What do an ostrich attempting to fly and the Rapid City Area School District have in common? 

According to Superintendent Lori Simon, more than you'd think. 

During a presentation to approximately 1,800 school district employees on Friday, Simon showed a video of an ostrich in the wilds of (presumably) Africa wearing a virtual reality headset simulating flight. The ostrich, after multiple failed attempts and mostly bewildered reactions from its feathered fellows, finally achieves its dream and ascends into the clouds.

It's actually an advertisement from Samsung, with the catchphrase: "Do What You Can't." But Simon said the message happens to fit nicely with the school district's new strategic plan.

"I saw risk-taking, failure, picking yourself back up again, and trying something new and innovative — and succeeding," she said. "And most importantly, I saw striving for goals and for excellence, and trying things and accomplishing things that people say cannot be done."

The district's new five-year comprehensive strategic plan was unveiled to a packed house of district employees at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Theater during a "district opener" event before the 2017-18 school year kicks off next week. The goals represent a broad swath of priorities, from improving student literacy, to better preparing students for college and the workplace, to creating a long-term plan for the district's facilities.

Attendees on Friday also heard from representatives of the Rapid City Education Association, Rapid City Public School Foundation, and at the end were "fired up" by the Rapid City Central and Stevens high school drumlines and cheerleaders.

But the bulk of the two-hour event was spent on outlining the strategic plan's five goals, each listed with a rationale and set of priorities. Those goals are: Reading by third grade; 21st-century learning; college, career and life readiness; teaching and learning; and partnerships. 

Greg Gaden, director of special services, and Valerie Seales, director of teaching, learning and innovation, spoke about the first goal, which aims to improve student literacy. Specifically, the goal is for all students in the district to be proficient readers by the end of third grade.

It's an important benchmark, Seales and Gaden said, because 75 percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up. The plan describes third grade as the "crucial" year when students move beyond "learning to read to reading to learn."

"We know that early learning begets later learning, and that success breeds success. We also know that the longer we wait to intervene when there is a deficiency or a deficit in learning, the more costly and time-consuming that intervention becomes," Seales said.

Gaden said the plan's priorities include an increased focus on phonics and bulking up students' vocabulary, as well as early identification and intervention for students. He also referenced working with community partners to get students reading as soon as possible.

"We need to start when children are born, teaching reading, so when they get to the third grade, they reach that goal," Gaden said.

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Similarly, for each subsequent item, Simon introduced various district officials to speak about the purpose of the goal and give broad insight into its implementation. Videos were often used to show how a goal or idea has been used in other school districts across the country, from middle school "Iron Chef" cooking competitions to eighth-grade college career fairs.

One showed a young girl who taught herself dubstep dancing by watching YouTube videos, an illustration of how a new generation learns via technology. 

"Are we going to deny our students these tools and the opportunity to learn this way, just because we’re tied to a 20th-century system of learning?" she asked. 

Simon, in her second year as superintendent, said last year she sought feedback to get a sense of the school system's strengths and weaknesses. Through that process, Simon said, district employees advocated strongly for a clear mission and vision statement for the district. 

She and the other officials who spoke Friday said this year's strategic plan fills that need while building on last year's goals to "create a culture of excellence." That includes the school's new logo and tagline to "Inspire. Innovate. Excel." also unveiled Friday, along with the district's new vision and mission statements. 

"We are creating the road map for our future," Simon said. And while developing the plan took many hours of work, turning it into a reality will take even more. "Now the real work begins, because now it's time for action."

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Metro/Digital Editor

Metro (assignment)/digital editor for the Rapid City Journal.