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Aurora Institute

Lake County Schools: Moving at the Speed of Trust at South Lake High School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

slhs map of learning
SLHS Map of Learning

This post is the second in a five-part series on Lake County Schools in Florida. Begin with the district overview and follow along at these schools: South Lake High, Lost Lake Elementary, Sawgrass Bay Elementary, and Lake Windy Hill Middle

My first stop at Lake County Schools was South Lake High School (SLHS) with Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning, as my guide. Arriving a bit early, I had the chance to read all the posters and photographs that dotted the walls in the reception area, congratulating students for Future Farmers of America, bowling, golf, track, and national merit scholars. And I thought – normal American high school.

However, once I met with Principal Rob McCue, Assistant Principal Kim Updike, and PL Facilitator Bobby Rego, I realized that South Lake High School is really the “new normal” – an entrepreneurial, innovative spirit committed to figuring out exactly how to personalize education so every student is achieving no matter what their level of skill and maturity when they first enroll in high school. With 1,820 students, of which 62 percent (or more) is FRL, South Lake High School has to design for students who are likely to be the first generation to go to college. The school is based in Groveland, Florida, where agricultural strength is on the decline and so are the jobs. In a world in which so many schools are not racially integrated, it’s worth noting that South Lake is 13 percent African-American, 23 percent Hispanic, and 64 percent white.

Powerful Understanding of Personalization: Immediately in our opening conversation, Updike and McCue stated, “Personalized learning means meeting kids where they are and taking them as far as you can by any means necessary.” The official definition of personalized learning is equally powerful, as it emphasizes student agency: Personalized learning is a broad spectrum of educational opportunities for students that provides students VOICE and CHOICE in how they learn and demonstrate mastery of standards. At South Lake High, we view personalized learning as simply meeting students where they are and taking them as far as they can go, and then some, while assisting them in making global connections to their interests, community, college, and careers.

What Personalization Looks Like at South Lake High: McCue was upfront, “We are early in the work and teachers are trying different things – project-based learning, more inquiry-based learning, technology enhanced learning, more flexible learning environments. There are a lot of ways to shake this.”

Structure for Relationships and Success: SLHS restructured the ninth grade into small academies of 150 students with a team of teachers. This allows teachers to build strong relationships with students during what is often a difficult transition time. Every student also has a Success Coach they meet with once a week during the Power Hour to help deal with emerging issues before students fall behind.

Student Voice Balanced with Common Assessments: The ninth and tenth grade ELA and math teachers have completed the calibration process around standards and the creation of common assessments. This enables teachers to provide more choice and flexibility in how students learn and how they demonstrate their learning.

I visited an English class in which students were engaged in a project to study the different leadership styles of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Hitler, and Argentinian President Videla. They were asked to write a persuasive essay explaining how the leader used pathos, ethos, and logos to influence others. Students could work in groups but were expected to create their own products. Students had online access to the rubric and prompts were also available to help them along the way. The teacher, Mrs. Spencer, explained that she had to adjust her teaching style to create more opportunity for voice and choice. “I had to learn to step back and increase the amount of freedom students have,” she said. “Now, they create their own schedules for a three-week unit and abide by their own deadlines. If they have problems with the deadlines, then it becomes a learning opportunity to help them with time management.”

Math teacher Gina Cattle agreed that the biggest change for teachers is letting go of control. “Students have to learn to take responsibility. And the teachers need support from administration to do this. We still worry when it looks like not all the students are on task. The kids may be working but it doesn’t always look like it. The social and extroverted kids may be chatting away as part of the process of learning. The introverted ones may be looking out the window while they think.” I was amazed by the map of the course that Cattle worked on with her students to co-create standard operating procedures that defined the processes to allow students to move ahead at their own pace.

Culture of Persistence: Updike said that a huge shift for the students and teachers alike was to move from the practice of “I don’t get it, move on” to “We are going to keep working on it until you get it and it’s going to take more effort.” Keeping the gradebook open all year was important to reinforce this idea. If students don’t like their grade, they can keep working. The ninth graders often work on completing their projects at the end of the year, as it takes a cycle for students and parents to understand what it means to have a culture of proficiency and persistence. Even after the gradebook closes, the principal can approve grade changes if a student puts in the effort.

Florida has an accountability policy that includes End of Course exams. Several students emphasized that they believe they can pass them. As one student explained, “We know that we can pass the exams at the end of year because the teachers will help us.”

Eliminating Tracking: SLHS realized that they had to eliminate the lower tracks. They looked closely at the Florida standards and discovered that the standards were very similar, but the depth of knowledge was different between general and honors (Florida codes these courses differently). There was one additional standard in ELA honors and five more standards in math honors. Based on this analysis, it made sense to upgrade the courses to honors level. Now English courses are all honors courses. They followed suit in math so all ninth grade students are either in algebra honors or geometry honors based on their skills when they enter school. Parents can also ask for their students to be in a “general” course, where the students stay in the same course but don’t engage in the deeper levels of learning. To date, no parent has asked.

Design Strategies for Students at Lower Academic Levels: If all courses were going to be honors level, then the next step was to make sure that there was a ladder for students entering with lower academic skills, gaps in skills, or inadequate fluency. They created a “power lab” for math and reading support that runs all day long. Adaptive programs are available, including ALEKS, Khan Academy, and Algebra Nation. A certified math teacher is available for tutoring. If needed, a student might have the lab in their schedule as a course.

SLHS is also thinking strategically about how to handle the situation when a student is doing a lot of re-assessments using traditional methods such as tests, but is only inching up as a result. If the teacher believes the students does understand the material, they can use alternative assessments as well.

College and Career Going Culture: SLHS had already made substantial effort toward creating a college-going culture. The leadership team is very concerned about achievement gaps. McCue explained, “When you talk about achievement gaps, the real test is about graduation rates. Florida’s achievement data wasn’t looking at graduation rates, but we knew it was important. Can you have expectations for students becoming proficient and get them to stick with it through graduation? We had to change the culture so kids could believe that they could do well on tests and become college and career ready. We have raised the graduation rate of our students in special education from 48 to 78 percent. The graduation rate of our African-American students is equal to our overall rate of 80 percent.”

SLHS has continued to increase the college-going culture as they implement personalized learning, including asking every student to create a personalized plan that includes post-secondary employment and training. They are using Khan Academy’s free SAT Prep (developed in partnership with the College Board) and are paying for the PSAT for students. They have also established a policy that no student can be told they can’t take AP classes. McCue enthused, “You can’t underestimate the power of the word ‘Yes.’ We see it as a success if they are willing to try.” AP participation rates have increased from 536 AP tests to 1,200 tests. SLHS has found that if students use Power Hour (see below) well, they will do well in their AP classes.

Move On When Ready: SLHS is putting in place a process by which students call together their academic team when they believe they are ready to move on to the next level. They make the case why they are ready to move up to a team composed of the guidance counselor, teachers, student, an administrator, and parents. At this point, there are a number of ways students might do this as the school explores options. The goal is to create a portfolio and exhibition process by which students demonstrate and defend their learning. In this way, SLHS is re-investing meaning into grade levels beyond the number of years you have spent in high school. Moving from ninth to tenth grade is based on demonstrated mastery of a set of skills and maturity. As they move up, demonstrating their maturity to take responsibility for their education, they are also able to access more opportunities. Designed as graduated release, students can take advantage of the TV production facilities, ROTC, internships, and dual enrollment.

Power Hour: SLHS has a slightly different approach to providing extra time for learning within the school day. They created Power Hour by extending the time for lunch and giving students responsibility and choice for how they use the time. One of the goals for Power Hour is to help students build their time management skills. Here is an excerpt from the memo explaining Power Hour:

Students understand that they have one hour to use for their own personal or academic growth. Students are empowered to use the time as they choose and are free to be anywhere on campus. They must respect each other and keep the campus clean. There is a calendar of club meetings and scheduled study sessions they may attend. We will assist/guide students to make good choices for Power Hour through classroom data chats and Success Coaching session, but no one polices the students or makes them attend sessions. The choice is theirs and may include:

  • Using their time to enhance their academic performance by going for extra help with a teacher or working with a study group
  • Participating in service learning projects
  • Developing activities for other students to participate in such as tutoring
  • Activity organizations such as concerts by our band, chorus, or plays by our drama department
  • Participating in clubs which are organized by student leaders
  • Finding time for lunch

South Lake High School developed Power Hour after seeing the model at West Port High School in Marion County, Florida. Again from the school literature:

Power Hour was accomplished with creative use of the teacher and student time on campus. It is totally student-driven. If you ask any student on campus what contributes to her success, she will resoundingly say “Power Hour.” Student empowerment and choice has led to several positive gains:

  • Course failure rate plummeted from 37% to less than 3% in the first two years of implementation and has ranged from 2.7% to 3% in the last two years. 
  • Graduation rate has increased from 72% in 2009 to 92% in 2014.
  • AP and dual enrollment participation has also increased due to the academic support that is provided for students during Power Hour.

The most convincing evidence of Power Hour’s success is the increased leadership and greater maturity of our students in the past five years. If you give students autonomy with guidelines they will develop personal skills that will prepare them for lifelong success.

Getting Started: The first thing the SLHS leadership team did was draw on their strengths. Schools can feel battered around by all the different initiatives, reforms, and programs advanced by government and foundations. Not so at SLHS. Their mindset is to take advantage of previous reform efforts to position themselves to make the transition to a personalized learning system. Updike, in her ninth year as AP, explained that the small learning communities grant they had over a decade ago has been beneficial to introducing personalized learning. “Academies are built upon many of the same principles of how to engage, motivate, and support students. They laid a nice foundation. They also gave us a leg up on the learning curve because we have created a culture of perpetual change in keeping up with our students and their interests.”

SLHS knew they needed to engage a broad section of the school in planning for the transition to personalized learning. They created a committee that started with union members, veteran teachers, and three additional teachers who volunteered. The committee went to visit Piedmont, Alabama, a community that was similar to Groveland. By personalizing their approach, the district’s graduation rate had jumped to nearly 100 percent. When the committee returned full of enthusiasm and ideas, membership grew to twelve and then to twenty-eight by the end of the year.

Updike explained, “We realized that we had to show people what personalized learning is and what it looks like. We also worried that with our strong emphasis on student voice and choice, we were going to have to develop strategies to address the maturity levels of students, especially as they had never had this level of expectations before.” They began to build up a video library for teachers to explore.

The next step was the classroom design and delivery training with the Reinventing Schools Coalition. However, even with the training, some teachers still needed to see to believe. So another trip to Piedmont was organized. In addition, a strategy of “micro-pilot,” or what others might call short-cycle iterations, was used. McCue explained, “We kept encouraging people to just try it. Try this, try that. No one told the teachers what to do, but there was an expectation that they try something. Then we reflected in faculty meetings or PLCs about how something worked or what needed to happen to make it work better.” A focus group with students also helped give teachers feedback to deepen their understanding of personalized learning.

You can learn more about their approach in this presentation.

Supporting Teachers: As Updike explained, “We have to personalize for teachers the same way we do for students. Furthermore, we have to harness the power of each other’s brains and toolboxes. If teachers try to meet the need of every student all by themselves, they will be overwhelmed. ” McCue expanded on this thought, noting that it was just as important for teachers to have a growth mindset for themselves as well as to cultivate it in their students. However, he noted, “The growth mindset isn’t sufficient. The school needs to make it safe for teachers to try, trip, and try again.”

SLHS started the transition by working with ninth and tenth grade English and math teachers. They wanted to work with a limited number of teachers to “get it right.” They knew that teachers need to have more time to work together to make the transition, so one day per month was dedicated for the professional learning communities. In order to do this, administrative, literacy, and student service staff all had to go into the classroom on those days.

Teachers unpacked the standards, shared their strategies about how to help students reach the standards, and began to calibrate their understanding of proficiency. The district curriculum department worked closely with the PLCs in a “co-capacity building” process.

SLHS also engaged teachers schoolwide in preparatory activities. For example, they did a strengths finder training for all staff and everyone read Now, Discover Your Strengths. They invited everyone to begin to try new practices that would increase student voice and choice in the classroom. McCue explained, “We said, you can dive in or you can try, or you don’t have to do it all right now. Of the ninety-five instructional staff only two people said they wouldn’t try.”

It wasn’t always easy and there were a lot of emotions as teachers moved outside of their comfort zones. Updike remembered that she had a number of teachers coming into her office to talk. “One teacher told me that she thought she needed to do something else for a living. It was just too hard to change to this new approach of personalized learning. Several months later she returned with a smile to tell me that not only were things better, but that personalized learning brought her back to the very root of why she came into teaching.” Updike also recounted a story of one of the Exceptional Student Education (special education) teachers who came to her because she didn’t know where she fit into personalized learning. Updike told her, “ESE teachers are the role model for personalized learning.”

Updike explained that another big change was that their faculty meetings became faculty development opportunities. “We were constantly reflecting on practices and building new tools to put in our tool boxes.” McCue noted that it took him a bit to understand that hiring had to change as well. “We made a few mistakes in hiring. They were good teachers, but it wasn’t a good fit because they weren’t as collaborative or they weren’t comfortable with the idea of creating voice and choice for students. We’ve learned that you don’t just hire a ninth grade math teacher – you hire around the capacity of the team. You hire people who share our philosophy.”

Updike said that they are continuing to develop their professional development strategies. “We are now looking at gamification to see if it can help us better personalize professional development. We had been running our staff development days like an ed camp, where teachers decided what they wanted to share with their colleagues. This year we’ve used an inquiry based approach using Schoology to support this effort using a tiered system of challenges structured within Marzano’s domains.” The leadership team has very deliberately organized teams around the results from the strength finder training to highlight how those teams with mixed strengths solve problems differently from those that all have the same strengths.

Although my head was swimming by the end of this conversation, the idea that stuck with me the most was something McCue said about leadership: “We know that it is up to us to create a safe environment to try. We can only move at the speed of trust.”

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