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Aurora Institute

Henry County Schools: Scaling Strategies for Mid-Size Districts

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

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This post is part of a the series on Henry County, Georgia. This is the third of five posts. Read them all the way through: Post #1: Four Big TakeawaysPost #2: Ensuring Success for Each StudentPost #3: Scaling Strategies for Mid-Size DistrictsPost #4: What All of This Means for SchoolsPost #5: Impact Academy.

Henry County provides important insights into how larger districts can organize strategies to transform their schools with a more “personalized” approach and how they can avoid the unintended consequences that result from mandates. Their scaling strategy is definitely one to consider and adapt to work for your district.

Overarching Strategy of Change

The challenge before HCS was to get every school to make the transition to personalized learning, knowing that schools were going to have different entry points and that they couldn’t provide support to all the schools all at the same time. Aaryn Schmuhl, Assistant Superintendent for Learning and Leadership, explained, “We looked at several different school models, and each one is different. It quickly became clear to us that we can’t tell people how to do it. We want to support education entrepreneurs who can create a personalized learning school using their vision and strengths.”

The strategy that was developed “starts with the willing, draws on a small group of consultants, and creates an inclusive process where everyone makes the transition.” Historically, schools in Henry County have had a high level of school autonomy. Thus, it was important to keep as much as possible “loose” for the schools. The decision was to keep school redesign and the tools schools use “loose,” while the learner profile platform and competency-based learning infrastructure remained “tight.” It was important in terms of equity that the assessments built around the competencies and performance indicators be consistent across the district. They set the expectation that all schools would start the transition within the next three years and that each could develop a model using the five tenets of personalized learning in a way that worked for them and their students. Karen Perry, Special Projects Coordinator for HCS, emphasized this with, “We wanted to give schools the choice of when they go, but the 2020 vision for the district is that all fifty schools will be engaged in the work of personalized learning, whether that is in the application, planning, or implementation stage.”

The Implementation Strategy

The implementation strategy includes:

Start with a Small Team to Design Process

HCS had a small district-level working team made up of Schmuhl; Perry; Steve Thompson, Director of Impact Academy, a virtual school; and Brian Blanton, Instructional Technology Coordinator. A larger advisory group was also established to provide input and feedback along the way. They used the grant process for the Gates Foundation Next Generation Systems Initiative (they were awarded $3.9 million) as a mechanism to put together their ideas for implementing the vision for personalized learning.

Cohort Strategy

HCS created a launch plan to have six cohorts, the first made up of six schools, and nine schools in each of the others. The three-part process for each cohort is: application to join the cohort, a year and a half to plan, and then implementation. Each school within a cohort receives a $25,000 planning grant to be used for learning, such as travel, reading, collaborative time, substitutes, conferences, and building capacity. It is specifically not to be used for technology or purchasing supplies. The first cohort is now beginning to implement and the second is in the planning stage.

The district prefers that the schools in the cohorts be in clusters that are geographically close, as it enables easier vertical planning. In addition, ideas transfer more readily with proximity. The first cohort is made up of four middle and two high schools. Perry explained, “We started with a focus on secondary schools, in part because we wanted to begin with the end in mind, and also because we had some technology-based curriculum supports in place for grades 6-12.” The second cohort includes seven elementary and two high schools.

As part of this process, the school and district signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agree to a set of accountability metrics, to participate in the support provided by the district, and to use the iWalkthrough process developed by Great Schools Partnership.

They also agree to “pay it forward” by: 1) participating in panels, events, and convenings; 2) opening their doors to tours for visitors; and 3) helping the next cohorts, such as serving as technical advisors to the next cohort as they write their proposals. The cohort strategy is designed around an assumption that each cohort will generate new lessons learned and insights that will be shared with others. For example, the first cohort’s lessons learned include:

  • Student ownership is the goal
  • Continuous improvement, not right answers
  • Team effort, not just principal driven
  • Funding is not primary driver
  • Be transparent with everyone

Catalytic Staff

With the funds from the NGSI grant, HCS has been able to pay for project managers and personalized learning coaches for the first cohort. Perry explained that project management is an important skill, and one that schools have had to develop. “The school project managers keep things on track. They make sure schools are directionally correct and keep personalized learning in the forefront of the cohort schools’ focus. Personalized Learning Coaches work in direct support of teachers to help them with the shift in practice to PL. This team serves on school leadership, meets regularly together to ensure resources and efforts are coordinated and focused. They are an essential part of ensuring this work is implemented with fidelity at the school level.”

They have also hired nine district coaches with district funds. They are using the coaching resources very carefully so that they work with a school starting halfway into the planning year and halfway into the first year of implementation. The coaches know their job is to build capacity and then move on to the next school. Perry pointed out, “We knew that the coaches and project managers are going to play key roles. We hired rock stars and then tried to match them the best we can to schools. We are investing in developing their capacity through a coaching model, coordinated by our Professional Learning department. We assembled a very strong group of people who want to get things done.”

Clarify the Work of the District

HCS identified several core functions for the district to undertake, each with a task group to develop it. Three of these functions dominated our conversations during my visit. First is a critical step to lay the groundwork. Schmuhl and Perry described a nonstop tour of schools and community meetings they undertook to ensure that everyone understood why they were turning to personalized learning and what it meant. Second, they point out that the district needs to be able to reconfigure itself to support the redesign process. Third, it’s important to co-construct the infrastructure that will hold the system together. This means the district must identify those few items that need to be “tightly” developed and managed, and then create processes to engage schools to ensure their expertise and perspectives contribute to the final design. At HCS, this is the development of the platform for the learner profiles and the competency-based learning infrastructure. They are also taking a strong role in creating a thorough and consistent understanding of rigor by creating protocols to use depth of knowledge to analyze instruction, learning activities, assessments, and student work, which is led by the district content coordinators and data response facilitators.

Schmuhl explained that they needed technical assistance to develop the competency-based learning system, so they engaged GSP to help them. Although GSP facilitated the competency work, HCS competencies were built by Henry County teachers and staff, rooted in Georgia curriculum. The competencies and scoring criteria were under construction for nearly a year and have just been published for vetting with teachers.

Walking the Talk with Personalized Strategy

Perry noted, “Each community is different and what they are proud of is different. We want to honor their values, their strengths, and their history.” The HCS strategy for the schools in the cohorts is for each of them to develop their own vision within the parameters of the five tenets of personalized learning as well as their own implementation strategy. Perry pointed out that a school with a history of service learning can build upon that, whereas one with strengths in blended learning can start there.

Support the Redesign Process

HCS is partnering with Mastery Design Collaborative led by Jeffery Tsang. Over an eleven-month period of time, schools participate in an intensive redesign process, led by MDC and the district. Redesign includes visioning, research, knowledge-building, strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, written plans, and formal oral presentations with rounds of feedback from school and district leaders. Although the process is a highly structured one, each school embarks on its own journey to interpret and implement the HCS tenets of personalized learning for their own school community. Much of the school redesign implementation is supported by HCS executive officers, who serve as regional supervisors of the schools.

Targeted Professional Development

HCS believed it was important to provide teachers with intensive support. To that end, professional development has been an important focus of the PL work. Teachers and staff participate in professional development related to each of the HCS tenets of PL. Much of the PD is available via asynchronous options such as online courses, mini-units, and learning platforms. Other professional development topics, like project-based learning and competency training (including looking at student work protocols), are best suited to a face-to-face approach to allow for deep discourse.  Although HCS has employed some external providers for professional development (such as Buck Institute for PBL and Diana Laufenberg from Inquiry Schools), much of the focus has been to build capacity of internal staff, both at the district and school levels, to sustain the work. Content coordinators and teachers on special assignment focus their efforts on competency-related training, while district PL coaches provide PBL training, and instructional technology specialists support schools on tech options like learning management systems and the learner profile platform. Personalized learning coaches are assigned to each cohort school specifically to support teachers in the shift to PL. School practitioners (teachers, counselors, principals) also share best practices through formal presentations, as well as vertical planning and classroom observation within and between schools.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who benefit from professional development. HCS has specifically attended to the change process by focusing on supporting leaders in managing change at the school level. The district leadership development program focuses on equipping leaders at all levels to bring the district vision for personalized learning to fruition. Cohort principals also have their own PLG, which is focused on creating a community of practice for leading personalized learning, and also receive ongoing coaching and support from their executive officers.

Lessons Learned and Tips

Throughout the day, the leadership team at HCS shared their insights and advice with these ten tips:

Tip #1 Understand that Student Agency is a Huge Shift

Perry explained, “Focusing on student agency as the core of this work is an enormous shift for schools philosophically and practically speaking. It’s a huge shift for teachers and for kids to move from passive to active learners.” She continued, “The nature of information is so different now. Teachers are no longer the sources of information. Kids are inundated with information. Their challenge is, can they learn from it and sift through it, and do something with it? Kids need to be able to learn how to learn, discover what their strengths and passions are, and make decisions about their learning.”

She emphasized that helping teachers understand student agency is an important step in planning and developing new practices in the implementation stage. When she does school visits, she looks for signs that personalized learning is working. “I look for students to be able to explain how they learned something and how they chose to demonstrate their learning,” she said. “We want students to understand that they can learn, that they can reflect on their learning, and that they are able to advocate for themselves and make decisions that enhance their learning.”

Tip #2 Have the Confidence to Design What Works for Your District

Perry suggested, “We quickly realized that no other school district is going to be the same as we are. There is no school in a box that we could or even should replicate. We are resisting checklists, but that makes the process longer and messier. We visit and read about and learn from other schools who are engaged in this work, and we take the best of what we learn from each visit. We have to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to us. Our answers are right here in our own district. The first step is that you have to imagine it in order to build it.”

Tip #3 Know the Difference between Rules and Traditions

Schmuhl repeatedly pointed out that there were very few rules that were actual barriers. “You pull back the onion skin and they aren’t rules that are preventing change. They are traditions that can be replaced with new practices once people feel it is safe to let go.”

Tip #4 Become Uncomfortable with the Status Quo

Schmuhl emphasized, “We need to be comfortable starting with ‘What if…?’ What if all the rules were removed and you could do what you valued most about kids? What would you do? The expectation at Henry County is that we aren’t sitting in the status quo. It is becoming unacceptable to be status quo.”

Reflection: I couldn’t help but think – isn’t that the very essence of continuous improvement?

Tip #5 Move Far Enough, Fast Enough So You Can’t Slip Back

Mary Hastings of the Great Schools Partnership reflected on Schmuhl’s leadership with, “He thinks progressively and doesn’t like to mess around. He prescribes to Ted Sizer’s philosophy: Move far enough, fast enough so you can’t slip back. You can’t get the end goal perfectly in your mind. You have to take bold moves and make it work or make corrections. It’s important for leaders to consistently reinforce a community of learning. It did take people a while to trust if it is really safe enough to try out new practices.”

Tip #6 Keeping Personalized Learning Front and Center

At HCS, personalized learning is the conversation. “Everyone in this district knows that personalized learning is the direction,” Schmuhl said. “At a principals’ meeting, with a hundred people in the room, the topic might be developing capacity around change management or how to build relationships through change management. At the last principal meeting, we looked at competencies and how performance indicators are different than standards. This isn’t a project happening with a small subset of schools; it’s the work of the district, and it’s going to take all of us to make it happen.”

Tip #7 Keeping the Focus on Lessons Learned

The leadership team at HCS are constantly reflecting…and learning. “Anyone in this space values lessons learned,” Perry said. The exchange is constant and so is the ability to shift between short-term, medium-term, and long-term opportunities. Brian Blanton added to this with, “We don’t say we got something wrong. We call it a short-cycle iteration.” The focus is on a growth mindset and figuring out how to get it right.

Tip #8 Develop Methods of Supports for Your Leadership Team

As Perry put it, “We are early on in the marathon, but it feels like a series of sprints. It’s important to set a pace of change that is steady so you don’t burn yourself out in the first year.” She recommends joining a network if possible. She explained that the opportunities to meet with other districts in the NGSI accelerated their work just by allowing them the opportunity to engage with like-minded people facing similar issues in their districts.

Tip #9 Make Sure Change Management and Project Management are Priorities

Perry explained that they quickly learned the importance of attending specifically to change management at the school and district level. Change, even if people believe in the change, is difficult. It’s emotional and difficult, particularly when stakes are high and people truly want to do what is right by students. Taking good care of the people who are doing this difficult work is essential. They also realized that project management was essential. “You have to have someone dedicated to managing tasks or it just becomes the eighty-seventh thing on someone’s plate.”

Tip #10 Make it More about Them

Jennifer Gay, project manager at Luella High School, shared an important observation. “When you try to personalize learning for students or for teachers, you need to make it less about us, and more about them,” she said. “I’ve noticed that I push the practices I prefer. I have to keep myself in check. I have to give up some control so that teachers can discover their learning.” This is one of the big shifts that is very important for school leaders and districts to make and will likely change the nature of district staff jobs.

Take a closer look at a few examples of Henry County Schools in action in the next post, What All of This Means for Schools.