On a rainy Wednesday morning that marked the first day of school across the Flathead Valley, school administrators, teachers, lawmakers and local business owners gathered at Kalispell Volkswagen to celebrate the expansion of work-based learning and “transformational education” in the Kalispell Public Schools (KPS).
“The vision is to ensure that our hardworking kids have the opportunity to build a life right here in Montana, and we know right now that’s an enormous challenge,” Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, a state lawmaker who supported a number of individualized learning bills during the 2023 Montana legislative session, said.
Sprunger highlighted new education laws that expand the ability of school districts to individualize students’ learning through targeted reading interventions, off-site internship programs and other hands-on opportunities, and tied the new legislation to the “transformational education” initiative that has become a hallmark of KPS’ educational strategy.
Transformational education, a program brought to fruition under the tenure of former KPS Superintendent Micah Hill, seeks to measure student proficiency on a more flexible scale and allow learning to occur outside of the classroom. The initiative has taken the form of internships, as well as field trips for elementary school students, partnerships with Flathead Valley Community College and increased flexibility in course options and graduation requirements.
“We are so excited about things that are happening in the Kalispell Public Schools,” Assistant Superintendent Peter Fusaro said. “Transformational learning is: how do we make teaching and learning more enjoyable, not only for our staff, but for our students?”
At the crux of transformational education is the district’s hands-on internship program, which allows students to gain experience in the field while receiving credit that goes towards graduation.
“When I took geometry, it was a foreign language to me, but when I went out and started pounding nails, I was like, ‘Hey, this actually makes sense to me,’” Fusaro said, discussing the wide range of work-based learning options available to students.
Wyatt Huie, a student at Linderman Education Center who has participated in two consecutive internships at local car dealerships, said that the work-based learning program allowed him to explore a “passion for cars” that he hopes to carry into his career. Huie said that his interest in fixing cars started as a kid as he spent time with his uncle who worked at Les Schwab, and has only grown through his two internships. When he graduates in January, he will be the first member of his family to finish high school “the first time around.”
“I want to learn with cars because it’s just the biggest joy for me,” Huie said. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of learning.”
Travis Warner, used car reconditioning director at Kalispell Volkswagen and Huie’s former supervisor, said that the internship program is critical not only for students looking to explore trades, but for employers looking to hire qualified and well-trained employees right out of high school.
“In the auto industry, we are short of technicians,” Warner said. “To have Wyatt tell me he wants to be a master tech, I’ve just hired [him] for five years down the road.”
Leif Simonson, a Flathead High School student, spoke about his internship at Glacier Jet Center, and Emmery Schmidt, a Glacier High School student, spoke about her experience interning in the classroom at local early childhood education centers and elementary schools.
Sprunger said that expanding career and technical education was one of the issues most important to her Kalispell constituents during her run for office.
“The unifying topic was career and technical education, technology, manufacturing, the trades,” she said. “It’s been exciting to have been a part of helping to deliver on that promise.”
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