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Aurora Institute

Empowering Scholars at McComb’s Summit Elementary

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Lakya Washington, Lead Learner at Summit Elementary School

This is the fifth post on a series about McComb School District in McComb, Mississippi. Start here.

Lakya Washington, previously assistant principal at Higgins Middle School, is the Lead Learner at Summit Elementary School. In the language of yesteryear, she is the principal. Full of passion, compassion, and a deep commitment to building better lives for her scholars, Washington has led the introduction to personalized learning at Summit. She had never experienced personalized learning before, so her own learning trajectory has been steep. One of the steps that helped was visiting Red Bank Elementary in South Carolina.

On Being a Lead Learner

I had the opportunity to speak with Washington about her experience as the Lead Learner at Summit. She explained why she pursued this position: “The community conversations were powerful. They spoke to me as an educator. We go to work day after day after day, we work hard but we don’t see our students making huge gains. It’s easy to feel like we are spinning our wheels. I wanted to be able to see the fruits of my labor. I wanted to be involved in an educational approach that is designed to help students learn.” She continued, “It’s not a problem of willingness. Teachers want to see their students succeed. We just haven’t done things the right way. There is another way. Summit was opportunity to do it differently by developing teacher practitioners who help scholars develop their full potential.”

What is it like being the Lead Learner? Washington laughed, “It’s a huge leap for a girl who can’t swim to move from the tadpole pond to the Atlantic Ocean.” She reflected, “It’s hard to find the words to capture the challenges and the rewards. Each day is full of both.” She described seeing children in third and fourth grade entering school who didn’t know the alphabet, how to write their names, or have the confidence to stand tall and look adults in the eyes. Some were hesitant to speak in class at all. Over two short years, these scholars are now fully participating in class, are making strong progress in building their skills, and have a sense of themselves as learners, as scholars.

Washington explained, “It makes a huge difference to start by getting to know our scholars and understand what they need to succeed. It makes all the difference.” She explained that she is seeing substantial growth in the way scholars articulate what they are learning, why they are learning it, and their critical thinking.  

Washington admitted this type of success hasn’t happened with every scholar yet. I also spoke with Superintendent Cederick Ellis and Stephen Johnson, Data Analyst and Personalized Learning Coach, about this. There is agreement that there are scholars who are struggling with very challenging lives resulting in trauma. They are overwhelmed and need more intensive adult support. As we spoke, I began to imagine strategies or even small schools within schools aimed at providing more support and connection with adults trained in trauma-informed care.

Monitoring Progress

In the conference room, referred to as Mission Control, there was a large graph that showed how many scholars were on grade level. I was surprised to find that it was accompanied by progress based on growth. Johnson explained that “it is a labor of love to get reports on rates of growth.” Although the assessment systems can allow you to see a scholar’s growth, producing a report that provides a look at all scholars that can be helpful for the leadership team and teacher practitioners has yet to be developed.

Instructional Approach

There are similar practices used in each of the Summit learning labs to create a sense of ownership and responsibility, and to support the meeting scholars where they are approach. However, each is done with different themes and flourishes in each learning lab. Washington noted that the common practices of personalized learning include: creating a shared vision with scholars; word walls; target trackers; and parking lots. (See articles by Courtney Belolan for a look at these practices.)

McComb is using a number of instructional strategies. Brittney Hoover, literacy specialist, explained that flexible grouping is an important part of the strategy, with practitioners able to work with a few scholars at a time based on their specific learning needs. There is definitely a strong emphasis on direct instruction for the introduction of concepts and skills supported by supplemental educational software. The day I was visiting learning labs, it would have been easy to walk away thinking that that was the primary approach. I discovered, however, that although I was unable to see this in action, there is a Project Lead the Way learning lab to introduce hands-on science, projects that introduce real-world problems, and a virtual reality lab.

Projects to date have included investigations and recommendations to handle abandoned pit bulls and rescue animals. One practitioner did mention that they are finding project-based learning is a heavy lift. As anyone knows who has been involved with real-world projects, it takes planning time, community engagement, and flexibility when the project starts to take on new directions.

Carmelle Ellis, head of the Project Lead the Way STEAM (STEM that includes the arts) program, explained that all scholars are able to participate for forty-five minutes per week. Interestingly, the PLTW is not organized around grade level standards. The goal is to engage in science inquiry and cooperative learning.

I had to remind myself that this is the third year of implementation. Thus, Summit has emphasized personalized learning in terms of having scholars create more ownership over their learning, introducing blended learning using the rotation model, and offering several opportunities for project-based learning. I’ve seen other blended models dedicate some part of the day to projects and some to skill-building. I would anticipate that as they become more adept at all of these strategies, they will see opportunities to begin to develop a more integrated approach in which scholars become more responsible for asking and exploring questions that then drives their learning.

Role of Parents and Community

As we wandered from learning lab to learning lab, Ellis noted, “If we want to be high performing, the full community needs to be involved.” Community partners are engaged in real-world project-based learning. In addition, parents are encouraged to visit the learning laboratories (classrooms) and are expected to actively participate in the education of their child. A practitioner emphasized, “A parent’s presence at school is one of the most effective ways of letting scholars know that they are valued and that their education is a top priority.”

Use of Technology

Summit’s zSpace Virtual Reality Lab

McComb has introduced 1:1 devices in all K-8 personalized learning schools with the hope of expanding the use of technology with their roll-up strategy. Ellis noted that usually only higher performing and higher income schools have 1:1 in Mississippi. As part of their strategic plan, the decision was to introduce technology to support, but not drive, personalized learning.  At Summit, technology is used in the following ways:

  • Support scholars and teacher practitioners in the cycle of learning. The Accelerate Education platform is used to support scholars to know where they are in a four-step cycle of learning (learn, practice, apply, and assess) as well as to help the staff monitor scholar progress and organize flexible grouping. Accelerate Education also operates as a learning management system (LMS) to make the resources available to scholars (either online or directing them to on the ground materials) as they need them.
  • Support scholars having choices about instruction and opportunities to practice and build fluency. Scholars have some limited choice about how they learn at Summit. Scholars can work with practitioners or take advantage of educational software. In the early years, scholars are learning concepts and skills as well as becoming fluent in the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy they will use the rest of their lives. Too often scholars learn the skills without understanding the concepts or building the fluency that makes these fundamentals become part of routine expertise. This is very, very important to future studies, because if students are using working memory to understand the concept of numeracy or to sound out words, they will have less capacity to direct to the task at hand or to engage in deeper levels of inquiry. Thus, supplemental education software is also used to help students practice and build fluency.
  • Create opportunities for enrichment, exploration, and deeper learning. Summit has created a virtual reality lab, fondly referred to as the zSpace. An old school bus has been renovated to allow scholars to access virtual reality tools to explore the sciences. Most scholars, usually in their math and science learning labs, go the zSpace twice a week, with Quest, the gifted and talented program, using up to four hours per week.
  • Supports creativity to show evidence of mastery. With the idea of preparing scholars for the 21st Century, technology is used to expanded problem solving skills and open new ways of showing mastery. When working on learning targets, scholars have to show evidence of mastery. They may choose to create a slide show, an iMovie or a cartoon using Scratch Jr. They may research concepts for a better understanding, beyond Googling it and taking the first link on the list. Even if the assignment is a traditional pencil-paper assignment, scholars will take a picture to airdrop it to their teacher practitioner or simply project it onto the Smartboard to present. Although mastery may be displayed in other ways, technology is clearly the preferred method for the scholars.
  • Support the concept of schools with no walls, open 24/7. The personalized learning schools in McComb encourage accessing the online content at home. This allows scholars to continue what they work on in class but also to explore those concepts further independently. It creates the space where being absent does not necessarily mean being behind in work. Many of the apps and programs are accessible on most smartphones. It also encourages families to consider purchasing or upgrading their current technology at home.

In the next article, personalized learning in kindergarten is explored.

Read the Entire Series: