“Are we willing to fight the battles?” asked Dr. Kent Medlin, superintendent, Willard R-2 School District, the keynote speaker Thursday night at the annual “Excellence in Education” banquet hosted by the Neosho R-5 Charitable Foundation.

With the theme, “Neosho R-5 Schools: Our Future,” Medlin discussed the need, and the method, for transforming education from a 19th to a 21st century model. He opened by stating that schools now having fluctuating populations, as half the students in the Willard district were not there 10 years ago.

“It may astound you that maybe Neosho is different than it was 10 years ago, or 15 years ago;” and he continued that if schools don’t recognize and reflect those changes, kids will get behind. Medlin said schools in Southwest Missouri are working, “but there’s new out there. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

Medlin said supporters of education must make our legislators at all levels understand that the best economic driver is a world-class public education system.

“That’s the biggest driver of the economy,” he said. “If we could continue to educate children to higher levels, it will produce results for our communities, states, and across the country.”

Medlin challenged those in attendance to hold our politicians accountable.

“We have to help them understand,” he said.

Explaining that the current 19th century model for education has been squeezed dry, Medlin said we are on the edge of dramatic changes in education, partly through the use of technology and the Internet to create a smaller student-teacher ratio.

“Let me be clear, it will never replace a human being: never!”

However, he said technology will allow students to do searches and gain information from around the world, and learn through videos.

“But the Internet is one piece to the puzzle.”

Medlin said part of the problem to moving away from the 19th century model is that we must let go of an excellent product.

“ ‘This is how we did it,’ is what we must get over,” he said.

Trying to figure out what is a 21st century school will be difficult, and Medlin said mistakes will be made while making dramatic changes in education.

“This kind of change that is going to happen is going to be very dramatic, and excellent school districts like Neosho are going to have growing pains.”

He said school boards and administrations must be willing grind through the long haul to break the education model we have been under for more than 100 years.

Medlin punctuated his presentation with several short videos, one which focused on the premise that, “At every crossroads that leads to the future, tradition sends 10,000 men to protect the past.” He explained that as we meet those crossroads, we need those 10,000 men on the side of change.

“That’s the key, that’s what we have to do,” he said.

Medlin said he can’t make parents take a greater role in their children’s education, but added that is an excuse.

“Teachers can inspire kids, they can’t hold to excuses that they can’t do it because this reason or this reason,” Medlin said. “And honestly, the master teachers are doing it.”

Medlin said kids are going home and doing more research, are going home to find out more “and kids are going home with questions in their mind because their interest was peaked by a master teacher.”

Medlin said student gains are three to five times higher when a teacher believes that what they do has a direct influence and results on kids. He said we must have teachers like that if we are to enact change, and those who don’t believe don’t need to be in the business; or they need help to grow so they do believe. He reiterated that the largest stumbling block to the 21st century “is the successful model, and the excellent use of that 19th century model that we’re doing right now. People are comfortable with this model, and we have to get people to start thinking and opening their minds to something else.”

Medlin said technology will play a prominent role in the future of education. As each child learns at a different pace, he asked, “What would happen if technology could help us zero in on the exact point that a child is at, and then try to help move them forward from that point? And the teacher becomes the facilitator of learning for each one of those kids?”

Medlin explained that is what is done in special education, and he believes such individualized programming is possible for the masses.

“But I believe we’re going to have to figure out ways to get it done,” he said. “We can break down the student-teacher classroom ratio.”

Medlin also challenged the current model of grouping kids together just because of age.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to group people because of ability level?” he asked. “And then the span of instruction the teacher has to deal with is much less.”

Medlin insists it can be done, but we must be smart about it; and he believes the kids can handle it.

“But I’m not sure the parents can handle it and that’s the mountain, that’s the 10,000 men we’re going to meet at the crossroads,” he said.

He said we must get past humiliation and have our children being instructed at the correct level.

Medlin said Willard will experiment next year with flexible-based scheduling to break down age and ability levels to see if they can teach directly to the student’s ability level. “That will be powerful,” he said, because kids love to learn and it will put them in a place where they will be challenged.

He said on-line classes are the way of the future and reiterated that tradition will get in the way, as the excellence of Neosho schools now will prevent people from saying, “We want to try it differently.”

“We’re going to have to ask for more freedom in order to experiment,” Medlin said. “We’re going to have to fail a few times to get to something that is very, very special. But I think we’re on the verge of figuring out what those things are.”

He said the teachers at Willard are so much better now since bringing in new creative teaching feedback. He said we have to turn teachers loose to do this, and we’ll be shocked at what they do.

“The battle is between us,” Medlin said.

He closed by advising the crowd to allow the administration and school board to make mistakes, “And allow them to drive for the future. They’ll find the answers,” he concluded.

In introducing Medlin, Dan Decker, Neosho R-5 superintendent, described the keynote speaker as a forward thinker who understands the approach that it will take to get our kids over the edge, not just locally or in the United States, but globally.

The foundation recognized Clark Funeral Homes owner Fred Clark with the 2014 Distinguished Alumnus Award. Beyond the long list of Clark’s distinguished list of service to the community printed in the program, presenter Rudy Farber said what he thought were important aspects of Fred are his commitments: to the Crowder College Foundation, as a founding member of what he described as one of the most successful community college foundations in the state; to the YMCA, which focuses on spiritual and physical education; and Farber said Clark has been very generous with his support of Teen Challenge of the 4 States, which has had a positive impact on the community.

Presenter Dallas Kelly described the 2014 Distinguished Educator Award winner as a teacher who had a calling. He said Ken Barnes was a 20-year teacher at Neosho Intermediate School and he also spent 10 years as a principal, at Central Elementary.

Kelly said former students say, “Mr. Barnes wanted us to do the best we could.” Kelly called Barnes a risk taker, changing methods in order to get the attention of kids in class.

“He was willing to take a risk and to step out and be a little bit different and kids enjoyed the class,” Kelly said.

Kelly said Barnes also brought his Christian values into the classroom.

Bill Reiboldt, 160 Dist. State Rep., presented both honorees with proclamations denoting their recognition from the Missouri House of Representatives.

Brett Day, R-5 school board president, alerted those in attendance that Neosho schools have implemented Common Core, are beginning the One-to-One Initiative, are working under the new MSIP5 (Missouri School Improvement Plan), and have a new superintendent.

“We have lots of challenges,” said Day. “We will rise to meet those.”

The foundation assists the district to improve educational opportunities for all students. Justin Branham, president, Neosho R-5 Charitable Foundation board of directors, briefed attendees on the new 1842 endowed fund for which several founding partners have provided $10,000 each. Branham said a second stage of fundraising will begin in June. More information on that is forthcoming in the Neosho Daily News.