A Journey to Understand and Implement Personalized Learning

Several years ago, I was selected by the Lexington Institute for their initial leadership cohort, which focused on the implementation of personalized learning.  It was a tremendous honor and a great learning experience for me. It is where I first met Anthony Kim and became aware of Educational Elements. Over the next year, myself and a team of colleagues were involved in a series of phone conversations with district’s from around the country and ultimately visited with other Lexington Institute Fellows in Juab, Utah.  While the district team I led was well into its journey towards personalized learning for all students, this experience extended our thinking and mastery on the best ways to transform learning.

Ed Elements played a critical role in my learning and in our district’s continued evolution to implement personalized learning approaches.  What I learned from Ed Elements nurtured our leadership team as we clarified a clear definition of personalized learning that aligned with our strategic plan. Westside’s definition is:

Personalized learning is an instructional approach designed to nurture learners to discover and broaden the ways in which they learn best so that they may become independent learners committed to learning by encouraging student choice, voice, and interests to master the highest standards possible in a relational environment.

Moving forward, my colleagues and I identified five elements needed to personalize learning. Through conversations with other Lexington Institute Fellows, we clarified our thinking that, for teachers to implement a customized or personalized approach in their classrooms, different combinations of these “Elements” were essential. I spoke with educators from across the country to better understand how they used these components. I also sought insights from those in the field to understand how important these elements were to personalizing learning. I learned that in a typical classroom, teachers used these elements in combinations depending on the needs of their students.  The five elements we identified are:

  1. Knowing your students
  2. Allowing voice and choice
  3. Implementing flexibility
  4. Using Data
  5. Integrating technology

These five elements have become the foundation for our work around Personalized Learning.  In any change process, having a common vocabulary and vision for what is being expected is a critical aspect to success.  Following is an overview of each of the five elements:

Knowing your students is the cornerstone for teachers to build relationships needed to personalize learning. I learned from my own success as a classroom teacher and implementing the Reis and Renzulli (1997) Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) that getting to know your students is critical. Additionally, by leading Professional Learning Communities (PLC) developed by Dufour and Eaker (1998), we understood that to answer the four critical questions of a PLC at work, a collaborative team needed to know their students and know them well.

Providing opportunities for student voice and choice within the classroom is the most critical element to engage and develop independent learners.  Voice and choice that allows students to drive their own learning and make instructional decisions is fun to watch. Yes, it must be aligned with standards and benchmarks but, when done properly, students demonstrate an ownership not seen in traditional classrooms. In fact, a teacher told me that after providing for voice and choice in her classroom, a parent told her this was “the best year my child ever had in elementary school.”

Flexibility within the classroom allows teachers to group students in multiple ways and to use classroom space in ways not imagined just a few years ago.  However, developing flexible mindsets is the most important aspect of this element. Dweck (2006) points out that students who have a growth mindset will have greater student agency and efficacy leading toward independence.  A teacher in Ohio told me that her eighth grade students “grew in confidence” when allowed to extend their learning. Her thinking around academic deadlines for students  became flexible and was based on when they mastered the standard demonstrating their best work.

The use of data is important for teachers to make real time decisions when personalizing learning. By tracking both formative and summative assessments, teachers are able to make personalized instructional decisions that influence all other elements. A teacher outside of Kansas City, Missouri told me that she was able to extend the learning of her students because, with technology, she “can more easily differentiate her classroom activities.”

By integrating technology into our classrooms, teachers have a tool that they may use when appropriate to customize learning for all.  The technology is certainly helpful, but it is the teacher who integrates these elements into a coherent manner to a personalized learning environment for all students. I am fortunate to work in a district that implemented a 1:1 learning initiative, with the support of the community, to place a device in the hands of all students – kindergarten through grade 12. Consequently, staff are able to integrate technology and personalize learning by using specific applications that meet each students’ needs.

Our journey into personalized learning was driven by the connections we saw as we worked with faculty and staff to implement this approach for all of our students.  We also noticed how personalized learning fit well with gifted education strategies such as SEM. From our friends at the Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development, we gleaned five key gifted teaching strategies that teachers can use when extending learning for all students. Those strategies are:

  1. Curriculum Compacting
  2. Flexible Grouping
  3. Tiered Assignments
  4. Product Choice
  5. Multilevel Learning Stations

These strategies all have connections to the five elements of personalized learning. Additionally, they are great tools for teams who struggle with knowing what to do for students who already understand the material being taught in class. This concept, which is identified as question four of a Professional Learning Community, is one that is often forgotten by collaborative teams. Many times, this question is forgotten because teams aren’t quite certain what they are supposed to do.  We have found that teams who are grounded in the concepts of personalized learning and use the five most effective gifted education teaching strategies in their classrooms are successful in meeting the needs of all of their students. It became clear to our team that, by using PLC collaborative teams, it was easier to scale a personalized learning approach for all students. Teachers were able to see where the philosophy and strategies fit into their daily work.

We now see faculty and staff incorporating the five elements and five key strategies into their lessons that not only extend learning for students who have mastered a subject, but that also offer support for students who may have fallen behind their classroom peers. The elements apply to all students, whether they are gifted, struggling, or making progress as they should.  We believe that we can change the trajectory of every student when we view them through the lens of the five elements to personalized learning.

Blane K. McCann Ph.D. is currently the superintendent with Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Nebraska.  His most recent work is the book When They Already Know It: How to Extend and Personalize Learning in a PLC at Work, published by Solution Tree, Bloomington, Indiana.



  • Dufour, R. Eaker, R., (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work. Solution Tree. Bloomington Indiana.
  • Dweck, C.S., (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House
  • Reis, S.M., Renzulli J.S., (1997) Schoolwide Enrichment Model: A How-to-Guide for Educational Excellence. Prufrock Press Inc. Waco, TX


Defining Success

Recently, I reread Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) and I was struck by how he viewed success in the United States.  We forget that much of individual success is built on hard work, with a focus on what we enjoy doing. We see successful people and call them lucky. Gladwell explains that many factors go into becoming a successful person, and Gladwell’s various stories and theories about success impacted me as an educator. In fact, it made me reflect deeply about how schools could increase the access and provide additional opportunities for all students to begin their work toward becoming an expert in an area of strength, talent, or interest.

One of our talented trades students at Westside High School

As educators, we can and should play a role in supporting students and their success.

Yes, talent, commitment, hard work, opportunity, and when you are born does make a difference. My father was born in 1920.  As it turned out, we all know where young men born at that time were in 1941-1945. They were fighting World War II. Gladwell also provides examples of successful hockey and baseball players who are given better opportunities to grow, along with access to better coaching, partly because of when they were born.

Photo courtesy Siena Gailloux for Westside Wired

Additionally, the titans of Silicon Valley were born in 1954-1955.  The examples of Bill Joy and Bill Gates show that they were afforded opportunities to try new things and to learn from failure:  Bill Joy at the University of Michigan and Bill Gates at his private school in Seattle. They explored and spent time learning how to code and try out their theories in ways that other young bright people were not able to do at that time.  Fortunately for them, they were living at a time and working in areas where they could spend hours on a computer due to time-sharing capabilities found in Ann Arbor and Seattle. Granted, they also worked very hard and learned from failure. But more importantly, they began to accumulate the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in an area of interest that became a passion.

While Bill Gates and Bill Joy enjoyed opportunities to grow and to develop their talents, many of our students do not. As public educators, we understand that many minorities and disadvantaged students, due to underachieving schools, uninspiring teaching, and poor financial circumstances, do not have access nor are they provided opportunity to begin the necessary work toward becoming an expert.  I recently read an article by Renzulli and Brandon (2017) that outlined an approach to solving the under-representation of minorities and low income students in gifted and enrichment programs found in America’s public schools. It is critical to identify and instruct all students in ways that reveal their potential to their teachers and, more importantly, to themselves. We cannot wait until they are graduates before starting to work on the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert.

Learners at Westbrook Elementary

Much like Sir Kenneth Robinson (2009) states in his book The Element, understanding that you have a talent and an aptitude for something leads to success. It is not just luck or when you were born; all generations have unique opportunities.  However, having access and opportunity to nurture that talent and aptitude is just as important to possessing that innate talent and turning it into a strength. In our school district, we use the Gallup Explorer with our learners so they may begin, at an early age, to understand themselves and turn their talents into strengths, taking advantage of the opportunities that may come along in their lifetimes.

Award-winning educator Kristeen Shabram mentoring Westside STEM students at Nebraska GeoCyber Camp

I have learned through my experience as a superintendent and as an elementary and middle school principal that programs such as the Renzulli and Reis (1997) Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) and Renzulli’s (2001) Academies of Inquiry and Talent Development (AITD) are essential for our youngest learners to begin their journey of becoming an expert.  

I implemented both approaches in schools where I served as principal and superintendent.  As the principal of John Bullen Middle School, I observed increases in attendance, positive behavior and, most importantly, student achievement. In fact, the cohort of African American students that transition to Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin saw the highest ACT scores among black students that school had seen in many years.  

Why? We changed the mindset of those students by identifying them for gifted and enrichment programs and activities.  Our faculty recognized our learners’ many talents and high potential and then nurtured students through SEM and AITD programs.  These students realized that they could aspire to college, community college, or earn certifications that put them on a positive pathway to a career.  They had begun the accumulation of 10,000 hours and felt very good about where they were heading. My most vivid memory is about a sixth grade student who became the “school meteorologist.”  His focus and dedication to the field he loved led to a college degree in this area and he is now an associate researcher working on weather satellite systems at the University of Wisconsin.

KETV Chief Meteorologist Bill Randy teaching Oakdale Elementary students about weather through science

Today, at Westside Community Schools we extend learning for many students through internships, dual credit opportunities, and our Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS)  in the areas of Information Technology, STEM education, and health sciences, creating opportunities for students to work closely with Omaha businesses.

I see the value of personalized learning for all students through the implementation of SEM and AITD. My colleagues and I see a relationship between personalized learning and gifted education. Working with Joe Renzulli, we continue to expand our definition of gifted and talented identification. In our district, we also talk about students with high potential so that we can provide access to robust academic programming and opportunities to become an expert.

I am able to connect personalized learning, gifted education, and  the PLC movement by using gifted strategies to extend learning for all students. While this includes identified gifted students, a teacher is able to serve many more students who demonstrate task commitment, creativity, and high potential.  By knowing our students well, we gain a better understanding of what they enjoy learning about and we help them to do their best work on a daily basis. It helps teachers to nurture their strengths, talents and interests.

In my experience, SEM and AITD are the springboards for a school district to extend and personalize learning for all students and to combat the under-representation of underprivileged children who are often overlooked for gifted and enrichment programs. It is time to fully see all students and their individual talents so we may support them in their journey toward expert status.  We do not want to miss the next generation of people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy.


Honoring A Hero Through Kindness

As Americans prepared to head to the polls for the 2008 Presidential Election, both candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, held town halls across the country. At one campaign event, a woman told Senator McCain, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not — he’s an Arab.” Senator McCain shook his head, took the microphone from that woman and responded, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” John McCain lived his values and beliefs not to campaign negatively, but to maintain a discourse that was respectful and focused on the key issues of the presidential campaign. Click here to watch more.

Photo courtesy CNN

Senator McCain died August 25th, and President Obama was one of the many, on both sides of aisle, who shared respectful tributes to this American hero, patriot, and kind human being. John McCain exemplified that, while we can choose to be anything in this life, we can all choose to be kind. As I listened to the many comments made about Senator McCain, I was struck both by his kindness and his gratitude; his grace in facing a terminal diagnosis and speaking about how grateful he was for his life; the many opportunities he was afforded to serve his country and to meet his fellow Americans along the way; and to build a family, all in the greatest country in the world. Yes, Senator McCain could disagree and he could argue with his colleagues, but he maintained a certain decorum, a certain respect.  My father taught all four of his children that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity no matter how we might be treated. I have kept that lesson close to me throughout my life.

Earlier this month, the #BeKind campaign kicked off at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. #BeKind is our theme this year, not just at Westside Community Schools, but at dozens of school districts across the state of Nebraska. In addition, local government officials, including boards of education, city governments and mayors, and many statewide educational organizations, passed and signed resolutions to support our #BeKind initiative.

We are already seeing powerful displays of goodwill, generosity and love from our students, staff members, and community. Public education is not solely about facts and classroom lessons; we want to nurture and teach our learners to use their talents and strengths as they grow and mature into the best people they can be, in all facets of their lives. #BeKind isn’t just a slogan, it’s a movement that is constantly reminding all of us to be better – to others and to ourselves – to make our world a better place.


Senator McCain is remembered for many things: as a courageous prisoner of war; as a maverick leader who always fought for the person who needed his help; for his strong beliefs; and as a senator who was known for his integrity as much as for his position. President George W. Bush, who was asked to speak at the Senator’s funeral, said: “Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled. John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order. He was a public servant in the finest traditions of our country. And to me, he was a friend whom I’ll deeply miss.”

John McCain’s belief in and gratitude for our democracy is something that, as a social studies teacher, I worked to instill in my students. We do live in a great country and we should be grateful for all of those who came before us to create this republic.  Granted, it is not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Indeed it has been said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time……”

Like John McCain, please Be vivid. Be vibrant. Be a friend. #BeKind.


Listen To Our Children

As I reflected on the most recent school shooting, I realized that our high school students are the first generation of students to have consistently known lockdown drills and similar safety measures in our schools. Many of our high school seniors were born in 1999, the year of the Columbine school shooting tragedy. I was a principal at the time and know firsthand the changes Columbine brought to all schools across the country.  The biggest change was that, as a parent, I always expected my child to come home from school each day. Columbine changed that expectation. It is true that Columbine was not the first school shooting and, sadly, was not the last, but it has come to symbolize school violence. It brought doubt that my child would walk through the door at the end of the school day. A chilling thought for any parent.

I have had several thoughts after the Parkland, FL tragedy.  First, our children are angry about living under this specter of violence and feel that society’s response to these repeated acts of violence has not kept them safe. Yes, these events are hard to prevent entirely, but it seems our society only wrings it hands after each tragedy, making empty promises to reduce the threat of violence. Adults argue back and forth about gun legislation, mental health issues, and who is to blame, but never truly listen to one another or our children. Time goes by and adults move on to the next topic to argue about in the legislative halls of this country. The issue of school safety fades until the next event and the cycle begins anew.

Next, I continue to see mental health issues facing many of our learners, even our youngest students. Again, our society seems to pass these young people from agency to agency with little or no communication between them. A clear and deliberate communication plan could support agencies, including schools, in helping these struggling students. In Florida, it seems that everyone knew about this former student, and yet no one truly knew him.  

Westside Community Schools contracts with Children’s Hospital to provide mental health resources and threat assessments (click here to learn more) but, like any school district, Westside could certainly use additional support. It is an area where we continue to improve our communication between agencies working with students who are troubled to ensure we are doing all we can to support them and their mental and emotional well-being.

It is time to listen to our kids who have lived their entire lives under this cloud of violence.  Today their voices are being heard. While Westside continues to update its safety procedures and policies and to prepare for any type of emergency (click here to learn more), we need the help of our entire community. Our children are telling us that the time has come for government and school leaders to work together to address this continuing threat the best we can and in reasonable ways to reduce the violence in our schools and provide a safe environment for students and staff.  

As educators we need to continue to teach our kids and create cultures of kindness, acceptance and tolerance for ALL students.  We must create cultures of safety, encouraging students that if they hear something or see something to tell an adult. We need to build positive relationships across our schools and communities. We need to do this by being role models of kindness, acceptance and tolerance by treating everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Today, it is the voice of our children that I hear loud and clear. They will no longer accept the status quo. It is time to listen.


Blane McCann

Family Matters

I recently visited Ireland on a family trip with my wife Marie, her two sisters and one brother-in-law.  It was an amazing trip and we visited several areas of a very beautiful country.


I also had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home in Killinchy, Ireland in County Down south of Belfast. I found a Presbyterian Church built in 1739 that included a cemetery with several generations of McCanns. I brought my great aunt Adella’s research of our family history, dating back to the early 1700s in Killinchy, Ireland.  In 1792, my great, great, great, great grandfather brought his family to America from this small village in Northern Ireland.

While I was standing at the gravesite reviewing our family history, a woman approached our group. She explained that she saw us at the McCann grave site and, since she is also a McCann, wanted to see if we needed any help or had any questions.  As it turns out, we are probably 5th or 6th cousins as we compared our families’ histories.  I am already in contact with her daughter and we are sharing information to determine common relatives. It was fate that we had this chance meeting.


On the return flight, I reflected for several hours about this chance meeting with a stranger that turned out to be a relative. I recalled a book by Dawna Markova titled I Will Not Live an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion. I strongly encourage you to find and read this book (click here if interested!).  It is very inspiring and meaningful.

The one thing I remember from Markova’s book, and that I was reminded of on my recent trip to Ireland, is the concept of family. Markova tells us that we all have relatives that have been working for generations to make our lives better.  My relatives worked very hard to make my life better in 2017 when, in 1792, they made a decision to leave Ireland and travel over the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, they did not realize they were working for me – their great, great, great great grandson – to find success.  I do feel them standing behind me each and every day encouraging me and my children.  Markova reminds us that we are doing the same; we are also working for our grandchildren and their children, many of whom we will never know, and helping them to find success throughout their 80+ years.

I then reflected about my 30 plus years as a teacher and educator. I realized in our jobs as teachers, educational assistants, principals, custodians, maintenance experts, and food service staff that we are also building upon the legacy of Westside employees who, for the past 70 years, built a positive culture of excellence in District 66.  We are standing on the shoulders of great people who never knew us but worked very hard so that our careers would be successful and meaningful.

We, like our predecessors, are working for future generations of students, helping them to find their path, and to be prepared for life after their PK-12 schooling is complete. We do this, not because of recognition or awards, but because we want to make a difference.  We are working for future generations that we will never know.  Today’s kindergarten class is the senior class of 2030, and I am pretty sure that I will not be preparing commencement remarks for their graduation.  Like you, I work today for future generations of students that I will never meet and it is what gets me up every morning to come to work.


Education is a relational profession. We are like parents and these students are “our kids.” As a parent of five children, I know how much teachers have done for my children and their current success. We do “pay it forward” in our profession. We have generations of great teachers behind us, and we do work for learners we have never met. I once spent four days with Margaret Meade’s daughter, Catherine Bateson, and she told me “…if you want to leave a legacy get a kid in your life.”  Our profession allows us to impact the future long after we are gone from this world, just like my great, great, great, great grandfather James McCann and grandmother Elizabeth Sibbett McCann did for me during their lifetimes.

Blane K. McCann



Personalizing Learning in Every Classroom: A Case for Implementing the Schoolwide Enrichment Model

I recently attended the 40th anniversary of Confratutue sponsored by University of Connecticut. This was the 8th or 9th time I have attended this very special event. As described by founders Joe Renzulli and Sally Reis the event is a hybrid of a conference, institute and fraternity, or a “Confratutue” (once voted the worst word to enter the English language.)

At each event, I learn so much that I am able to use in my daily work.  The following is my reflection of my time learning over they years at Confratutue and the fact that I believe that all teachers must treat all kids as gifted students because they are in their own ways.

Blane and Madden

Consider the notion that any student with a commitment to learning is gifted. It is not only intelligence that plays a role, but also creativity and commitment. Giftedness is not just a test score.

How many students have we, as educators, seen who did not have a test score to qualify for a gifted program, but became an expert in an area of passion and interest? I’ve personally seen hundreds of students. I remember one learner vividly who I knew would become a meteorologist. Today, he is considered an expert on the weather of the Great Lakes region and is sharing his research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the National Weather Service. Task commitment can take students places they never thought possible.

This broader definition of giftedness is one I learned from Dr. Joseph Renzulli, a longtime professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, for whom the Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education, and Talent Development is named. I met Renzulli at a conference in 1996 and in the more than 20 years since, I have worked in three school districts as a building principal and superintendent, collaborating with him to apply his pioneering ideas about giftedness and personalized learning approaches in PK-12 settings.

Westside Summer School students programming robots

Implementing change in public education is not easy. Renzulli understands this. He himself encouraged me to embrace the vulnerability I felt and he provided me with the courage needed to make changes based on what my students wanted and needed to be successful. I was able to help teachers see how student agency and student engagement could be improved along with their test scores. We built a school culture focused on learning and engagement for all students. I observed changes with our teachers as they implemented these practices in their regular education classroom. They took into consideration students’ interests and allowed for more student voice and choice as well as flexibility in their classrooms because they facilitated an enrichment cluster.

Westbrook Elementary staff taking part in professional learning before children arrive for the 17-18 school year

In working as superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., I wanted to put the joy and wonder back into learning after decades of high stakes testing had sucked the joy from our classrooms. So I asked our staff the question: What if we could personalize learning for all kids in all classrooms?

Another of Renzulli’s principles — the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) — serves as an entry point for schools that want to do just this. I want all kids to be able to follow their passions and interests every day. Every one of them could be “gifted” if we could find ways to engage them in their learning. As I learned about personalized learning, I quickly saw the connection to SEM to this evolution of learning.

What connections did I make? First, students identify their interests and passions through a survey. Next, SEM is about student ownership of their learning. In a SEM cluster students drive their learning with the help of the cluster facilitator. Additionally, teachers do not create a lesson plan prior to the cluster meeting but help student determine their own learning path through class discussions, which allows students to choose different learning paths.

Summer school students from Westgate and Paddock Road researched different animals & built models during a Rainforest Enrichment Cluster.

From my 20 years of experience with SEM and now personalized learning, my colleague and I have identified five elements to personalize learning. Those elements are:

1) Know your Students

2) Voice and Choice;

3) Flexible Groups, Spaces and Mindsets;

4) Data Informed; and

5) Technology Support.

A teacher must know their students well before they can teach them. A teacher who knows their students well can allow for more voice and choice because they know their interests and their capacities to learn and work. Once students find their voice and make learning choices a teacher becomes more flexible. I had a teacher tell me she was letting go of deadlines because students wanted to make sure they submitted their best work and needed more time.

Data is used to inform our work with individual students. This data is critical for a teacher to map out a learning pathway that is personalized based on student needs, which can extend learning or help relearn content.

Finally, Westside Community Schools is a 1:1 learning environment.  Our teachers enhance learning by using technology such as iPads and MacBook Air computers in our classrooms. We do this because we want our students to create personalized content and use individualized applications while they work at their own pace to master our standards and benchmarks through a personalized learning approach.

Yes, I experienced many obstacles and barriers to building this culture. Most issues are about control and trust. We alleviate those issues by focusing on our District’s standards and benchmarks.  However, I would hear comments such as “we don’t have time to implement this framework” and staff told me “the cluster did not exactly follow the curriculum” or “students will miss critical learning time.” I explained that students would be applying District standards in many different, but authentic ways. In each district where I worked, the staff and I altered the daily schedule to accommodate student learning that allowed for this type of deep learning.

The results we now are seeing are definitely worth the journey. Our current results are measured with not only test scores but with engagement, with voice and choice, and with student ownership for their learning. At Westside Community Schools, reading scores are improving and fewer students are in need of remediation. Further, our Gallup student and staff engagement scores are on the rise demonstrating that people enjoy the teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms.

Did You Know

I have seen similar results every time I have implemented these types of learning approaches. For instance, we first implemented SEM in our middle school in 1997. At John Bullen Accelerated Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I observed an increase in student ownership for learning as well as an increase in student attendance and a decrease in poor student behavior. Achievement gaps closed. Student achievement increased. Students seemed to see the relevance in the subject matter based on their interests. Most importantly students’ academic confidence grew. They knew they would accomplish their learning goals especially disadvantaged students who are rarely given an opportunity to experience learning in this manner.  SEM leveled the playing field.

Today, Westside has 9 of 10 elementary schools and our middle school implementing SEM. In addition, our high school, with the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, is implementing a version of SEM through our Center for Professional Studies (CAPS) and other academic departments such as Business where high school students operate and manage the Colosseum, our school apparel store. All of these students participate in a variety of meaningful, real-world learning opportunities, such as job shadows and meaningful internships.

CAPS students working on the Oakdale Media Center desk, a project they owned from conception to creation

One group of students recently took part in a CAPS project focused on designing and building a circulation desk using recycled materials from a historic district elementary school that was recently torn down to make room for a brand-new school. One of those students became so engaged that he is now pursuing a major in architecture this fall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His excitement and engagement is off the charts, thanks to his involvement in this project.

I strongly urge other educational leaders to consider making this journey. I was able to transform the middle school where I was principal in a 2-3 year period. At Westside, the District is making tremendous progress with staff to transform learning for all students in four short years. It can be done.

Today with the emphasis on personalizing learning for every student, SEM is a perfect entry to explore and help staff feel comfortable relinquishing classroom control and begin to trust their students. It is my sincere belief that if you commitment to this journey that like my former student, it will take your learners places you never thought they could go.

Blane K. McCann


Public Service and Partisan Politics

I have recently been listening and watching the lack of bipartisanship among local, state and national governments. The negative rhetoric that goes back and forth between political parties seems to prevent them from working together for the common good of all. We may have lost sight of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, a message that hung on the wall of my father’s law office. President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”


Photo courtesy NPR

I grew up in the time period where public service was encouraged through Kennedy’s programs such as Vista and the Peace Corps and other public service opportunities. The greatest generation worked toward and encouraged future generations to improve the quality of life across our great country through public service. The idea of public service was a big reason I became a teacher.

blane and student

It has occurred to me that we are losing the values of the greatest generation, my mother’s and father’s generation, which lived through the depression and fought a World War. These men and women seemed to understand the need for hard work and for providing a helping hand. They saw the value of public services that supported the common good of all Americans. It seems to me that public services such as public education, law enforcement and firefighting are all partisan arguments now.  The idea that everything is a business and should be treated as such, with winners and losers, is breaking the covenant between the civil servant and the public.  

My dad and my father-in-law were members of the greatest generation. They were World War II veterans and leaders in their communities. They never once complained about taxes that supported their community.  My father-in-law would say “you never want to pay the firefighter until your house is on fire and then you will pay the firefighter anything.”  

OPD AND students

You see, they both understood the value and importance of a high quality education, public safety and key public services.  They did not see these “public services” as politics as usual, but as services needed to provide a high quality of life in a community.  Both men instilled these values in their children.  

Don’t get me wrong. They were political and, in fact, my father ran for political office. For sure, they both complained about taxes; just not the “quality of life” taxes that provided public services. I guess it’s because they returned from a World War where they felt lucky to come home at all.  My Dad earned a law degree using the GI Bill.  The fact that his fellow countrymen felt that they should invest in returning veterans made an impact on him, his future and, consequently, my future.  He taught us to “pay it forward.”  

My father and I

My father and I

I remember these values because of my experiences as a youngster and a young parent. I remember as a very young boy when my father decided our small town needed a swimming pool and tennis courts.  He walked the neighborhoods to raise the money so that we could learn to swim, play tennis, and have a positive place to go where we were safe.  I also remember the tennis courts had a curb that doubled as an ice rink in the winter, very efficient for the times.

I’ll never forget the time my youngest child was playing outside and walked to the corner of our block and a deputy sheriff stopped and brought her home.  While I was a bit embarrassed, the deputy was just making sure everything was ok with my daughter.  He could have kept driving but he provided the extra that improves the quality of life in a community.

As our great state of Nebraska goes through another round of debate on school choice, school funding, and the next silver bullet of school reform, we stand to lose time that could be spent collaborating on what is best for all learners in our state.  I find it so interesting that in today’s society people are so quick to tell schools that they are failing so they can justify taking more funding from public schools.  However, the fact is that public schools are doing better than ever with their learners.  


Yes, I have seen change in public education and our profession has a moral obligation to help every child find success. I’ve watched public education become more inclusive with special education students, which was much needed and life changing for all learners. (Click here to see proof of that at Westside Middle School.) I’ve seen schools use data to increase graduation rates and test scores of students of color, and to close achievement gaps found in our student populations.  We are not where we want to be, but gaps are closing across this country despite the loss of revenue and an ever-changing set of state and federal goals as we all strive to fulfill the promise of President George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind initiatives. students 2

In my opinion, public service should not be discussed within the political realm. It is my strong belief that funding for public services such as public education, clean drinking water, sound electrical grids, and public safety drive a high quality of life in a community, attracting people to live and do business. My father and my father-in-law, one a democrat and one a republican, agreed on the importance of such funding. Both men were business leaders but did not see every service as being market driven or fee based. They worked for the common good of society, not merely for the good of a few.

Today, I see the values of the greatest generation slipping away, especially supporting our public servants because they are there to serve the common good of our democracy.  When I entered education in 1980, I felt that my local community valued what I did for their children and appreciated my hard work to help every child, in partnership with their parents, find a positive pathway to lifelong success.

When was the covenant between the public servant and the public broken? I’m  not sure. I have been a superintendent in two states over a 14 year period.  I have had to reduce expenses to meet inflationary costs in 13 of those years.  Each of those districts became much more efficient with school spending by focusing on the needs our children. Our learners never suffered, but staff were consistently asked to do more with fewer resources and they continue to rise to the challenge and maintain quality educational opportunities for all learners.

Unfortunately, it seems positive results have never really mattered. I only heard the public outcry if test scores went down and more money was withheld.  Yet, if test scores went up or achievement gaps were reduced, there was silence and no additional funds were allocated.  Those results went largely ignored and I was asked again to do more with less.  

I believe that all of us want and need our public servants, whether they be teachers, police officers, judges, or firemen. A public servant is not the enemy; however, if we continue to rupture the covenant between the public and the public servant, the self-fulling prophecy will play out in communities across the country where public services are compromised, including public education the very cornerstone of our democracy.  

blane and staff

I propose that we work in a bipartisan manner to restore this covenant and collaborate to operate our public services efficiently, but with the eye squarely on the prize of a positive quality of life in every community – small and large. Please join me as we work toward the common good of all of our society.

Respectfully submitted,

Blane K. McCann


Respect and Dignity

At this time of year, I am always reminded of what I am thankful for as a citizen of this country. Since the recent presidential election,  we have all read and possibly experienced events that have made us feel uncomfortable.  No matter our politics, I am reassured and grateful that our democracy is at work and that a peaceful transition of power will occur on January 21, 2017.


My father, who fought in World War Two, taught me that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  He was a small town Ohio lawyer who helped many clients who could not read, write or fully understand the laws impacting their lives.  My Dad took the time to explain things and make sure they had the best legal advice regardless of what they looked like or what they could afford. Additionally, as a high school government teacher, I taught children that freedom is not free.  We cannot say whatever we want without repercussions nor can we ignore the law. A free society is dependent on treating one another with respect and dignity.  In fact, our freedom is built upon a willingness to listen to our neighbor no matter our differences.

What concerns me today is the fear of losing the very values that our public schools were built on and have maintained since the mid-1800s.  One of the key elements of our democracy is the public school system, an institution that gives all Americans the chance of living the American dream.  As we look to the future, all public schools across this nation must work to improve achievement gaps to ensure that every child has access to a high quality education, and to develop a citizenry that respects the United States constitution and is able to live and function in a democratic society.  


Our public schools today stand for inclusion of all students; not some or a few but all. Every staff member and student deserves to be treated with respect and dignity no matter how rich or poor, their zip code, religion, race or anything else that makes them different.  


Our country and our public schools’ strengths are found in diversity.  We take any and all children who show up at the school house. We will not pick and choose who to educate nor will we send students away from our classrooms like some private or charter schools.

Respect and dignity are key components in providing an excellent educational environment; that foundation builds a great district and country.  As our nation’s demographics continue to shift, I am proud to work in diverse public schools where we educate all students of color, rich and poor students, students new to our country and those with exceptional education needs.


For nearly 200 years, United States public schools have evolved, becoming more inclusive with each generation of learners. Our system provides excellent educational experiences where students and staff have been given the tools and opportunities to accomplish their goals and fulfill their dreams.  Please join me and remind everyone of the inclusive values of education and that everyone in our great nation deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  Let’s not forget that public schools are the vehicle nurturing ethical citizens and leaders who contribute to and thrive in a global society.

“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions to maintain and improve a constitutional democracy. We take this responsibility seriously and understand the challenge it represents for public education in our state with each successive generation.” (Rickabaugh CESA #1 Transforming Public Education, 2010 p.10)

Yours in education,

Blane McCann

Fostering the Professional Judgment of Educators

For the past 25 years, I have noticed that the confidence in professional judgment of educators is eroding due to a constant attack on the education profession.  I continue to observe state and federal legislators passing legislation that is inflexible and ties the hands of  teachers and principals.  These fine educators are unable to make decisions that will positively impact their learners.  They are robbed of their creativity and ability to innovate in the classroom because of these outside forces.  Educators across this country are frustrated and leave the profession because of the lack of respect for their judgment and experience.  


Since 1987, I have been committed to developing processes and structures that would bring meaning to the work of those around me.  These structures depend on the professional judgment of educators who are closest to the classroom.   I feel that connecting community and organizational members to a shared vision and a common purpose developed with staff, parents and community members  is the best way for a school district to: learn in collaborative ways; constantly strive to improve the conditions for students; and allow staff members to do their best work on a daily basis.

Consequently, I continue to search for ways that will bring out our best in times of transition and change.  All organizations seek stability and balance so that we understand the expectations of our work.  To be sure, public education is facing many complex issues such as school funding, various achievement gaps, school choice, and school safety among many others.  In addition, public education is experiencing a transition as learning is being transformed and the future of work is evolving both because of the influx of new technologies that our students must integrate with to find success. For public education to successfully navigate these changes, we must listen to and build the capacity of all educators to lead this transformation with stability, trust, hope and compassion.  


It is important to establish clarity and focus and provide avenues that involve all staff in this important work.  It is imperative that we understand the needs of our students and staff to maximize and build the capacity of all stakeholders.  As we design educational opportunities, it is critical that we do so from the perspective of our students and with the professional judgment of educators. We should then work backward to align our behavior, and that of our system, to meet the unique needs of all learners.

14566189_10154902503516874_6378818163895903633_oWhat I am proposing here is very different from traditional school improvement processes or continuous improvement models, and is one that I feel will help our communities realize their shared vision with energy and purpose. By changing our language from school improvement to school design, we use our professional judgment to examine our system and commit to designing learning opportunities that are personalized and authentic and taught with a rigorous curriculum to ALL students.

By maintaining the language of school improvement, educators remain anchored to the current system. The current system is a deficit model that is focused more on remediation and dependency, and will not lead to independent, critical thinkers who are able to adapt to an ever-changing world.  Despite our best efforts and hard work to change and improve our current system, the weaknesses in this model hinders our ability to meet the unique needs of all our learners and build on their strengths.

By using the language of school design, we release our energy and create synergy using our professional judgment with multiple stakeholders to focus on designing new systems that support student learning.  With a laser-like focus on students and what they need, we create a system that is strengths-based and helps our students visualize a positive future.  Staff are not constrained by the legacy of an old system, but are often energized by the opportunity to design learning opportunities that are personalized and engaging based on student strengths, passions, needs and interests.


The results we seek through this design process are to truly to share our vision for learners, infuse professional judgment into the change process, increase staff buy-in for innovative ideas, build the leadership capacity of all stakeholders, understand District expectations and, of course, increase the achievement and engagement of all students and staff members.

The school design process shared here is based on the work of Stanford’s Design School, The Collective Impact Forum, the Accelerated Schools Process, Adaptive Schools, The Institute at CESA #1, Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, and my experience developing learning organizations in several schools and districts.

14543841_10154923778386874_3579239965356324363_oWestside Community Schools

At Westside Community Schools we know that to realize our vision and reach our goals, we must develop a connection from today to tomorrow.  The bridge that connects today with tomorrow starts with strong professional learning program that supports our staff in their growth and development as professionals.

In addition, a set of design principles that lead to transformative student learning opportunities is critical to realizing our district’s vision and our one goal.  In our District, the administrative team co-created a strategic plan with a set of essential and supporting goals with internal and external stakeholders.  Today, we work collaboratively to meet agreed upon outcomes for these goals.  Westside’s individual building teams are now meeting to define what this looks like in each building using the design process seen below.  


The following set of design principles and group norms guides the work of our  design teams.  The principles serve as a cornerstone for a process that will release the energy of staff in conjunction with the precision of our vision and strategic plan.  These design elements define our work, but do not limit our creativity. Rather, they provide staff members with clarity and flexibility, and create an opportunity for team learning to occur.  It is my hope to build rich learning environments where teachers and students alike want to learn.

In the Westside Community Schools, learning is grounded in the following design principles:

  • All learning begins with literacy across the content embedded in a viable and guaranteed curriculum for each content area.
  • All learning is grounded in best practices that are supported by high quality formative and summative assessments.
  • Learning is integrated with current and emerging technologies to calibrate student learning to fall within each student’s proximal zone of development, such that success remains within reach, but is challenging enough to require significant effort.
  • Learning is designed to encourage critical thinking through inquiry-based authentic learning opportunities for ALL students.
  • Learning is authentic and designed to foster learning independence through local and global partnerships, rather than dependence on others for direction, structure and solutions.
  • Learning encourages self-awareness, leading to an understanding of students’ strengths and a focus on their passions to nurture learners to “own” their learning rather than view learning as something they do for someone else.
  • Student learning capacity is seen as malleable and developable through practice, persistence and effective use of available resources rather than a hard-wired, unchangeable characteristic.
  • Learning is designed so that students recognize the value of and potential to succeed in relevant learning tasks so they are engaged and persist in becoming independent learners. Adapted from the Institute at CESA #1


csigpfmvuaasyh6The design principles are supported by a set of Design Team norms that serve as objectives by which to operate as a group. They are:

  • Be committed to the truth
  • Build leadership capacity of stakeholders
  • Exhibit trust and respect at all times
  • Take risks and learn from failure
  • Listen to multiple perspectives
  • Be clear of intent/outcomes
  • Presume positive intentions
  • Challenge our mental models
  • Suspend assumptions
  • Let go of the past

In summary, Westside’s design process fosters the creativity, innovation and professional judgment of staff members and facilitates collaboration between and among staff, parents, and community.  It creates a conversation that is open, direct, and respectful leading to a unique product for each building in the district.  Finally, It assists working groups experiencing difficulty to reflect and come together to overcome obstacles and achieve the district’s goal to maximize student achievement and engagement in a positive school culture.  


Making Progress with Strategic Plan, Personalized Learning

Many of you are aware that District leaders, teachers, parents and community members spent considerable time early in my tenure as superintendent conducting focus groups and seeking to understand our desires for our children as we carefully crafted a new strategic plan to carry Westside into the future.

One of the key elements of that plan was to personalize learning for students and staff, with the goal of bolstering student engagement and, as a result, student achievement. We all know that if we’re engaged in an activity — from work to play – we try harder and are more likely to succeed. The same goes for our young people. That’s why you’ll see them devote untold hours – with no complaints — to perfecting plays at football practice or dance numbers at show choir rehearsal.

We’re trying to put that same kind of joy back into learning, both for students and teachers. But it takes a little recalibrating.

The five elements of personalized learning are giving students some voice and choice in what they learn and how they learn it, providing flexible groupings and spaces for them to do it in, encouraging staff to make instructional decisions based on data, and getting to know students and their interests well while integrating digital tools to make it all possible.

So far, we’ve trained more than 80 teachers in the elements of personalized learning, and a third cohort of 40 teachers will begin training this fall. That means we have early adopters in every building who are already putting personalized learning into practice as well as encouraging their colleagues, with more to come.

To ease into personalized learning, we started by adopting the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. These interest-based enrichment opportunities are our version of the University of Connecticut’s enrichment clusters, and they’re now up and running in most of our buildings.

The model was developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli, director of the Neag Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut.

Renzulli said he began to realize in the early 1980s that the kind of instruction used in gifted education could – and should – be used with all students.

While gifted education and the opportunities that go with it usually are reserved for students identified through standardized testing, Renzulli’s framework looks beyond standard measures of academic achievement to non-cognitive skills such as motivation, creativity, and interests. And it calls for offering enrichment opportunities for all students.

I began working toward personalizing learning in the late 1980s. I took more of a hands-on approach to learning, which holds that students construct their own meaning based on prior experience and knowledge. Further, I believe every child should be treated as if he or she is gifted and talented. As educators, it’s our job to figure out how to tease out each child’s special talents, whether it’s auto mechanics or the actuarial sciences.

That’s not to say we’re forgetting about gifted students. We continue to offer opportunities for accelerated learning, which is made more seamless by our commitment to one-to-one technology. Our teachers, by knowing their students well, ensure that every student is learning what he or she needs to know at his or her own pace as we prepare every one to graduate ready for college and careers.

Schoolwide enrichment, Renzulli said, looks like activities that are part of the regular curriculum. But the model takes those activities to the next level, exposing kids to new ideas, issues, problems and areas of study. More importantly, it gives students with a particular interest an opportunity to engage in advanced kinds of study that are creative and investigative in nature and to run with their learning and truly take ownership of it. They are able to practice critical thinking and problem-solving skills from a very early age through this interest-based learning approach.

In early June, our teachers had the opportunity to attend a two-day institute at Westside High School led by Renzulli and his colleagues to learn more about schoolwide enrichment and personalized learning. The institute followed a visit by a small group of Westside educators to a Renzulli-led conference in Connecticut in 2013 and a workshop for District administrators during the fall of 2015.

Our learners now can choose an adult-led enrichment area based on their strengths and interests. Clusters meet for an hour or two a week. The goal is to slowly shift the activities from being directed by teachers to being led by students.

Renzulli said what’s impressive about Westside’s efforts is that change is coming from the top down and the bottom up, from administrators as well as teachers.

“That’s what makes it work so well here,” he said.

While it’s still early, we’re beginning to see results from our commitment to personalization. Some are anecdotal, like the Westgate youngster who told his grandfather that he had to go back to school after a dentist appointment because he didn’t want to miss his enrichment time. A sixth-grade teacher told me her students tell her that they now feel more responsible for their own learning. Others are more concrete, such as our strategic plan student survey results that indicate that 67 percent of learners feel they have a voice and some choice in their learning.

We’ve also seen other positive outcomes as a result of this and other elements of our strategic plan. Graduation rates are up and, due to our renewed focus on literacy, 182 fewer students – a reduction of 4.5 percent — have required reading intervention since 2012. That’s huge, because being able to read on grade level allows students to advance in all areas and take ownership for their learning.

We anticipate having even more good news to share when the state education department lifts its embargo on last year’s test scores. We’re excited about the gains we’re seeing, and we hope you are, too. Meantime, we’ll continue to work hard to realize Westside’s mission as an innovative educational system that ensures academic excellence and serves the unique needs of all learners.