By Robbie Owens

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MANSFIELD (CBS11) – Districts of Innovation.

If you haven’t heard the new education buzz-words yet, chances are you will. The designation was the last legislature’s response to repeated calls for more local control of schools. Earn the designation and you’ll get it.

“You can opt out of class size, you can opt out of some of the attendance requirements, you can out of the minimum number of minutes, you can move your calendar around if you want to,” said Sean Scott, PhD, with Mansfield ISD.

Dr. Scott ushered Mansfield through the process to earn a ‘District of Innovation’ distinction that will last for five years. “You can opt out of just about anything except accountability and finances,” said Scott.

Created out of House Bill 1842, only a couple dozen Texas school districts have taken advantage of the proposal which supporters say hands local schools more flexibility—and opportunity for students.

Mansfield pursued an exemption to the teacher certification requirements to be able to hire industry professionals to teach specific courses. Timothy Sherwood is one of the district’s new hires at the Ben Barber Career Tech Academy.

“No, never thought I’d be a teacher,” admits Sherwood with a wry laugh. “But, the opportunity to come into a school district like Mansfield and help grow this community and give back to the community was something I couldn’t turn down.”

Sherwood, a veteran machinist, was already making good money in a career field desperate for an influx of younger workers. Many in the industry are now approaching retirement age. So, he will learn how to do work plans and classroom management skills on the job–with support from the district.

“With the district of innovation, I got the perfect candidate,” said Ben Barber Principal Catherine Hudgins. “I took him straight out of managing a machine shop, into a classroom where he can bring all of that on-the-job experience here with him.”

Meanwhile, school leaders say Sherwood’s skills will allow them to expand a program that’s being built in direct response to the business community’s needs.

“Our kids are getting multiple job offers as they’re entering graduation from high school,” said Hudgins, “They’re leaving our facility with the ability to start in the industry on day one.”

According to Dr. Scott, a local engineer has also been hired to teach at another of the district’s specialized campuses. He says the District of Innovation designation gives more flexibility to school leaders—who then are looking to turn that into opportunities for the students.

“I was planning on pretty much just working at a pizza place and going to college and trying to become an engineer,” said 17-year-old Noah Lopez. But, now, Lopez says the hands-on experience that he’s getting in the CNC program will help him earn good money while working towards that degree—and might even become a backup career. “I just fell in love with working with that machinery,” said Lopez.

Dr. Scott suspects that the initial response to the legislative offering of more local control was slow while districts watched to see if the program operated as billed. Other North Texas districts having earned the District of Innovation distinction include Canton ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Kaufman ISD, Red Oak ISD, and Terrell ISD.

In order to earn the distinction, local school boards create a committee of stakeholders—including teacher groups and community members. Meetings and proposals are publicized to insure community support for the requested exemptions.

Mansfield has now fielded so many questions from other districts, that they’re planning a “District of Innovation Institute” on November 7. The gathering is intended to answer questions and will include an opportunity for other DOI districts to share their successes with the requested exemptions.

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