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.

The Future of Learning

During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, amid the chaos in my home with my grandchildren, my children, and their spouses, it occurred to me once again how learning has changed since I was a child.  I’m keenly aware of the pace of this change across generations from my 31-year-old son, to my 15-year-old daughter, to my 2-year-old grandson. The evolution of learning from static to dynamic is akin to the evolution of yesterday’s Encyclopedia Britannica to today’s Wikipedia. Technological advances are transforming us from passive learners to active learners.

Information is everywhere and is available all the time, fueled by the passion and interest of our learners. My children download recipes for a delicious meal or watch a video that teaches them how to bake a pie or prepare sweet potatoes.  Learning is becoming more personal because technology provides information instantaneously.  This instant access to knowledge is pushing the education profession in directions we thought were not possible just a few years ago.

PK-12 education truly sits at a crossroads and is in the midst of deciding its future. We must remain relevant by designing educational opportunities that embrace the technology and help our students understand what they are learning. We must guide them as they apply their knowledge and show them how to behave ethically with large amounts of information.  Today, teachers must be conduits of learning, instead of the sole purveyors of knowledge. They must engage all students to become independent learners.

I hope we take this moment to shake off the legacy of the factory model where we sort and select kids. I hope we design a future where we support our teachers and administrators as they transform our schools from a “one size fits all” to a collaborative, problem-solving environment where students think critically and globally.

We must support teachers as they help students discover the joy of learning through real-world opportunities. As educators, we must share their excitement for learning. We must give students nurturing and supportive environments where they can create, solve problems, make mistakes, and find their voice under the watchful eye of a professional educator.

At Westside, we are developing programming to help students direct their own learning PK to 12th grade, through approaches such as school-wide enrichment, internships, and possible academies. These approaches allow students to understand the relevance of school and how classroom content applies to the real world.  We want to develop opportunities where students can identify interests and see a glimpse of a possible future, one that is meaningful to them and fuels their passions.