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Aurora Institute

Lake County Schools: Windy Hill Middle School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

WolvesThis post is the fifth 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

Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning at Lake County Schools (LCS), described Windy Hill Middle School as “a high performing middle school with a strong level of trust. The staff are confident in their ability to manage change and take risks.” Yet, the team at Windy Hill knew they still weren’t reaching every student, which is why they decided to make the transition to personalized learning with implementation beginning the fall of 2015.

We had a rich conversation with Assistant Principal Abby Crosby and Personalized Learning Facilitator Mary Ellen Barger. Here are the highlights:

Building a Common Understanding of Personalized Learning: The journey to personalization at Windy Hill started by engaging everyone, including the school advisory committee, business community, teachers, and parents.

Four (Overlapping) Steps to Personalized Learning: The Windy Hill scale up strategy has four components that are not entirely sequential. First, invest in the culture of personalization, including growth mindset. Second, go with the teachers who are ready, willing, and able. Third, build capacity through a train-the-trainer model so Windy Hill teachers can train others in the personalized learning classroom design and delivery skills. Fourth, build the capacity for writing units that take into consideration that students are starting at different points and using a variety of multiple assessments.

Background: Windy Hill, located in the south end of Lake County, serves 1,300 students in grades 6-8. Approximately 57 percent are FRL and 56 percent are members of minority groups. Both Sawgrass Bay Elementary and Lost Lake Elementary are feeder schools. The motto at Windy Hills is One Pack Empowering Each Other for Life.

Ready, Willing, and Able: Crosby explained that their biggest takeaway from their site visit to Charleston is to draw on the “ready, willing, and able. The principals at Charleston advised us not to make the mistake of telling teachers they have to do personalized learning. Let them choose if they want to be part of the initial PL team. It was the best thing for our school.”

The leadership team at Windy Hill wanted to make sure everyone understood what personalization is, but they didn’t expect everyone to start doing it at the same time. “We opened the door to personalized learning and then asked who wants to go,” Crosby said. Windy Hill started with seven teachers who went through the Reinventing Schools Coalition training on classroom design and delivery before winter break in 2014, which soon expanded to fourteen pilot classrooms in the fall of 2015. By end of the year, forty-seven teachers will be using PL strategies, with nearly half of the instructional staff expressing interest in piloting personalized learning in their classrooms. That’s over 50 percent of the instructional staff in one and a half years.

Kids Learn the New System…Quickly: Crosby said that even students who have only had one semester of personalized learning “know the lingo.” Furthermore, she explained that “The sixth graders know how to create SOPs and codes of cooperation with their teachers. They know these tools are important to creating a culture of learning.”

And Can Help Parents to Understand Personalized Learning: When I asked what has been most challenging, Crosby said that there is often confusion in the early stages. Parents call up, saying, “The teachers aren’t teaching,” or “My kids are teaching themselves on Edmodo.” So she invites them in to walk through the pathway that their student is on, how much they have learned, and what they should be working on. Soon, the conversation takes a turn and they are talking together about how to help the child learn to stay focused, do their homework, and turn in assignments. She emphasized that students themselves are often in the best position to explain the new approach.

Unit Design is More Powerful and Tougher to Do than You Might Think: Barger said that learning how to write units that are personalized is a tremendous shift of thought process. Instead of just focusing on the grade-based curriculum, you have to consider what prerequisite knowledge students have and organize around that. She recommends creating four pathways: one for the students who are already well-versed in the standard, one for students who just need a bit of help, one for those who may find it challenging or are missing some prerequisite skills, and one for students who are missing most of the prerequisite knowledge. Based on pre-tests, students are then guided to the pathway that makes the most sense for them. Some will need to show more evidence as they build up their prerequisite skills. For example, in a unit on MLK and rhetoric, those students who demonstrated through a pre-test that they already had the grade-level skills were directed to analyze speeches of the presidential candidates and write their own speeches.

Making the Difference for Students on an Academic Level Below Their Grade Level: Windy Hill has already seen the value of PL for students who are more than two academic levels behind their age-based grade. Barger explained, “Personalized learning affords students the opportunity to reach success through a personal learning pathway. Teachers have the students work at the ‘teacher desk,’ supporting them until other students need help. Then the students get to hear mini-instructions so their learning continues to be reinforced.” Windy Hill uses the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) to level students and organizes intensive reading programming for those who need it.

Barger was enthusiastic that PL is making a difference for students who are academically behind. “It’s the engagement. In the traditional classroom, little Johnny is bored and doing things to distract the class because he is so afraid of being seen as behind. In PL, Johnny has a goal, knows what he is supposed to learn and that he can do it, and knows how to get extra help. He knows that we are going to keep working with him until he understands.”

Changes in Scheduling to Provide More Support to Students: Windy Hill has an X-block (the third block is two hours and includes one hour of class, half hour for lunch, and thirty minutes dedicated to extra help) to provide support. However, the teachers wanted to be able to provide more support to those who need it by creating a “conference day” to work with students who are a bit behind or need more guidance.

Invest in Assessment Literacy of Teachers: Halbig pointed out, “A personalized learning teacher considers assessment as a way to gauge current academic understanding, then help determine appropriate learning opportunities, and to monitor progress toward mastery of standards.” Note: In the first year, many schools use the rule of three assessments per standard; however, as teachers build more comfort with the competency-based approach, will usually create more flexibility based on the professional judgment of teacher.

PL is Changing How to Do Classroom Observation: Observing teachers in the classroom has changed in the PL classrooms. Crosby explained, “You are talking to kids to do the PL observation. You talk to a range of students to find out what they are working on, how they understand the goal, and whether they are reaching higher levels of knowledge. It’s so much easier.”

Moving Beyond Linear Silos of Academic Standards: Teachers at Windy Hill are already starting to stretch the use of standards beyond academic courses. Barger described how an eighth grade teacher was drawing on language arts and career development. Every student will pick a career that is interesting to them and then research how the ELA standards will be important to them in reaching and doing that career.

Hopefully, someone can visit in a year or two to describe how the personalized learning approach at Windy Hill is developing.

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