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Aurora Institute

Charleston: Personalized Learning at Pepperhill Elementary

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Kayela Clark
Kayela Clark, PL Coach

This is the third post in my site visit to Charleston County School District in South Carolina. Read the first post on building the CCSD framework and the second on implementation strategies.

I have had a strong PBIS program, we have implemented rigor and relevance…but nothing has changed my school like Personalized Learning; it is like night and day. There is intrinsic motivation for learning now. It is not just ‘because the teacher told me to.’ Now everything has to do with learning.

– Principal Tanya Underwood

Seven hundred students attend Pepperhill Elementary: 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, 30 percent are categorized as ESL, and nearly all are African American or Hispanic. With the introduction of personalized learning, disciplinary problems are going down and MAP scores are going up in all grade levels. Thanks to Principal Tanya Underwood, Personalized Learning coach Kayela Clark, and teachers Ashley Austin, Debbie Weathers, and Hannah Ataffi for introducing me to personalized learning at Pepperhill.

A Conversation with Pepperhill Teachers

The Personalized Learning Department at CCSD has created proficiency scales to guide teachers’ professional development. There are proficiency scales for data driven instruction, creating and using proficiency scales, and self-directed learning. Ms. Clark explained that as teachers become exposed to the new practice, they rate themselves and set their next goal. “We have teachers create their own data binders. It helps them understand how students own their data and to engage students more strategically during conversations about their learning.”

Ms. Clark explained that an important strategy she uses when she coaches a teacher is modeling Personalized Learning strategies. She described that when she is coaching teachers, she wants to make sure they feel safe and comfortable. She also emphasized that there needs to be time for individual coaching as well as collaborative learning with others. I could also tell, by the goofy pictures on the wall that are used by teachers to indicate their growth, that fun was part of the equation as well.

The district has also created iTunesU courses for each of the PL practices, which teachers can use to learn online at their own pace. Courses available to teachers include Introduction to Personalized Learning, Shared Vision, Code of Cooperation, Standard Operating Procedures, Goal Setting, Student Conferencing and Ownership, Unpacking Standards, Marzano’s Nine Instructional Strategies, Aligning Assessments with Rigor, Proficiency Scales, Differentiating Instruction, Project-Based Learning, Challenge-Based Learning, and Technology Integration.

Student Needs and Approaches

Mobility is high at Pepperhill with an average of thirty students entering or leaving the school each month. To address this issue, Pepperhill has a strong team including a full mental health team composed of the guidance counselor, social workers, and the psychologist. Ms. Underwood explained that with Personalized Learning, “School is a place where our students can exert control in their lives.” To this end, they use Second Step, a social-emotional program described as “really powerful” in the morning meetings.

Another one of the issues that Pepperhill has encountered is when a student moves from a classroom with high implementation of Personalized Learning to one where the teacher is new to the practices. They have seen behavior issues emerge when students are not being taught based on their own learning progression, or when students have to sit and wait for the teacher to be able to start activities or move on to new content. Ms. Underwood pointed out, “When students get used to being self-directed with their learning, and they want this type of environment, it motivates the teachers to continue their learning in this process.”

Ms. Clark also emphasized that knowing how to create standard operating procedures (SOPs) with students was absolutely essential for creating effective personalized classrooms, “Without SOPs, teachers are unable to create the uninterrupted time they need to work more deeply with students who need extra help.”

Students who do need extra help are now receiving it during the school day. In fact, Pepperhill’s approach to homework is that you do it only once you know something, and only as a means to practice and gain fluency. If students are learning foundational skills and can’t practice independently in the classroom, then doing it at home increases the likelihood that students are reinforcing errors. However, reading at home is expected for at least twenty minutes. Pepperhill is integrating classroom activities with after school options so students’ learning can be reinforced. They are beginning to the implement Empower, an LMS/competency-based progress tracker, so that after school staff can have quick and easy access to what students are working on and help accelerate progress.

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