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.


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.  


A Look at Open Enrollment

This is the time of the year when our Student Services, Teaching and Learning, and our Human Resources Departments all begin looking at in-District student enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. A review of these numbers helps us to determine our budget and staffing for the 2015-2016 school year. Reviewing these enrollment numbers is also critical in helping us determine the number of open enrollment students we will accept into the District.

As we reviewed a parent survey from last spring, and in conversations I’ve had with parents throughout this school year, I’ve discovered that District families have a lot of questions regarding our open enrollment process. I wanted to spend some time to share information with you, and to clear up any questions or misinformation that may be out there regarding open enrollment.

In 1989, the Nebraska Legislature initially authorized option enrollment, allowing students from other school districts the choice to attend classes in another school district. State law required that all Nebraska public schools participate in the Nebraska Option Enrollment program. The law also prohibited school districts from excluding students based on disability, English language proficiency, or previous discipline issues. I’m told Westside Community Schools initially had concerns about the option enrollment law, given many unknown variables, including the cost of educating these students, and whether state funding would sufficiently cover these costs.

Instead, option enrollment proved to be a lifesaver for Westside Community Schools. In the mid- 80’s, enrollment began to significantly decline in the District from a peak of 10,000 students in the early 70’s. The District had to make tough decisions to close some of its schools. As a result, two of the District’s junior highs, Westbrook and Valley View, closed its doors. Seventh and eighth grade were consolidated into Arbor Heights Junior High, which eventually became Westside Middle School.

Then, in 2007, as a result of the One City, One School issue, the Nebraska Legislature established the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County, the state’s Nebraska’s first political subdivision for education. The open enrollment process for the metropolitan area was launched two years later. Similar to option enrollment, the open enrollment law requires Learning Community school districts to accept students from other districts, provided that they are not at capacity within their buildings. However, open enrollment also requires districts to place students within individual schools based on their socioeconomic status. This means that students with a lower socioeconomic status receive first priority to attend schools with higher socioeconomic status. The idea is to balance socioeconomic diversity within all Learning Community schools. Given that Westside is in the center of the city, and we draw students from a variety of districts, we have been able to do this successfully.

Today, one-third of Westside’s students, roughly 2,000, come to us from neighboring districts. We welcome their enrollment in our District. Open enrollment students bring economic and racial diversity; the families of open enrollment students are often highly motivated and engaged, because these parents have made a conscious decision to send their children to our schools. Open enrollment students are a mirror or our in-District student population, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and ability. Open enrollment also generates approximately $15 million annually for the District’s general fund budget.

Open enrollment has helped us to maintain our District enrollment to an optimal size of 6,000 students. It has allowed us to keep our neighborhood elementary schools open, especially those neighborhoods that still have a high number of empty nesters and residents who don’t have children. Keeping our enrollment numbers stable helps to keep our teachers and support staff employed.

Westside Community Schools would not look like or operate like the District it is today without open enrollment. For example, at the high school, a third of our total students taking AP or honors classes are open enrollment students. In some AP classes, half of the enrollment comes from open enrollment students. Because of our total student enrollment at the high school, we are able to offer a greater number and a wider variety of courses. Without open enrollment students, the high school might be force to reduce or even eliminate these or other course offerings.

As I mentioned earlier, open enrollment helps us to balance our enrollment numbers, not to fill our buildings beyond capacity. I have heard several rumors that the District will continue to arbitrarily accept open enrollment applications, even when buildings are full. Those rumors are simply not true. We are starting to see an increase in enrollment of students who live within the District. A recent demographics study by RSP confirms this. As the number of resident students continues to rise, this will impact the numbers of open enrollment students we accept.

However, even with the internal growth, the need for future open enrollment remains necessary, since we can continue to enroll students into buildings where space is available. By every measure, Westside Community School has embraced and benefitted from open enrollment. We will continue to welcome these students as a vital part of the ongoing health of our District.

Connecting All Kids: #FutureReady


I am so excited as I arrive at the airport Tuesday to travel to Washington D.C. to join a group of thought leaders at the United States Department of Education’s ConnectED Summit. This day is doubly special because it is also my daughter Audrey’s 16th birthday, and she is traveling with me to Washington.

I met Lisa Snyder, a superintendent from Minnesota, right away Wednesday morning while we were hailing a cab for our drive to the White House. While standing in line with other superintendents from across the nation, the anticipation and enthusiasm is evident and I feel like an eighth-grader on a school field trip. You can sense the excitement.

As a social studies teacher and life-long educator, experiencing the history of the White House is a highlight of my career. Many of the historical events I taught took place here! It is truly incredible to know that Abraham Lincoln walked the halls and grounds of this building. The security is phenomenal; it’s the safest I have ever felt in my life.

Watching the President stride into the room, shaking hands with all of the superintendents sitting on the aisle, is a moving experience. As he starts his speech, it is clear that he is committed to connecting ALL students and educators to technology. In fact, he set a goal that 99 percent of the country’s students will be connected to the Internet within five years. This goal, coupled with increasing digital learning opportunities, will help close achievement gaps between affluent and less affluent learners in our country. It will also close access gaps and develop equity among all students.

The President spoke about how learning is changing and that today’s classroom is not the classroom we remember. Learning today must be relevant, engaging, and infused with both critical thinking opportunities and real-world learning experiences. If not, we risk students dropping out or, even if they stay in school, merely going through the motions.

The President sees investment in education as an economic driver if the United States is to remain a global leader in research and innovation. This investment in our children is seen as a path to the middle class where everyone can participate in the American dream. However, for that to occur, our schools must prepare students for future jobs that will require critical thinking, the ability to learn and the capacity to build positive relationships while solving complex problems.

Finally, the President celebrated educators and thanked us for our dedication and commitment to our students. He asked that we continue to work hard as learning transforms in the digital age. Secretary Duncan also commended teachers and principals for their work. He said, and this is paraphrased, “Technology will not make teaching obsolete, but teaching will evolve as a profession into blended learning where great teachers using technology will take kids farther than they ever thought they could go.” Secretary Duncan also said that the Department of Education will help by releasing a professional learning tool kit, expanding funding for e-rate to assist with infrastructure needs, and developing accountability systems to measure outcomes. Please go to www.tech.ed.gov and www.futurereadyschools.org to learn how you can join this effort to make ALL students future ready. Also, please watch this video of President Obama talking about all kids being future ready in the country.

The good news is that District 66 is well positioned to lead this initiative. Our current strategic plan aligns with the ideas discussed in Washington. We provide access to digital learning across our District on a daily basis, but we also must collaborate with other civic leaders to provide connectivity outside of the school day so all our students can continue to learn in a 24/7 environment. It is my opinion that equity will improve and students will benefit greatly from this effort to connect learners to digital content through the Internet as they develop, with our help, their own pathway to success.

Our innovative and creative staff and supportive community are leading the way toward a transformation of learning in our District. After this meeting, I know that District 66 is a leader in our state, region, and nation in this effort to blend learning using technology as a tool to close achievement gaps and engage all students. Educators truly do work in the future. They encourage each student’s strengths and passions, which leads to success and a lifetime of learning and of contributing to their communities and nation. It is an exciting time to work in public education, and I have never been prouder to be an educator than I am today.

It is hard to leave the ConnectED Summit because of the “powerful learning” taking place between and among the many participants. As I leave the White House, and its history and power, I look back at the building and am verklempt. I want to stay here, but I cannot wait to get back to Westside where we will continue our great work and where we have the power to change the world… one student at a time. The following video illustrates that commitment.

Now I’m off to celebrate Audrey’s birthday… again!!


Building Hope

Since the start of our new school year, Westside teachers and other staff members have been actively building hope among our students.  Building Hope is our theme for the 2013-14 school year. At our opening meeting for employees, Gallup senior scientist Dr. Shane Lopez, explained his research on the impact of hope. He told our staff members that hopeful students perform better in school. They are more engaged in their education and are more resilient than less hopeful students.

As educators, we play a pivotal role in creating hopeful environments and helping our students learn how to overcome obstacles.  We can help students believe in a bright future.  Last year, Westside Community Schools asked students in grades 5-12 to complete Gallup’s Student Poll that measures engagement, hope and wellbeing.  We are now working with Gallup to better understand this research.

Last month, during a professional development afternoon, we also engaged all of our employees in a “Nexting While Walking” event.  The idea was inspired by a conversation between Dr. Lopez and his son http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/making-hope-happen/201308/nexting-while-walking. We asked staff members to take an hour, go for a walk, and talk with their colleagues about the future, for themselves, for their students, and for our District.  Some of the thinking from the day was captured on a Twitter hashtag we created for the event, #Westside66Hope.  I encourage you to visit this feed and review the staff inspirations from this event.

We know that students will not succeed solely by practicing hope.  We understand that we must combine hope, wellbeing and engagement with a rigorous curriculum, well-educated teachers, and a supportive academic environment.  Through this multi-layered approach, we can create multiple pathways so students may experience a glimpse of a possible future and a bright tomorrow. We must do this for all of our students – those who are currently hopeful, and those who we must nurture a bit to build their hope.  I am confident we can help every student find success in Westside Community Schools and I have so much hope for the future of this great District.

Westbrook Hope Word Cloud

Westbrook staff created a Hope word cloud during the “Nexting While Walking” event.


The Next Generation of Westside Community Schools

McCann family photo 1

In our ongoing efforts to communicate with parents and other members of the community, I have established a blog to share ideas about public education and to provide information about the Westside Community Schools.

I’ll begin my first post talking about the future of our school district with a reference to the past. The picture that accompanies this post is of my great grandparents, sitting in front of the family homestead in 1909. Like many old farmhouses, throughout the years, it has been renovated and remodeled. My father purchased the homestead in 1966.  As part of his renovation, my dad decided to tear down all but the original cabin, built in the 1870’s.  He also kept some family heirlooms and furniture – items that were important to our family and our history.

I was reminded of the family farm when I wrote a paper outlining the future of our school district.  The document is entitled The Next Generation of Westside Community Schools. Among other things, it outlines my observations and recommendations about Westside as we look toward the future of our school district. We have many exciting opportunities ahead of us as we build educational experiences for our students.  To realize this new vision for the Westside Community Schools, we will need to work together.

As we embark on this journey, I want us to keep alive the values and the vision that make Westside unique. Just like the original cabin on my family’s farm, we need to identify and retain those programs and cultural ideas that are distinctive and important to our Westside community and its history.

Once we have identified what we value, we must review current programming to ensure that it aligns with our vision moving forward.  We may need to eliminate some programming to make room for other ideas that support the educational goals we have for our students. It will take discipline and open thinking as we work through this process, but it will be worth the effort.

I hope you will take a few minutes to learn more. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, it is available as an EPUB digital book at http://lst.westside66.org/wcs66_tng/.  A PDF copy of the paper is available at the following link http://www2.westside66.org/wcsblog/files/The_Next_Generation_of_WCS.pdf