Category: District Exemplars

Lake County Schools: Designing a Strategy to Bring Personalized Learning to Scale

February 15, 2016 by

Lake CountyThis post is the first in a five-part series on Lake County Schools in Florida.

After the iNACOL Symposium in Orlando, I had a whirlwind visit at Lake County Schools in Florida and an incredibly rich conversation with Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning for Students. I first met Halbig two years ago at the iNACOL pre-conference symposium on competency education. She was just learning about competency education at the time. Two years later, a group of her schools are already in their first year of implementation. This district is moving fast, although one person referred to it as “moving at the speed of trust.”

In this post, I share a bit of background and an overview of the Lake County Schools strategy to transition to a system of personalized learning (including competency education). Each of the profiles of the schools shares insights and takeaways into the process of a medium-sized district making the transition to a competency-based, personalized system. Thanks to the educators at each of the following schools for their generosity in sharing their learning:

We didn’t have time to visit Umatilla High School – I hope to do that when I get back to visit Lake County. Or perhaps if you go to visit Lake County, you might be able to stop by and share how they are proceeding in their transition. (more…)

RSU2: Moving Beyond the Test Score with Hope

January 13, 2016 by

hopeThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the fourth post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned, the second is a look at Richmond Middle and High School, and the third looks at meeting students where they are.

Several times during the day with the RSU2 team, we touched on how important it is to think of what we want for students beyond test scores. Zima emphasized that he wants the students at RSU2 to be filled with hope – to have the skills they need to change their own environments and shape their futures. He referred to a video of Brandon Busteed, Education Director of Gallup, as he spoke before an Iowa Business Summit to Drive Education Reform. Busteed’s argument is that we are aiming at the wrong things in education. Our focus is all on academic test scores when the more important focus should be on building hope and engagement within the long-term goal of building well-being. (more…)

RSU2: Moving Beyond Grade-Driven Learning

January 11, 2016 by

Learning ChildThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the third post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned and the second is a look at Richmond Middle and High School

One of the topics that came up over and over again during my conversation with the RSU2 team is how to address the needs of students who aren’t at grade level. It’s a huge topic wherever I go because the majority of districts converting to competency education are still trying to teach students grade-level standards even when they know the students don’t have prerequisite knowledge. Yes, there is much more effort to provide additional support, there is lots of scaffolding, and they are working hard to create elective courses in high schools to build foundational knowledge. But the problem seems to be that we can’t shake off the idea that we should be teaching students the standards at their grade level rather than personalizing education so they have the opportunity to build the foundational skills (and fluency) they will need to be successful.

Meeting Students Where They Are

In our conversations, RSU2 leaders described how converting to measurement topics and learning targets has been very effective in helping students who have the prerequisite knowledge to learn the skills. However, in hindsight, they found that it would have been wiser to build the capacity to use the system of topics and targets to support students where they were in their own learning progression. Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond Middle and High School, explained, “Ideally, we would have shifted our perspectives to look at the continuum of learning rather than continue to have measurable learning objectives structured within grade bands. Everyone has some holes in their learning, even the valedictorian, but when students do not have prerequisite skills or have significant gaps in their learning, it creates tremendous pressure on the teachers and the students. We need to know where are the kids on our continuum of learning.”

One person used the example of the “fraction chasm” where more than 50 percent of the fourth and fifth grade math standards are about fractions. In sixth grade, working with fractions continues as students learn to apply them. When students start to tackle algebra, they will once again be drawing on their understanding of fractions. If students aren’t fluent in fractions, it is going to impact their learning into secondary school. Yet, the traditional practice of teaching a grade-level curriculum prevails.

This is super important – if we always teach at grade level standards, how do we find out where students really are on their learning progression? If we don’t know what they know and don’t know, how do we help them learn it? Most of the standards-based grading information systems don’t help us with this – they tell us how students are progressing in the standards at the grade level or in the course but not where students are, inform us about what skills they have (and don’t have), and help schools plan how to make sure students have the prerequisite skills. So a question for all districts converting to proficiency-based learning is, “How will you know what skills students have and how will you track their progress?”

John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology, explained, “There are many implications to consider in how a school creates the architecture of the measurement topics and learning targets. One of the things to think about is how it will support students who do not have the foundational knowledge for the age-based curriculum.”

So the question now becomes, What would this look like? (more…)

RSU2: Continuous Improvement at Richmond Middle and High School

January 7, 2016 by

pumpkinThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the second post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned.

During my visit to RSU, we stopped off at Richmond Middle and High School. It was a glorious fall day, perfect for the middle school students to do a bit of pumpkin pitching with the catapults to culminate their study of Newton’s Laws and simple machines.

Richmond serves 260 students in grades sixth through twelfth, of which 40 percent are FRL. The size of the school means each academic department is approximately two people. This allows for ease in collaboration. For example, ELA and social studies are starting to explore how they can be integrated.

As we stood out on the field watching pumpkins soaring over our heads, Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond, emphasized that the induction process is vital to the success of the school. In the summer, he brings new hires together for a full day to talk about the philosophy of personalized, proficiency-based learning. During the school year, he meets with the new teachers every other Wednesday. Lavoie explained, “I bring an agenda item and the new teachers bring agenda items that feel pressing to them. We look at issues in the context of their work. As they become comfortable with work in a proficiency-based school, we begin to have meetings as needed.” When there is only one new teacher, other teachers join in this process so the new teachers always have a cohort of support.

Lavoie has noticed that students are talking more about their GPA and going to college. “The conversation about what it means to be academically successful has lifted the expectations that students hold for themselves.” At some schools I’ve visited, the competitiveness surrounding the GPA has created an environment in which students want to re-assess to get higher scores. Lavoie explained that hasn’t been a problem at Richmond. “We stay focused on helping students reach proficiency and always do their best. Students can go back and finish things they didn’t get done. They can go back to things they didn’t learn well to strengthen their skills. But wanting to increase the scores on the GPA is not a reason for re-assessments. We want them to do their personal best the first time around.”

Like many competency-based schools, Richmond has moved from an honors track to honors performance. Any students with 3.75 are designated as honors. Lavoie emphasized, “We want to reward students for performance.” Another example is that if a student in an AP course gets a 3.25 in class and a 4 on the AP test, their final performance score will be a 4.

In an exciting new partnership, University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI) is sending new teachers to Richmond to understand the personalized, proficiency-based system. Seven student teachers visited RSU2 in the fall. The first day was focused on gaining an overall perspective on proficiency-based learning; the second day, teachers were fully immersed in the classroom. The partnership is also opening up experiences for students, as well. Last year, thirteen students took an online course offered by UMPI. College-going confidence skyrocketed when students realized they were doing as well or better than some of the college students. (more…)

RSU2: Entering a New Stage in Building a High Quality Proficiency-Based District

January 5, 2016 by

poss pic for rsu2_oneThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the first post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. 

RSU2 is a district that has been staying the course, even through two superintendent changes (Don Siviski is now at Center for Center for Secondary School Redesign; Virgel Hammonds is now at KnowledgeWorks; and Bill Zima, previously the principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School, is now the superintendent). This says a lot about the school board’s commitment to having each and every student be prepared for college and careers. If we had a CompetencyWorks award for school board leadership, RSU2 would definitely get one.

Given that they are one of the districts with the most experience with competency education (Chugach has the most experience, followed by Lindsay), my visit to RSU2 was much more focused on conversations with the district leadership team, principals, and teachers rather than classroom visits. My objective in visiting RSU2 was to reflect with them upon their lessons learned.

It takes a load of leadership and extra effort to transform a traditional district to personalized, proficiency-based learning. It’s a steep learning curve to tackle – growth mindset, learning to design and manage personalized classrooms, learning how to enable and support students as they build habits of work and agency, designing and aligning instruction and assessment around measurable objectives and learning targets, calibration and assessment literacy, organizing schedules so teachers have time for working together and to provide just-in-time support to students, building up instructional skills, new grading policies, new information management systems to track progress – and districts have to help every teacher make the transition. I wanted to find out what they might have done differently, what has been particularly challenging, and what they see as their next steps.

I began my day at RSU2 in Maine with a conversation with Zima (a frequent contributor to CompetencyWorks); principals from all nine schools; Matt Shea, Coordinator of Student Achievement; and John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology. I opened the conversation with the question, “What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?”

Tips for Implementation

Armentrout summarized a number of insights about implementation: (more…)

Charleston, South Carolina: Balancing Competency Education with Student-Centered Culture

November 17, 2015 by

CCSDI’m on my way to Charleston School District in South Carolina today after great site visits to Lake County in Florida and Red Bank Elementary in Lexington, SC. I can’t tell you how excited I am to see competency education growing with a deep grounding in personalized learning and student agency. After I finish getting everything I learned in Maine and Philly written up, I’ll be sharing everything about this trip through the Southeast.

However, I just have to share Charleston’s description of personalized learning right now because it is so strong. For those who work in the online learning world, I hope that you will think about this carefully because when a school embraces this philosophy, online learning can be easily integrated as a powerful tool to support personalized learning, but not as the source of personalized learning itself.

Personalized Learning in Charleston County School District is built upon the concepts of Competency-Based Instruction and a Self-Directed Learning environment.

EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY

Competency-Based Instruction

  • Students have an effective teacher who meets them where they are, fills their learning gaps and accelerates learning
  • Data, rather than seat time, is used to determine when a student is ready to move to the next concept
  • Students work with their teacher to revisit standards that haven’t been mastered
  • Students produce evidence of learning to determine proficiency
  • Learning is transparent for all students. They know what they have learned, what they are currently learning and what they will learn next
  • Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation
  • Frequent formative assessments drive instruction; summative assessments are given when a student is ready
  • Focus is on student learning, not on test scores or grades
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support and feedback based on their individual learning needs and formative data

STUDENT-CENTERED CULTURE

(more…)

Innovation Springing Up in Springdale

September 28, 2015 by
Dr-Megan-Witonski

Dr. Megan Witonski

When you talk to Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District (AR), it feels like she is just about to jump out of the phone, she is that full of passion, insightfulness, and the all-important we-are-going-to-make-this-happen-ness. I couldn’t but help imagine her with a superhero cloak.

Springdale, based in Northwest Arkansas, has 23,000 students, half of whom are English Language Learners. The district is entering their second year of implementation of a new 8-12 School of Innovation. The strategy doesn’t end with a new school – Springdale is personalizing their school district by having six of their schools approved (and the waivers that come with it) under the Arkansas Department of Education School of Innovation initiative. These six schools all provide students to the School of Innovation, led by principal Joe Rollins.

We’ve all seen districts start up new innovative schools but leave the others to stagnate. Not so at Springdale. For example, they found that advisories have been instrumental in the new School for Innovation in lifting up student voice, ensuring strong relationships are built with students, and helping to personalize instruction and support so they can be confident students are learning. As a result, they’ve already introduced advisories into the other middle and high schools.

What Inspired Springdale to Personalize: Witonski explained that there were several forces at work leading them to personalization. First, they wanted to make sure they were fully preparing their students for life after high school. They wanted to reach beyond the basic requirements for graduation. Second, with half of their student body learning English and needing help to fully build up their strength in the academic use of English, they needed a model that would ensure every student was fully engaged and able to get the support he or she needed.

Witonski said, “We were doing a great job for most students, but there is a population we need to seek out new approaches to reach and help build a wider set of skills. We began by looking at the most important ingredients for what students needed to be ready for college and careers. We wanted to make sure they had all the tools in their toolbelt to be successful. From there, we looked at what a structure could look like that would help them build those skills.” (more…)

A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

September 21, 2015 by

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them. (more…)

Fulton County Schools Completes “Back Room” Infrastructure to Enhance Technology in Classrooms

June 17, 2015 by
Fulton County Schools

From the Fulton County Schools Website

Leading with learning instead of technology is a recipe for success, as exemplified by metro Atlanta district Fulton County Schools. With 99 schools and 95,000 students, the district has made a point of starting with infrastructure and following with the right technology to support its goal of personalized learning. “We always want to use tried and true technology in innovative ways,” says Serena Sacks, Chief Information Officer. “We don’t want to worry about whether the technology works– we just want to use it better.” Investing in a bunch of iPads can be exciting, but Fulton had the foresight to first ask what infrastructure is required for devices to work properly, and instead invest in that process. “We started with the classroom first, asking, ‘What type of experience do we want to create for students?’” says Dr. Scott Muri, Head of Academics. Fulton envisioned a personalized learning environment where students could access multiple types of media and multiple devices simultaneously, which would require a very robust network and the implementation of many new wireless access points. After speaking with technology consultants about the realistic requirements of building such a system, the district formulated a ‘backwards design’ plan, which included laying new overhead cables and upgrading the hardware closets in schools with new switches.

With the help of Layer 3 Communications, an Atlanta-based company that designs network infrastructures for schools and offices, Fulton began building a complex infrastructure in 2003 that was recently overhauled. Now, the network can support two devices per student accessing a network simultaneously. In addition to strengthening networks, Fulton’s schools doubled the number of Aruba access points to almost two per classroom, and added much denser wireless coverage in common areas such as media centers and cafeterias. They also increased bandwidth from 1GB to 2GB, and installed new Brocade network cables and switches in the computer room with the capacity to expand bandwidth to 10GB in the future. These infrastructure upgrades cost about $18 million, part of Fulton Schools’ $189 million technology upgrade budget funded by Fulton County’s SPLOST 1% tax. (more…)

Colorado Takes Another Step Forward with a New School in Denver

March 19, 2015 by
Happy Haynes

Happy Haynes, DPS Board President

Colorado is an interesting state to watch as it takes steps – both big and little – toward competency education. Home to Adams 50, the courageous district that moved forward because they knew that there had to be something better for their students, it’s one of the only states to have established a policy for a proficiency-based diploma – by the start of the 2015 school year, every district in the state must pass guidelines so that by 2021 students will meet or exceed minimum thresholds for college and career readiness. These guidelines will “signal proof of competency … rather than merely completion of seat‐time requirements.” (Read more about the graduation guidelines here.) To support this ambitious work, the CO Department of Education has a study group on competency education, including a site visit to Lindsay Unified.

Now Denver Public Schools is taking a step forward with a new competency-based high school. (more…)

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