNC’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief Mebane Rash opened the conference by asking attendees to close their eyes and imagine their ideal school. Rash asked:

Was the school designed both with and for its students? Are students seen as the creators of knowledge?

For an example of a school that fits that bill, look no further than the North Phillips School of Innovation. The audience watched EdNC’s short documentary on the school, We Drive It, which chronicles the work of a team of educators and scholars in Edgecombe County to design a radically different school model from the ground up. You can read more about their work here, or watch the documentary below.

Rash continued by urging the audience to apply innovative approaches in addressing the most critical issues facing North Carolina.

And those innovative approaches don’t have to be unheard of, according to Rash. Something as simple as having coffee with a person with a different viewpoint is innovative. 

The conference continued with “Ignite” talks, where four speakers briefly addressed innovative practices and programs taking place in their schools and districts. Julie Pittman, the 2018 Western Regional Teacher of the Year and an educator in Rutherford County, shared how her district is innovating by transcending barriers.

Ben Owens, an Open Way Learning Strategist and former educator in Cherokee County, shared common elements from case studies of innovative practices.

Then, attendees transitioned into an hour-long exhibit experience where they had a chance to visit dozens of booths on innovative practices from across the state.

For many attendees, the core goal of the day was learning and sharing with other attendees to bring best practices in innovation back to their own schools and districts.

Beth Metcalf, executive director for K-12 instructional data support and elementary education in Pender County Schools, said she was most excited about the chance to be inspired.

“Pender County is really excited about innovation right now and we’re in a position to really try some new things and have some forward motion and this is really just the perfect setting to see what’s next for us,” said Metcalf.

Angela Hill, principal at the Capital Encore Academy in Fayetteville, learned about the conference from a random email about innovative ideas. During the conference, she learned about an idea for developing a middle school advisory block.

“Really just getting an idea and someone I can reach out to to change things at my school for my students has been one of the most exiting things I’ve gained today,” said Hill.

Abbey Futrell, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Edgecombe County Schools, said that the core of innovation is really about caring for and catering to the needs of students — something that she said was evident at the conference.

“So, in essence, personalized education so that every student not only gets a little bit of what they want but truly digging down to the essence of what they need,” said Futrell.

The day continued with a lunchtime presentation from the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund NC Teacher of the Year, Freebird McKinney. He spoke about educator culture transformation, something that he and Pittman have been working on. You can read more about their work here

In the afternoon, attendees split into roughly 10 groups, each of which included multiple perspectives (teachers, students, business leaders, etc.). Then, the groups were led through a design thinking process and ultimately developed a pitch for an innovative solution to a particular problem or practice in education. The groups focused on topics ranging from school design to teacher leadership to diversity and equity.

During their pitches, each group presented their issue statement and solution for two minutes, followed by a round of audience voting to select the winner. Following the conference, the winner will be awarded time and space in the UNCW Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s incubator space for help and support bringing these ideas to practice.

Alli Lindenberg for EducationNC

The conference closed with a panel to reflect on action steps. Panelists included Brenda Berg, CEO of Best NC; James Ford, State Board of Education member; Tabari Wallace, NC Wells Fargo 2018 NC Principal of the Year; Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union; and Kayce Smith, a teacher at South Brunswick High School.

Moving forward, EdNC will continue to cover innovative practices across the state — including this piece on the role of a comfort dog at a middle school in Mitchell County and a forthcoming piece on service learning in New Hanover County. Click here to follow along with all of our innovation content, and leave a comment below to share innovative practices from your district, school, or classroom with our team.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is the chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.