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Aurora Institute

Reflections on Learning Without Boundaries at Kettle Moraine

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Superintendent Patricia DeKlotz

Kettle Moraine Superintendent Patricia DeKlotz had to repeat herself to get me understand, “There is no recipe.” Again, “There is no recipe or one way of doing personalized learning.” Yet I was sure there must be more similarities between the different personalized schools we had visited than I was able to point to. Eventually, as I went through my notes, I eventually did come to the conclusion that there really wasn’t one model. What Kettle Moraine personalized schools share is a very strong set of core beliefs, a highly similar culture, and a few very clear structures.

I’m still in the process of understanding the core structures at Kettle Moraine (there really is only so much you can learn in a one-day site visit). I’ve been able to identify a few described below:

  • A graduate profile with seven qualities, emphasizing personal development and citizenship along with expectations of academic excellence, have been used to design the personalized learning environments and drive the pedagogy and designs for learning.
  • There is flexibility in the environment, including offering open spaces, flexible seating, and opportunities to learn in the summer and afterschool in real-world experiences.
  • Using the community as a place for students to learn requires the structures and capacity to engage and support community partners.
  • There needs to be a transparent, common continuum of learning (think learning targets or standards) that stretches from K-12 and provides consistency of expectations across the district and multiple schools. However, the emphasis is on the learner continuum, and the way students interact with the learning targets is based on where they are and how they are progressing along the continuum.
  • Technology is used for organizing and monitoring learning, productivity, and ways of opening up the world and building skills. There is some use of computers to provide instruction, but nearly everything I saw was either focused on students being able to own their education or used within the learning process itself in some way.
  • There are opportunities for personalizing professional learning through micro-credentials.

So much is being unpacked and challenged at KM, it really is difficult to see what is holding everything in place. Kevin Erickson, Director of KM Perform, emphasized, “We are challenging everything except for state-required credits and the concept of courses. Courses end up being helpful ways of organizing learning. But they don’t all have to run the same period of time. We use seminars that are four to six weeks and shorter one to two week workshops to organize learning as well.”

This makes it a bit difficult to draw out lessons. Visitors aren’t going to be able to bring home an implementation kit or a set of tried and true practices. Visitors will be challenged, bewildered, and inspired by the depth of the commitment to personalized learning and the belief that schools have a critical role in helping students to become independent learners. It’s definitely important if you are going to visit to familiarize yourself with the KM Personalized Learning Look Fors and use them to help understand the commonalities and variations in the schools.

I’m going to use the newly released Quality Design Principles found on page 20 of Quality and Equity by Design as a structure to organize my reflections and takeaways. Similar to District 51, I could easily spend a week at Kettle Moraine to really dive deep into the knowledge this team of educators have developed about how to personalize learning.

Culture Design Principles

Culture of learning and inclusivity

Kettle Moraine is organizing their personalized learning within micro-schools. Each of the three personalized learning charter schools serves between 100-160 students. The small size helps students to feel that they belong. It is much easier to build relationships, identify when a student is suddenly struggling in a way that calls out for extra support, and provide quick, on-the-spot problem-solving and planning. Micro-schools also allow teachers to have voice and drive direction of a school.


Making connections for students is a strong theme throughout all of the personalized learning schools. At KM Explore, generative curriculum allows educators to rapidly respond to student interests and experiences. The High School of Health works with community partners. KM Perform encourages the arts to be used in how students demonstrate their learning in core courses.

Empowering and adaptive leadership

Kettle Moraine leadership use the phrase distributed leadership to describe their approach to creating teacher leaders. Teacher leaders led the effort to develop the charter schools that have all been designed under the principles of personalized learning. The district is small enough for the Superintendent Pat DeKlotz and Assistant Superintendent Theresa Ewald to do a lot of what I can only call walk-around leadership – checking in, observing, listening, cultivating shared values, and role modeling respectful, reflective relationships.

Growth mindset

One of the things that KM has done is invested heavily in formative assessment. I could hear it in the conversation with students and teachers. The phrases of “failing forward,” “learning from my mistakes,” and “not afraid of making mistakes” indicated a culture of learning and an understanding that mistakes open up opportunities to learn.

Culture of equity

The KM focus on student agency and changing the dynamics of the classroom so that students are co-designers of their education can be powerful in the pursuit of equity. So is the strong emphasis on helping students to reflect on who they are, their identity, their interests, and their ability to seek opportunities to connect to their world today and in the future.

However, KM is not an example of a district drawing upon the best of equity strategies, in that the high degree of homogeneity in a generally middle-upper class community hasn’t forced them to think through what it would mean to be culturally responsive. Their philosophy is that schools belong to the communities and should be responsive to their student population. However, that philosophy hasn’t really been put to the test. A challenge for KM is to think through how they are going to serve those students who transfer in without a sense of agency or themselves as learners or who are missing significant skills and/or credits. There is no alternative school or pathway in the district, so a few students might feel there is no place for them at KM.

An important lesson for all districts that serve this type of population is to remember that to design for students on the margins is the best way to build a high quality and equitable system. Even if that means designing for just one or two students who have different educational or life experiences.

Structure Design Principles 


The learner continuum that consists of competencies and standards is the engine to the Kettle Moraine personalized learning approach in the same way as STEM Academy. The continuum in literacy are in place and practice across all K-8 classrooms. The KM standards are informed by national and international efforts, including Common Core, Next Generational Science standards, OECD, and international physical education standards. The continuum is housed in Canvas, and student progress is tracked in a home-grown information management system called My Learning Collaborative.

The KM personalized schools do use different rubrics that are organized around their designs for learning. KM Global is drawing on rubrics from the Asia Society and the Buck Institute.

Consistency and reliability

One of the most important elements of a competency-based system is a way to make sure there is consistency and reliability that students are expected to perform at the same level (i.e., depth of knowledge), and that teachers are determining proficiency consistently across the schools. In 2014, KM had high school students take the PISA to determine how they were doing against international standards and as a technique of ensuring that their understanding of proficiency was calibrated with international standards.

Currently, KM is depending on content teams that have representatives from all the schools in the district to determine the learning targets (competencies) aligned to their content. They also create or vet common assessments.

This may be enough for a small district. However, I’ve been told by other small districts that using student work to calibrate proficiency is important for the sake of consistency and catalyzes professional conversations on instruction, assessment, and formative feedback. Certainly larger districts are going to need more formal processes, including some type of quality control check. Chugach has developed a system that the district does a double-check when students move from one level to another (they use performance levels, not grade levels) to ensure consistency and that students had the opportunity to apply their learning.

Advancement upon demonstrated mastery

In KM Create Middle School, the transparent learning continuum is used by students to focus their learning and track their progress. Students may be performing at different grade levels based on their own zone of proximal development and progressing in customized pathways.

At the high school level, KM Perform uses learning targets or competencies to organize the learning. Each seminar has a set number of learning targets that students will need to show evidence of learning. Students can advance in nonlinear ways through the learning targets and the learner continuum. The language of courses is still used, as it is a simple way to organize the flow of learning. However, credit is given for the mastery of competencies, not the completion of a course.

Intentionality and alignment

A clear definition of student success (i.e., a graduate profile) with seven qualities that all graduates should have and be able to demonstrate drives the pedagogy and school design. (See page 7 of their semi-annual publication the Communicator.)

Not every school in Kettle Moraine is currently using a personalized approach. However, those that are have clarified their mission and vision, determined what they expect students will know and be able to do, and aligned their model and approach using principles of teaching and learning that help students become independent learners.


Flexibility as an overall policy is demonstrated by the wide range of models and approaches being used in the personalized schools. Educators are innovating and fine-tuning approaches that are effective within their model, with their team of teachers, and for their students.

Flexibility is also seen within the schools with students focusing on learning at their readiness levels on the learning continuum, having substantial opportunity for choice and co-creation of learning experiences, in how they learn and how they demonstrate learning, and in seating.

The one place that jumped out where there wasn’t adequate flexibility is when a student transferred in who was under-credited. In other words, a student who had not generated enough credits (or skills) to be on-track to graduation was difficult for KM to accommodate. I was told the student was directed toward a GED. Certainly that was the policy a generation ago. However, the work around multiple pathways to graduation and serving over-age, under-credited students over the past two decades has taught us a lot about how to engage and support students toward high achievement. (See Boston Day and Evening Academy and Apex for information.)

Educators as learners

Kettle Moraine is introducing the same principles of personalized learning into their professional learning and human resource policies through micro-credentialing, the Recharge Ed Unconference, and distributed leadership.

Continuous improvement and organizational learning

There is a very strong emphasis on generating, reflecting upon, and using feedback data to inform improvements. For example, based on the participation in PISA, KM found that the students in the personalized learning high schools outperformed the traditional high school. They began immediately to make changes in the traditional high school, including adding advisory and block scheduling to allow for projects and applied learning. (See summary of KM’s use of OECD PISA test and America Achieves video case study on Kettle Moraine.)

Another example is that every year the school board and leadership council (consisting of 24 community members and educators) reflect on data about student achievement, school performance, financials, and student and parent feedback. They set the goals for the next year and develop 100-day action plans. This continuous improvement and public accountability has been instrumental in building trust between the district and community

Furthermore, KM seeks out feedback from students. DeKlotz described that “a pillar of the Kettle Moraine pedagogical frame is that student feedback is very important. We are trying to understand the experience we are giving to the KM learner.” KM uses student feedback as part of the annual retreat process to gauge strengths and weaknesses of the quality of the student experience.

Teaching and Learning Design Principles

Based on learning sciences

One of the most important learning science principles that KM personalized schools operates upon is Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts. The learner continuum is based on where students are in terms of readiness and their progress. Instructional support is differentiated based on where students are in building understanding and skills.

Another cognitive principle is that information is often withdrawn from memory just as it went in. We usually want students to remember what information means and why it is important, so they should think about meaning when they encounter to-be-remembered material. This  is emphasized throughout the KM personalized schools. Choice, co-creation of projects, and internships all help students to create meaning for themselves and their future.

Student agency and ownership

Everywhere you go at KM, educators in the personalized schools are talking about helping students become independent learners. From what I can tell, this is actionable by organizing very small schools, ranging from 75 to 160 students, and multi-age bands to deepen relationships with teachers. There is a consistent use of the transparent learner continuum, goal-setting, and reflecting on how students are doing in reaching their goals and how their behaviors did or didn’t match up with their goals.

I didn’t see evidence of institutionalized practices that guide teachers to reflect with students upon the set of skills to be a lifelong learner. My guess is that larger schools are likely going to need additional formal processes or frameworks to build consistency in the coaching so that all students build the necessary skills. This is a very important issue, as bias and patterns of inequity could result in teachers expecting less of some students or providing less coaching to students that need it the most.

Rigorous higher level skills

There is a core belief at KM that learning should be authentic (as possible) and that students should have opportunity for inquiry-based learning and application of their learning. This can be seen in the community-based learning at KM Explore, the internships at KM High School of Health Sciences, and the research project at KM Global. Rubrics are used to assess capstone projects and learning demonstrated through these types of projects.


The personalized learning schools at KM are highly responsive to students through a combination of a small school size that enhances relationships between students and teachers; individualized learning pathways so students are focusing in their zone of proximal development; customized schedules for students that allows them to access staff when they need them; and both students and teachers monitoring student progress through MyLC. Flexible grouping, a highly collaborative environment, and, in some schools, team teaching also enhances responsiveness to students.

The more I delved into Kettle Moraine’s approach, the more I found that their vision statement of Learning Without Boundaries is actually a powerful mantra. I can’t help but be reminded of Star Trek’s tagline, “going where no man has gone before.” Kettle Moraine School District is pushing the envelope of how a school district can organize learning and their schools so that students are not only at the center, but are partners in learning. (Resource: Learning Without Boundaries is the third video in the right-hand column.)