Surrounded by lakes, rolling hills and scenic wilderness, Barbara Walters once described Coeur d’Alene as “a little slice of heaven.” It’s a reputation that makes Dr. Michael Nelson, the Director of Curriculum for the Coeur d’Alene school district, proud.
But it’s not just the topography in Coeur d’Alene that makes it beautiful—Dr. Nelson is quick to explain that the community culture is really what makes it so special. Specifically, the commitment of educators and parents to ensuring that the students in their district are equipped with all the tools and advantages they’ll need to achieve their aspirations.
We talked with Dr. Nelson about Coeur d’Alene’s approach to making their students future ready and how they’re ensuring all students have a path forward for success.
How would you describe your district’s philosophy around future success?
Higher education is a huge part of the Coeur d’Alene culture. We want students to continue learning after high school—whether that be through college or training. We want to ensure they continue and have a pathway to move forward—that it doesn’t end at high school.
I think our commitment to helping students persist shows in our results. For the 2016 class, we had a 88% high school graduation rate. Over 60% of graduates entered college (all institutions) within one year. That’s one of the highest rates in the state—and I think it’s a testament of our community’s commitment to ensure students succeed.
And by community, I mean everyone—it’s a collaborative effort between parents and educators. Everyone in the students’ network is acutely interested in ensuring they’re prepared for the future. We want them to dream big and be equipped to achieve their academic goals. That’s a big undertaking given we’re the 6th largest district in Idaho and so it truly “takes a village” as they say.
Your district achievements and community culture sound amazing! What’s your secret?
Thank-you—but there’s no silver bullet or one specific key to our success. It’s a culmination of things. I do think having the right tools for students and educators to use has been vital.
How did you determine what tools your community needed to help your students get college and career ready?
We started by evaluating what we were currently doing—and whether we thought it was working.
We had been using a paper based system—but it was antiquated to say the least. Students would complete their four year plans, but year-to- year they would get lost. It was difficult for students and teachers to easily reference. Plus, they weren’t able to be changed or adjusted as students gained more experience.
We also had the Idaho Career Information System (CIS). This was good, but it only gave students in-state options. So, for example, if a student wanted to go to med school and become a doctor, they wouldn’t be able to fully explore that option, or the schooling required to get there, because Idaho doesn’t have a medical school. So it was very limiting. It didn’t really let students aspire to more—and in our community it’s really important to show students all options. We want to encourage them to meet their full potential.
Once you realized there might be a better way to help your students and achieve your district goals, what did you do?
We used our Student Information System (SIS) as a jumping off point. Our SIS is Skyward. We started by looking for programs that integrated out of the box with it. Finding a program that automatically connected with our current systems gave us confidence that everything was going to interface well.
From there, we started evaluating our program options. We wanted software that was friendly, engaging and adaptive outside the classroom. Given how important transparency to parents is in our district, we needed something that would give them visibility and help them see what their kids are doing. We wanted to keep parent involvement productive. Finding a solution to get parents, students and educators on the same page, and make communication easier amongst all groups, was key.
Since finding a new solution, what’s been the biggest impact on your teachers?
They’re actually able to know about their students before they even walk into the classroom. Because information is accessible from year to year they have powerful insights about what makes students tick and can make instructional choices accordingly. For example, if a student has indicated they’re interested in motorcycles or cars, our teachers can now tailor a math problem or other curriculum to reference motorcycles. It feels more relevant.
And your students? How have you seen things change for them?
Students are starting to do everything earlier. Because we can start with students as early as middle school, they’re getting a head start on their four year plans. Kids are filling out their four year plans earlier, starting to build resumes earlier and actually starting and actually having more time to establish their plan for success.
They’re also engaging outside the classroom. We have Single Sign-On (SSO), so students can access their accounts anytime. We’re seeing them login outside of school and sharing with their parents.
It’s really helped perpetuate the community commitment to student success.