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Aurora Institute

Blair Elementary School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the third post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

After my tour of Flight Academy in the school district of Waukesha, I was able to swing by for a quick conversation with Aida Cruz-Farin, principal at Blair Elementary School. Cruz-Farin’s career had taken her to the Milwaukee office of New Leaders for New Schools, but she missed the daily interaction with children. She was attracted to Blair because it was a school struggling to meet the needs of its students, of which 90 percent are FRL. Another way to think about Blair is as a beautifully multicultural school with 70 percent Hispanic students and fifteen spoken languages. But one thing was for sure: Expectations were low. Ten percent of students were proficient in reading and 12 percent in math. There was more pity for the students than expectations. There was only one place to go, and that was up. In less than four years, the school went from low-performing based on Wisconsin’s accountability system to exceeding expectations.

Blair’s Mission

To educate all students in a loving environment while maintaining high standards for academic excellence and character. We are committed to equity, diversity, bi-literacy, innovation and collaboration. Five key practices make our success possible: college focus; team teaching; innovation and diversity; maximizing instructional time; and communication with families and community partners.

Operating in the context of Wisconsin, where it seems that much of the strongest efforts around personalization have been in middle and upper income communities, Cruz-Farin brought a commitment to providing personalized learning to the students at Blair. Cruz-Farin said that the first stage of the transition process was creating a strong mission and vision with personalization at its core, establishing a high level of expectation, and building a culture to support the new vision.


The change at Blair Elementary School started with changing beliefs. Introducing a college-bound focus, every classroom adopts a college and learns about it. Students are referred to as scholars. Connections to college are constantly made throughout the school. The discussion about beliefs is transparent. The Blair team is instilling the values of believing in oneself as well as agency. Cruz-Farin explained, “We can open doors for students but they need to walk through them. We want them to understand that they are the ones who hold the keys to their future.”

Believe in yourself and you are halfway there – Theodore Roosevelt

Common Expectations, Common Practices

The educators at Blair agreed to use a common set of practices. For example, “track me” means keep your eyes on the focus of instruction or the “J-Factor” (bringing joy into learning). Students all understand the meaning, and they introduce these practices to parents through a video on their website. It helps to reinforce a culture that school is for learning, for students to take their learning seriously, and that learning can be fun.  

Maximizing Learning and Instruction through Personalization

Blair Elementary decided that personalized learning was needed in order to help students build their skills and begin to close the achievement gap. (Reminder: Based on the Wisconsin Institute for Personalized Learning’s approach, the core elements of personalized learning are learner profiles that track student growth, customized learning paths, and proficiency-based progress.) The team believed that they needed a way to maximize learning during the day, meet students where they are rather than covering grade level standards, and focus on growth.  

They began to use a learner continuum that the STEM Academy network of schools introduced for elementary schools rather than grade level standards to drive instruction. They identified where students were on the continuum, looked for gaps that needed to be addressed, and engaged students in goal setting. Students and teachers began to organize learning based on each student’s personal path with a strong emphasis on conferencing, while at the same time teaching rigorous common core standards during mini-lessons. Never lowering expectations, but goal setting to plan how to close the learning gaps through targeted small group instruction and meaningful personal application tasks. They have also been working with Epiphany to see if the system, designed to support the development of social-emotional skills, could be expanded to track student progress on academic skills. Students are leading the conferences using data from Ephiphany to talk about their growth and to reflect upon themselves as learners.

Blair hopes to embed practices that support student agency throughout the school. This includes: 1) specific practices that can build executive functioning; 2) inquiry-based learning for creating opportunities for students to express their own ideas; 3) leadership through service learning and exploring social justice perspectives; and 4) design thinking. Cruz-Farin explained, “Design thinking does three important things. First, it is a skill that will serve students well throughout life. Second, it provides opportunities for students to build agency and have voice in their learning process. Third, it empowers them to believe that they can make a difference, that they can find solutions to challenging problems.”

The school has also introduced a practice called I-Time for students to focus on “anything I need.” This is an opportunity for students to think about their own growth and choices, and to take responsibility for their learning. It has also been effective in providing more time for students to work on literacy and math based on the specific areas of their focus. This is also additional time for teachers to work individually or with small groups as needed.   

Reflection: This is the first time I’ve heard personalization described as a process for maximizing learning. We often describe the traditional system as an efficient way to deliver curriculum, but there haven’t been discussions about what it means to maximize learning. It would be interesting to compare traditional schools with highly personalized schools where students are supported in building agency in terms of time on task, effort, and thinking about what they are learning other than during the task itself.

Multi-Age and Team Teaching

Cruz-Farin knows that it was important to ensure students were receiving high quality instruction. The school was reorganized around multi-age bands (K-1; 2-3; 4-5) using a co-teaching approach. This created an environment where teachers had to focus on where students were on the learner continuum and adopt a collaborative approach to teaching that would naturally allow teachers share their expertise with each other.  

Blair is using the practice of “Accountable Talk” and other techniques to provide opportunity for discourse so that students build oral skills as well as more formative insight for teachers. This is also a practice emphasized in culturally responsive teaching.  

Cruz-Farin explained, “The learner continuum has had a huge impact on teachers and our teaching. The focus of the professional learning communities changed. Now they talk about practice, look at work samples, and decide whether assessments are effectively aligned. Teachers’ sense of their own efficacy has increased.”

Dual Language Program

In thinking about how to thematically organize the school, the team at Blair looked at STEM and other models. An important element of the program is the dual language approach as students build skills in two languages. Approximately 52 percent of students are in the dual language program (there is also an intensive ESL program, as well). There is a growing base of research that suggests that speaking two languages builds the functional plasticity of the brain and contributes to some features of executive functioning. (Note: The dual language program uses co-teaching but not multi-age.)


Blair has also introduced the use of 1:1 iPads as a way to broaden the horizons of students and provide access to applications for math and literacy (in multiple languages) so students have choices about how they can practice their skills and build fluency.

With these changes, Blair soon started to see increases in student achievement. The school is now entering a second stage of change with a focus on maintaining high achievement and introducing the concept of personalization to support professional learning among staff. They have begun the process of calibration within the school so that there is a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient at each of the grade levels.

Read the Entire Series: