Why did Innovate Dayton work?

There is one fundamental element that is at the core of learning, which is absolutely necessary in any educational environment. That is trust. It creates the foundation for a learning culture that allows creative freedom and inspires growth.

Innovate Dayton grew out of an initiative first known as the Dayton Experiment — an ongoing experiment spread across an entire school district, fronted by talented, change-making educators. Educators that sought to reimagine what was initially believed as “possible.” And as the initiative grew, the experiment went on to make history in the little town of Dayton.

Innovate Dayton launch on KOIN6 News

Innovate Dayton was launched in 2016. KOIN6 News covered the story and the school district became a talking point in the community and beyond. It was significant that Dayton was installing the first 10-gigabit fiber-optic internet network on the West Coast, in partnership with OnlineNW. This new high broadband network would allow students to collaborate on a digital level like never before, with little to no restriction on their creative output. It was during this time that the internet became a learning tool for every student at Dayton. At the same time, they also began to build an i3 Center at the junior high and high school campus. A massive project which created a space for students to get inspired, innovate, and invent. 

Throughout this four year journey, Dayton has partnered with multiple local businesses and initiatives including OnlineNW, IBM, Lemelson MIT, and Sparkfun Electronics — just to name a few. With this support, innovation started to spread beyond the i3 Center as Dayton began to view it as less of a curriculum, program, or class, but more like a learning culture. And they found opportunities to grow the Innovate mindset in every facet of the school district.

Student speakers at Innovate18

This desire to grow led to the creation of several new independent and agile-based classes such as Design Challenge, Genius Hour, and Independent Marine Biology, that embodied the Innovate vision. And as the vision began to manifest into reality with each passing day, the inspiration spread beyond Dayton School District.

In April of 2018, Principal Jami Fluke invited teachers as well as students from the high school to Innovate18: a conference in partnership with COSA at the Nike Headquarters in Beaverton. There, they introduced Dayton’s agile culture to educators from around the state by showing them what was growing at the school district.

The MIT crew

In June of 2018, Dayton sent fourteen high school students from Dayton to EurekaFest at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, they presented an automated chicken coop project that they had spent months bringing to life. After the team had made their mark as a part of Eurekafest 2018, MIT professors and program leaders were left captivated and inspired. It was special to see a small rural high school like Dayton thrive alongside the best and the brightest from some of the most impressive and accomplished schools in the US.

Jami guiding the insiders-outsiders sharing activity for the Australian educators

In mid-April of 2019, Dayton High School was visited by a delegation of over 20 educators, publishers, journalists, and business leaders from Australia. These educators, who are on an ongoing mission to discover new educational pathways, traveled to the US to tour various different schools and colleges. They chose to come and see Dayton on their tour because they believed that there was something special there. Something they needed to experience for themselves.

And on June 8th, 2019, Dayton graduated 100% of its seniors.

But these great feats were not easily achieved and they did not happen overnight. They came with difficult tasks, decisions, and failures. From the start, Dayton High School and Junior High’s previous principal Jami Fluke taught her school district that when you try something new, you run the risk of failing. But in order to evolve, you must walk into that vulnerability and fail forward.

Her philosophy spread throughout the school district and beyond. But in truth, the Dayton Experiment story is far bigger than the school district or Innovate Dayton. It is a story about the community from which it was built.

Jamie Williams is a parent to her son and daughter, who graduated from Dayton this year. But Jamie says they’d attended many schools before Dayton. “My children had attended eight different schools in three different counties, in two different countries…” One of those schools was an elite international school in Shanghai. But Jamie explained that not one school — regardless of its prestige — was able to mold a valuable educational experience for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.

For years, Jamie struggled to find a positive place that would help her son grow. But educators at Dayton believed in his capabilities. In this long learning process between teacher and student, Jamie’s son made an incredible breakthrough. Notably, educators were able to give him all of the opportunities that were available to every other student, by utilizing the unique nature of their independent research classes to place him in tailored learning environments that worked for him. Because of that dedication, he graduated with a regular diploma, along with the rest of his class: an achievement thought impossible before he attended Dayton.

According to Jamie, “The teachers [at Dayton] were empowered enough to solve [problems] on their own… They embraced the alternatives, which completely changed the course of his life.”

Ember (pictured in the middle) poses with InvenTeam team in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ember Williams (unrelated to Jamie Williams) graduated Dayton this year. During her high school tenure, she was a part of several large-scale innovations projects, including the trip to MIT for Eurekafest 2018. Ember described Innovate as a program that accepts all people’s creativity. “It’s a mindset, yet it’s tangible — almost like you can touch it.” She remarked. Ember reflected on her time as a student at Dayton from start to finish and explained how she hoped that Dayton would move forward for more years to come; “I hope to see resilience. And I want people to know that change is good.”

So why did Innovate Dayton work? Because it was bigger than a program. It was a movement implemented in a school district full of educators from a community where everyone cares about the greater good of one another and the growth of their region. Where people embrace the unordinary and everyone is an advocate. And the initiative was conducted by a leader who knew how to draw her community to her school district.

Although the school district is going through a new transformation following a substantial change in leadership, the Dayton Experiment is not over. Educators have been empowered to grow alongside their students — in success and in failure — through constant cycles of ideating and creating. They’ve built a system of trust. And the history of the journey won’t be forgotten as the school district continues to be a leading model in education.

The world anticipates great things from the Dayton School District and there will be many more stories to tell of it. Lead on, Pirate Nation!

Bevin Schrag Administrator

Bevin Schrag is a writer for Innovate Oregon. While working in social media and marketing at OnlineNW, she is currently studying the arts at Chemeketa Community College, to later become a media designer.