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Aurora Institute

Lake County Schools: Designing a Strategy to Bring Personalized Learning to Scale

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Lake CountyThis post is the first in a five-part series on Lake County Schools in Florida.

After the iNACOL Symposium in Orlando, I had a whirlwind visit at Lake County Schools in Florida and an incredibly rich conversation with Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning for Students. I first met Halbig two years ago at the iNACOL pre-conference symposium on competency education. She was just learning about competency education at the time. Two years later, a group of her schools are already in their first year of implementation. This district is moving fast, although one person referred to it as “moving at the speed of trust.”

In this post, I share a bit of background and an overview of the Lake County Schools strategy to transition to a system of personalized learning (including competency education). Each of the profiles of the schools shares insights and takeaways into the process of a medium-sized district making the transition to a competency-based, personalized system. Thanks to the educators at each of the following schools for their generosity in sharing their learning:

We didn’t have time to visit Umatilla High School – I hope to do that when I get back to visit Lake County. Or perhaps if you go to visit Lake County, you might be able to stop by and share how they are proceeding in their transition.


Lake County 2Lake County Schools is located in Central Florida in what was once a strong agricultural center that has since made the transition to a mixed economy with strong ties to the tourism industry of nearby Orlando. LCS has 5,000 employees working in forty district schools, plus ten charter school serving approximately 42,000 students.

It’s a district that takes strategy and management seriously, with a well-developed focus on how they use finances (they have to – in terms of per-pupil funding, Lake County is 66th out of 67 districts in Florida, and Florida is in the bottom third of the country). Halbig explained to me that they had received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Spending Money Smartly (referred to as EngageLCS initiative by the district) to evaluate how financial resources are currently allocated, consider strategies more aligned with the district’s priorities (including personalized learning), improve struggling schools, improve achievement of ELL students, strengthen the talent development pipeline, and implement program evaluation.

Their capacity to think and work strategically positioned them to win Next Generations System Initiative (NGSI) grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This initiative is designed to create examples of how larger districts can upgrade their operations and reallocate resources around personalized learning and student achievement. They are also participating in Florida’s Race to the Top grant.

Lake County is also a district that takes school autonomy seriously. The district serves ten cities/towns, each with its own history, community dynamics, and strong relationships with local schools. Some are small urban areas with intact communities and a strong feeder school system. Others are rural; Umatilla sits next to a national forest, and to this day, many homes don’t have internet access. Thus, it was important for them to develop a strategy that allowed the schools to move individually toward personalized learning – albeit within a common framework.

Florida’s Policy Context:  According to CFAT, school districts may issue competency-based or time-based credits. In addition, a bill has been introduced in 2016 to establish a competency-based innovation pilot. The overarching policy context is:


Florida State Assessments: Florida’s assessment system for math and ELA in grades 3-8 and ELA in grades 9 and 10 is called the Florida Standard Assessments (FSA). FSA is administered by the American Institutes for Research. Florida administers End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. Florida provides some flexibility on the timing of testing with its EOC assessments by offering four testing windows throughout the year. Much less flexibility is offered for the other state assessments.


School Accountability: Florida grades schools and districts on an A-F scale. These letter grades are primarily based on student growth and achievement based on state summative tests. However, it seems the state did not release grades for 2015.


Teacher Evaluations: At least 50 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation must be based upon data and indicators of student learning growth assessed annually and measured by statewide assessments or, for subjects and grade levels not measured by statewide assessments, by district assessments. A teacher’s contribution to student learning is measured with a value-added score.


What Does Personalization Mean in Lake County?

Lake County Schools has developed a comprehensive definition of personalization as creating the environment where “learners drive their own learning and connect learning with their own interests and aspirations.” It includes:

  • become active participants in the design of learning and identify goals and objectives for their own learning plans;
  • develop the skills to use appropriate technology and resources;
  • build networks of peers, experts, and teachers for support;
  • demonstrate mastery of content in a competency-based system;
  • monitor the progress of their learning; and
  • redefine learning activities and goals based on individual learner needs.

This is an interesting definition that has integrated personalized learning as an approach (meeting students where they are, responding to their interests with instructional experience in which they have agency, voice and choice) with competency-based learning (a school infrastructure designed to ensure students are successful by providing consistently aligned instruction and assessment, increasing ownership through transparency, and offering timely support when students are struggling). Check out the video describing personalization with a strong emphasis on deeper learning (but be aware it doesn’t fully capture LCS’s vision).

Reflection: I believe we are now in the stage where we are ready to create a cohesive understanding of how personalized learning and competency education go hand in hand, as there is a much deeper understanding of each concept developing in districts and how they can support each other (as compared to thinking about them synonymously). As Lake County understands, with its vision for preparing students for college and career readiness, the first step is to have a strong understanding of what parents and communities want for their children when they graduate. Other districts are creating comprehensive visions that include lifelong learning and well-being as well as the college/career readiness that will shape how personalized learning and competency-based systems are structured. Accountability starts with being clear about the goal and establishing that it is the job of the schools to get students there. This is one of the huge changes between the traditional school (our job is to deliver curriculum) and competency-based education (our job is to help students learn and fully prepare them to be successful for their next transition in life).

Overall Pedagogy and Infrastructure

Given the strong school autonomy, LCS recognizes that within the overall transition to personalization, schools will develop their pedagogical approach based on their strengths and assets. As the schools create more flexibility to better respond to the needs of students, they will do in ways that make sense for them. However, undergirding the individualized approach to personalization is a common infrastructure of what students are expected to learn and be able to do.

The LCS curriculum department and the first cohort of schools are working together with the support of Great Schools Partnership to develop a set of measurable objectives and learning targets based on the Florida standards and the curricular blueprints that LCS had been using. Stay tuned – at least one segment should be completed this summer. Schools already had common assessments based on the blueprints, so much was already in place. Please note: At this point, the district has focused primarily on the academic infrastructure and hasn’t developed an infrastructure to support the broader skills and dispositions required for college/career readiness (such as collaboration, creativity, and habits of learning). This isn’t to say that the schools aren’t focusing on these skills – they certainly are. There just isn’t a formal district-wide infrastructure.

At this point, teachers and students are beginning to see the value in adaptive technology tools that expand students’ educational opportunities. Halbig explained, though, that in Lake County, personalized learning does not equal online learning. Teachers need instructional resources available in a variety of modalities, including technology, but not limited to technology. The resources should meet the needs of the students. However, teachers are already finding value in the flipped classroom practice when it is built into their units. Halbig noted, “Teachers are commenting that they never understood how fast kids can go. In fact, teachers are discovering that the teacher pace may hold kids back.”

What is Level 4?

One of the issues that the district realized was a problem is that when using a four-point scoring system with Level 3 indicating that students are proficient, the question becomes, What is beyond proficiency? How do you define Level 4?

This is a tricky issue facing all of the districts I visit, since if you align Level 4 with depth of knowledge so that it indicates knowledge utilization (applying skills in new contexts or creating new knowledge), it may not be something we want to design for each measurable objective learning target or standard. The problem often develops when there isn’t strong enough alignment between the scoring criteria and depth of knowledge. It also becomes an issue as schools realize that they are not offering adequate deeper learning (or rigor) for all students. It may be something that we only expect for an overall course or within project- or problem-based learning. LCS knew they needed help and have engaged Great Schools Partnership to develop a meaningful districtwide strategy for Level 4. Once LCS completes their CBE framework , we will do an update to learn from their reasoning.

Strategy for Change

To understand LCS’s strategy for change, it’s important to remember that it started with a solid experience in strategic planning, innovation, and capacity to execute. This is balanced with the strong commitment to school autonomy. Halbig explained, “Our superintendent Susan Moxley is comfortable with innovation. She knows that if you try to innovate from a top-down perspective, you risk fostering an attitude of compliance. Personalized learning for students has developed organically, and because of that, has empowered schools and teachers.”

In 2013, the district had developed the vision statement for personalized learning and established a working group. They then applied for and were awarded the first of the three-stage NGSI grants. They worked with Gartner to develop the strategic plan for the district. LCS knew that as they developed their plans within the Next Generation Systems Initiative, they wanted to make sure their implementation plan had a strategy for scaling. They established five goals to drive the work, a launch process for those schools that were ready to jump in, and then a cohort strategy to engage all the remaining schools.

Five Goals

The Five Goals are:

  1. Establish the School and Classroom Culture to Support Student Directed Learning. Student Directed Learning refers to the student being at the center of the learning process. In a PL classroom, the students take greater ownership of their learning, can articulate their progress in mastering standards, and understand what they need to do to continue to progress academically.
  2. Establish Learner Profiles and Individual Paths to Mastery: Every student has individual strengths, needs, interests, and learning styles. In a PL classroom, the teacher works to leverage his/her understanding of how a student learns best in order to help each student succeed.
  3. Establish Competency-Based Progression: Once fully implemented, PL classrooms will have structures in place for students to progress upon mastery of the required standards.
  4. Establish Flexible Learning Environments: A flexible learning environment refers to flexible groupings within the classroom, as well as learning opportunities beyond the classroom or school. Experiential learning opportunities like internships and externships are important components of PL.
  5. Establish Metrics for Accountability and Continuous Improvement: The goal of PL is to improve student achievement, so critical to our implementation is establishing the metrics that will help us determine how well schools and classrooms are implementing PL, as well as what impact the implementations are having on student achievement. Using this data will help us ensure that we are continuously improving our PL implementation.

Launch Schools

The LCS strategy builds on the principle of “ready, willing, and able.” The second phase of the NGSI grant supported a planning year for eight schools. Halbig explained, “The strategy is for each school to do their own thinking. Each school has to consider the comfort level of their stakeholders. We wanted teachers and administrators to decide what PL would look like in their schools, so we empowered them to make many of the decisions.” The launch schools (a mix of high schools, middle, and elementary) were selected to advance at accelerated rates to personalize their schools with a competency-based infrastructure. Each school had to have a design team of five people or more, of whom two were classroom teachers. Each school developed their own vision and mission to drive the transition to personalized learning. You can find the highlights of conversations with educators at these schools in the following posts: South Lake High School, Lost Lake Elementary, Windy Hill Middle, and Sawgrass Bay Elementary.

Each of the launch schools has a personalized learning facilitator who is both providing coaching and helping to advance the work. LCS also partnered with the Reinventing Schools Coalition to provide training on classroom design and delivery for a cadre of teachers from each school so teachers could make the transition to preparing for and managing personalized classrooms. RISC also provided follow-up, working with administrative staff and visiting classrooms to provide feedback to teachers to help them strengthen their skills with the new practices.

Halbig said, “We already had a strong culture of continuous improvement. However, this becomes even more intentional in personalized learning. RISC helped us learn how to put students in the center of the classroom and develop the procedures and structures so they can take ownership. The practices of personalized learning introduced by RISC have helped us to think even more carefully about how we can improve our practice.” Please note: LCS has put together one of the best resources on understanding the practices that will help teachers manage personalized classrooms. Everyone should take the 5-10 minutes to walk through this site.

Cohort Scaling Strategy

The goal is for all schools to be personalized by 2022. Using a cohort strategy, approximately eight to ten schools will initiate a 1-2 year planning process every year and then begin implementation.

Seeking Knowledge

Lake County has taken advantage of the iNACOL Symposium to meet with practitioners already several years into implementing competency education, as well as to visit other districts, connecting with grantee networks and drawing on a mix of providers. Obviously their grants have helped them in a number of ways, but it is their skill in tapping into people with expertise and then drawing it out to work within their district that makes a difference. Halbig noted that being part of the NGSI community of practice has been invaluable. Michelle Mabry, a personalized learning facilitator at Lost Lake Elementary said, “We have been substantially helped by RISC and learning from people in the other districts. It would have taken us much longer to get this right without them.”

What Has Made Their District Strategy Successful?

Along the way I asked people about why they thought they were making such a rapid transition.

  • Every step is intentional.
  • We are constantly looking for ways to improve our practice at the district level, school level, and now in the classroom.
  • RISC provided the foundation we needed, especially about how to have students take more responsibility for themselves and their learning. Knowing how to unpack standards with students, do goal setting with students, and create choice boards has totally changed my classroom.
  • School autonomy makes it our responsibility to figure this out. No one is being told what to do – everything is coming from our own motivation.
  • It is important to develop a pathway for students, not just standards. We have to think about how we get them from here to there.

The most powerful statement, one repeated at each of the schools is, “We used to pride ourselves on the aggregate achievement of our students. Now we are constantly asking, are there any students we aren’t reaching?” This orientation is why competency-based education might actually create a more equitable and effective education system.

See also: