How a District Ended Student Dropouts with Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning

How a District Ended Student Dropouts with Personalized Learning

Kentucky Supt. Roger Cook shares what sets Taylor County School District apart

By Roger Cook     Apr 14, 2014

How a District Ended Student Dropouts with Personalized Learning

This article is part of the collection: From School to Shining School: 52 Stories from Educators Across the U.S.

Imagine, if you can, a school where students do not have specific teachers assigned to them, nor do teachers have specific students on their roster.

Imagine a school where students come each day with a list of standards to work on and accomplish--right when they walk in the door. They can go to the teacher of their choice in order to accomplish the completion of these standards. Or, they can do them on their own in any setting they wish, as long as they maintain accomplishing the minimum amount of standards in a minimum amount of time. Some students, for example, may work individually in the media center not having to go to any classroom.

And last but not least, imagine a district at large where the dropout rate is at zero percent.

In this type of environment, students would come and go as they please, but would be required to prove the successful completion of work and pass assessments to demonstrate understanding.

Sound crazy? Not to educators in the Taylor County School District in Campbellsville, Kentucky. In fact, that is our district’s ten-year plan.

I am in my ninth year of promoting performance-based education, and my excitement about personalizing learning for students based on their mental capacity, rather than chronological, age is at an optimum level. In the Taylor County School District, we have created a self-paced, anytime/anywhere learning environment and our students are accelerating through their courses at a rate they choose.

Individualizing learning plans for students

Our students do not receive a cookie cutter education. Rather, students receive Individual Learning Plans truly tailored to their interests and their career paths.

Individual Learning Plans, or ILPs, are collections of coursework that allow students to self-pace, enhancing their ability to choose a college/career pathway by the time they have reached high school level.

To create ILPs, our administrative team sits with each Taylor student each year to look at the courses they have taken, what their college/career plans are, and select courses for the next year that will best prepare them for that future. Take a student who is interested in a medical field: he/she will take preparatory courses, while English teachers plan opportunities for the student’s writing to be geared towards that field of study, and social studies teachers provide opportunities for a historical look into the medical field.

As one of the first four Kentucky Districts of Innovation, we have been given the freedom to truly adjust the coursework to meet the needs of each student. The technology we use allows us to be able to individualize the coursework for each student.

For example, many of our students finish their core requirements by the end of their sophomore or mid-term junior year, and then spend their remaining high school years earning college hours through our virtual charter school, dual credit programs or our many advanced placement courses.

Additionally, through our partnerships with universities like Campbellsville University and Western Kentucky University, and other schools, students have access to every course offered anywhere in the United States.

We have had up to 300 elementary school students bussed to our middle school to take upper-level course work. We have over 500 high school credits earned at our middle school each year, and we are graduating many seniors as mid-term sophomores in college. Students are able to complete course work 24 hours-per-day, seven days-per-week and 365 days during the year.

Bottom line? Students are not restricted by how many courses they are allowed to attempt or when they can take the courses.

Going beyond the classroom

Additionally, many other programs offered to our students in the district through local enterprises and businesses give them real-world experience. Students work directly with an adult to learn a "trade," which provides them with the chance to decide if they like the field enough to pursue it after high school.

For example, we have over twelve student enterprises many of them connected to technology. We have iPad Central where our students work and repair iDevices, iPhones, iPads or other technology for our school and our community we are working to become a certified Apple Technician Center.

For the business-savvy students, we have T-Bay, an off shoot of EBAY where we take items from the community and sell those items keeping 40% of the profits for our students and giving the owner 60%.

We also have a KROGER store, Gift Shop store, an Aviation Program where our students are earning their pilots licenses and building their own airplane. Student catering service called Cardinal Catering where we prepare food and sell to the community.

The teacher’s role

Self-pacing isn’t all about the students. With an expanding digital toolbox--complete with a 1:1 iPad roll out for students working on ninth through twelfth grade content--opportunities to personalize learning for all students are allowing teachers to think way outside the proverbial box.

Teachers are using technology to flip their classrooms and to video their lessons so students have access to the curriculum twenty-four hours a day, every day. We have developed entrance and exit examinations for each content area so students can take the exams whenever they have finished a course. When content is successfully completed, students receive their credits and are allowed to move on to the next subject.

But tech isn’t always successful without expectations. All Taylor teachers have four rules to live by within our school district:

  1. No one is allowed to fail a class
  2. Teachers are not allowed to give zeros
  3. No one is held back from accelerating if guidelines and criteria to be accelerated are met
  4. No one is allowed to drop out of school. It should be noted that the Taylor County School District has had five continuous years of no drop-outs.

The bottom line is simple: Taylor County doesn't give up on kids--not a single one! These four tenets serve as the challenge to find best practices that meet the needs of all learning styles. Those students who thrive in a self-paced environment literally move through the content knowing they will be supported with an arsenal of alternatives.

Impact and looking to the future

While there is still much work ahead of us, we are already seeing results. Our students are staying in school--and graduating! Currently, Taylor County Schools has had a zero-percent dropout rate for the past five years, and the 2013 graduation rate was 100%. Taylor County is categorized as a Proficient/Progressing District under the Kentucky Department of Education rating scale, and our CCR (College and Career Readiness) rate continues to rise and is above the state average.

But we aren’t just thinking about the present. Currently, we are in the process of building Kentucky’s only Pre-K through grade 12 performance-based education campus where students will be able to walk around a wagon wheel shaped building set up to accommodate the classes and teachers of their choice.

I will deliver my sixth National School Boards Association presentation in New Orleans this spring. And as a result of doing those presentations, we are having visitors come to us from all over the United States to visit and see our many initiatives.

We welcome anyone to visit us on line at or you can arrange a visit if you would like to see our school in action.

NOTE: This article is an entry in EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative.

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