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Aurora Institute

It Takes a Village to Personalize Learning to Every Student

CompetencyWorks Blog

This is the third post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Conversations at many of my school visits come around to how schools are managing accountability to state standards while also personalizing learning for each student. A discussion at the Integrated Arts Academy, an arts-based high school discussed in the previous post, shed valuable light on this topic. The following is part of my conversation with Tera Kaltsas, IAA’s Principal, and Brian Beresford, Eastern Carver’s Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation. It provides insights into strategies for satisfying diverse stakeholders in the development of a complex, competency-based system. It also illustrates the “tight vs. loose” decisions that are made in evolving CBE systems, and it touches on the state’s role in facilitating innovation.

TK: The district has “power standards” with many learning targets. What we learned was that, for our school, that was too specific. So we spent many years working with teachers to figure out which power standards must be met, and how to make them user-friendly for IAA—so they’re more applicable for life. For example, a physics teacher from another high school helped us figure out how to make the physics standards more applied and less math-focused. Also, students can take classes at the high school if they want; one of our students recently took AP Calculus at the high school.

EL: What do you say to stakeholders who insist that every student needs to meet every standard?

TK: Well, we’ve worked closely with the math specialists in the district to become more project-based, and there are times when students need to do old-school worksheets and “you just need to know this and learn it in a traditional way” kinds of math activities. And let’s not forget that students in conventional schools don’t always finish the textbook; it happens all the time.

But part of the idea of being an alternative learning center is that it really is alternative. When we as the district were creating and designing it, I refused to just be a smaller version of the mainstream high school. If kids are coming here because they’re disengaged from the whole learning process, then how are we going to reengage them? If the old system didn’t work in a big high school, why would we think that just making it smaller will make them engage in the same worksheets and sitting in rows and being compliant? That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a colossal waste of time.

IAA’s Aquaponic System

Our system has some checks and balances. Students need a learning plan that everyone signs off on. We hold to our standards, but we get there by different pathways. I’ll give you an example: We have a student who loved our aquaponic system. She spent hours and hours creating her own aquaponic system, helping create the school’s aquaponic system, getting a grant for the aquaponic system. So in her learning plan, I gave her a biology credit for going that in-depth on a handful of biology standards. She didn’t meet all 10 biology power standards, but she went so far in depth with a couple of them. But then everyone signs off on that. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

EL: What is the district’s perspective on that?

BB: The people who are in positions to sign off on it have been very supportive. Maybe if you went to a school staff member who was hyper-focused on credits or AP, they might say “that doesn’t count. I handed you a copy of our district-wide definition of personalized learning. [It says “Learning is a personal experience. By co-designing meaningful learning opportunities with teachers and mentors, the individual is at the center of her/his learning. Instruction is something we do with, rather than to, learners to promote growth, achievement, lifelong success, and fulfillment.”] It ends with “lifelong success and fulfillment,” and I can’t underscore the word “fulfillment” enough, because success is usually what other people measure for you.

For example, I could say to one of my principals, “You’re so successful,” and she could say “I hate coming to work every day.” And I could say, “Really? You seem to be doing the best job ever!” But that’s my measurement of success for her. It really comes down to fulfillment. And with the Integrated Arts Academy, kids who have been so disengaged in other school environments are smiling, conversing with each other, working collaboratively, and working intently on things they’re passionate about. This is fulfillment. This is success for the student and for us as a district.”

TK: In the beginning, I pushed back really hard, and we had a lot of conversations around what we were doing, and district administrators were very aware of it. We have teacher groups coming through all the time checking out our school, and they had some of our same students in their classrooms in the past, and they were very disengaged. The visiting teachers will say, “Wow, they’re working so hard now—I can’t believe it!” And the principals who back in the beginning were resisting what we’re doing are now sending their students to us. We’ve had lots of discussions that you can’t send students here expecting us to do something different and then not allow us to do something different.

BB: And we’re really focused on equity. Is it equitable, or is it equal? Do we do the same thing for every student, or do we provide the supports and structures that enable each student to succeed?

TK: For anything we put on a transcript, we have the evidence. Any administrator can come in and look on Project Foundry and see the evidence of their learning. Not to mention that the state allows us to be an “Innovative School.”  They’ve approved the teachers doing what they’re doing. So the check boxes are there for everyone to say “This is good work.” But we did have some really hard conversations the first couple years with all of the stakeholders.

EL: What were the hard conversations?

TK: Like people asking, “How do I know this student should get a diploma?” And the answer is that the district checks every diploma with a fine-tooth comb to confirm that the student has met all those boxes. We pull all the evidence out of Project Foundry, then my registrar transcripts it all into the right buckets, so that all the people who the transcript needs to speak to can see that the student met all of the requirements. They can see the pathway and the evidence. The kids aren’t necessarily aware of that part of the process, but we have a really good system on the back end now, and we communicate really well. Everyone wants what’s best for the students, so we carry out a plan that everyone agrees with and everyone signs off on.

Other Posts in This Series

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @eliot_levine