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'Innovation Zones' in Minnesota Focus on Technology, Workforce

The state of Minnesota recently approved the creation of a pair of "innovation zones," designed to allow coalitions of districts to test unconventional ideas. Two groups of school systems have already taken the state up on its offer.

The overall direction of those zones is still in flux, according to the Pioneer-Press, which recently published a story about the zones and their goals.

"It's still unclear exactly what the zones will look like or how much leeway the state will give them," the newspaper explained. "The schools that won tentative approval were the state's only applicants."

Minnesota state lawmakers gave their blessing to launching innovaton zones last year, and the idea was evidently that districts operating within them would benefit from a variety of state regulations. The state's application for innnovation zones describes the goals this way:

To participate in this pilot project to improve student and school outcomes, a group of two or more school districts must collaborate with school staff and receive formal school board approval to form a partnership. The partnership must develop a plan to provide challenging programmatic options for students, create professional development opportunities for educators, increase student engagement and connection and challenging learning opportunities for students, or demonstrate efficiencies in delivering financial and other services
.

Two zones have been established in Minnesota so far. One is a pairing of the Farmington and Spring Lake Park school districts; the second consists of schools in the South-Central Education Consortium, a partnership between five rural districts in southern Minnesota, the Pioneer Press reported. The state legislation allows for three to six innovation zones, and more could be approved if they apply, Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, told Education Week.

Officials in Farmington and Spring Lake say their innovation zone will focus in large part on using new approaches to online education and personalized learning. Both districts have ambitious technology initiatives underway already, the newspaper reported. State officials also sent Education Week a description of the districts' innovation blueprint.

The other innovation zone, made up of districts along the Minnesota-Iowa border, will concentrate on establishing close connections between schools, technical colleges, and the local workforce. Currently, the skills of schools are not meshing with the demands of employers in the area, one superintendent from the South-Central consortium said.

"We've flooded the market with college graduates, and a lot of them have no jobs and huge debt," the superintendent, Jerry Reshetar, told the newspaper. "This isn't working. We need to adapt.

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