CompetencyWorks is delighted to share with you a special four-part series based on James Rickabaugh’s Student Focused Learning tour in Springdale, Arkansas. Rickabaugh is the senior advisor at Wisconsin’s Institute for Personalized Learning and the author of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders.
I love visiting schools, talking with students and educators and seeing the power of learning. That’s why a recent visit to the Springdale School District in Springdale, Arkansas, was a special treat. I met wonderful educators and enthusiastic and motivated learners and encountered some innovative, promising ideas and practices worth sharing.
Arkansas has recently taken some important and promising steps forward with the creation of a state Office of Innovation. In 2013, the Office of Innovation for Education was opened to support local education innovation through designation as Districts of Innovation. The Office of Innovation is located at the University of Arkansas, led by Denise Tobin Airola and her team. Springdale was one of the original school districts to apply for and be selected as Districts of Innovation by then Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. In addition, Springdale was awarded a Federal Race to the Top District Grant in 2014 to accelerate its efforts to rethink and redesign learning that is “student focused.” The focus of the grant included beginning to move beyond seat time and traditional credits as measures of learning to focus on competency and supporting students to become more actively engaged in and take greater ownership for their learning, including the launch of student-led conferences.
Springdale has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence and innovation within Arkansas. However, as I learned more about Springdale’s recent history, this culture of innovation became even more obvious and seemed like a model from which others could learn. Just a few decades ago, Springdale was largely a Caucasian community enrolling around 5,000 students. Today, Springdale serves 21,500 students in PK-12. Meanwhile, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of the learner population has become much more diverse. The school district has a majority-minority student enrollment, including 31 percent Caucasian students, 47 percent English Language Learners, 46 languages spoken, and 63 percent free and reduced lunch eligibility. Included among the diverse learners is a comparatively large Marshallese population. (Native to the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese historically were a fishing-based culture until a portion of their country became the site of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s. A subsequent agreement with the U.S. government allows the Marshallese to travel freely between their country and the United States.)
Given such rapid growth, increasing diversity, and expanding socioeconomic challenges, one might expect performance to decline and innovation to disappear. Just the opposite has happened. The performance of the Springdale School District has continued to improve even as these changes have accelerated. Interestingly, the achievement of English Language Learners, culturally diverse learners, and students who come from families in poverty generally appear to share in this improvement. Rather than wait and react, Springdale has relied on innovation and improvement strategies to turn challenges into opportunities.
Superintendent Dr. Jim Rollins has served the Springdale School District since the 1980s and, by all accounts, has been a stabilizing and driving force throughout the growth and change the school district has experienced. Dr. Rollins is known for his mantra, “All means all.” In other words, every learner deserves to succeed, and it is the responsibility of the school district to see that their learning needs are met, even when students’ backgrounds, learning needs, and challenges change over time. Clearly, this is a school district that has understood that the primary adjustment by adults is to share the vision that all students will succeed. Blaming learners for not responding to traditional ways of being taught is not acceptable.
This vision and commitment to learning and innovation was shared by all of the district team leadership with whom I met: Megan Slocum, Kathy Morledge, Marcia Smith, and Kendra Clay. Their message of hope, innovation, and results was inspiring. They described the impact of their work to rethink, reorganize, and reorient the academic curriculum presented to learners; innovative efforts to engage families in support of learners and learning; and efforts to shift instructional practices to become increasingly learner-focused. The ability to create and sustain an innovative district given Springdale’s size and complexity starts with a vision for learning that is clear and deep.
They also shared the journey to launch the Don Tyson School of Innovation in 2014. The school was designed to prepare learners with their futures in mind. Local employers such as Tyson Foods, Walmart, and J.B. Hunt provided significant input relative to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students will need and the range of career opportunities available throughout the region. Under the leadership of Principal Joe Rollins, the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) is off to a very successful start. Future posts will focus on the work underway at the DTSOI.
Across the school district, a shift from teacher-driven instruction to student-focused learning is evolving. The comprehensive high schools are organizing into smaller and more focused academies, and student-led conferences are common practice at each level. Anytime, anywhere learning is becoming increasingly available to students. Interestingly, at Westwood Elementary School, the International Baccalaureate curriculum is being integrated with a personalized, learner-focused approach.
Five Key Takeaways
During the visit, I was struck by numerous comments and examples of learning, leadership, and lasting wisdom. Many of these came from students as well as adults. In future posts, I will discuss these takeaways in greater detail. Here are my top five key takeaways.
#1 Finding Time
Educators face a near constant struggle to find time for learning that is not dictated by the set curriculum. It can seem that every moment must be leveraged to teach and learn what is required of students. Yet, this reality can be avoided if we are willing to think about curriculum and learning through a different lens. Principal Joe Rollins and the staff at the Don Tyson School of Innovation decided to organize their curriculum around the competencies they want students to learn rather than by the subjects they expect students to take. By combining skills and knowledge across traditional subjects and integrating them into learning experiences, they have reduced redundancy in learning and created time for learner-driven, flexible learning opportunities.
#2 Encouraging Learning Risks
We want students to take learning risks, to press themselves beyond what we require of them. Yet, we often neglect to provide the conditions necessary to have students engage in significant risk-taking when it comes to learning. Interviews with students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation made the importance of this delicate balance clear. It may seem counterintuitive that we must first establish relationships on which students can rely to be there when they try and fall short.
#3 A Counter to the “Lost Senior Year”
Many states and school districts are trying to find an answer to persistent loss of engagement as students approach the end of their high school careers. Often referred to as “senior slide” and the “lost senior year,” this phenomenon has students marking time until graduation. High schools and policymakers have considered many different strategies to to fix the problem, such as shortening high school to three years and increasing requirements so that students must stay focused to graduate. However, at the Don Tyson SOI, planning for life beyond high school starts when students enter as eighth graders and builds with each semester as students and families meet with school staff to build learning paths, identify learning experiences, and continually review career options and aspirations. These commitments and plans are integrated throughout the courses students take, the choices they make, and the exposure and experiences they have with professionals, employers, and mentors. The goal is for students at DTSOI to see their senior year as a precious time to better prepare themselves for their next steps into college and careers.
#4 Culture of Innovation is Important to Students
We want students to take ownership for their learning, be motivated, be willing to take learning risks, persist when success does not come immediately, and commit to learning that prepares them for their future. Certainly, there are many processes, practices, and programs we can offer to encourage these conditions, but nothing is more powerful than a culture of learning, innovation, and growth. In a recent conversation with students at the Don Tyson SOI, a school where these conditions appear to be pervasive and intentional, students had much to share about what they valued most in the culture in their school.
#5 The Best Motivation Comes from Within
Educators spend a good portion of their time looking for ways to motivate learners. We know that motivation is the entry point to stimulate and support learning. But maybe we have the challenge out of balance. Rather than spending so much of our time trying to motivate students, maybe we should be focusing on developing the ability of students to be the source of their own motivation. This point was brought home to me in a conversation with students. One of the learners noted that among the most important skills he has learned is how to motivate himself. Rather than waiting for someone to motivate him, he now understands that motivation is his responsibility.
I look forward to sharing more about these and other topics in upcoming posts.