opinion

Four Lessons From D.C. Teachers Who Catalyzed City Wide School Redesign

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Across the country, schools are taking a myriad of approaches to personalize learning. Several months ago, I began to learn about how two schools in D.C., E.L. Haynes Public Charter School and Wheatley Education Campus, are reimagining student learning. In the process of visiting these campuses, I saw firsthand how two teachers were leveraging innovative models to meet their unique classroom challenges. From these teachers’ stories, I surfaced four lessons for other districts seeking to catalyze personalized learning from small steps to big impact.

In summer 2013, Shane Donovan, a ninth grade physic teachers at Washington D.C.’s E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, faced a familiar challenge. He was teaching ten students, all of who were at vastly different levels. Many had previously failed the course because they needed more academic support. Others struggled due to poor attendance or behavioral problems.

Donovan needed laser-like support for each student to get them back on track in time. But he wasn’t alone.

Five miles away, Tanesha Dixon, a middle school social studies teacher at Wheatley Education Campus, needed to bring her students up to grade level. About one-third of her students were proficient in math and reading. Dixon needed to grow students not just one, but many grade levels in one short year.

Donovan and Dixon had something else in common: both were CityBridge Education Innovation Fellows. In 2013, CityBridge, a local foundation dedicated to improving student outcomes in D.C., launched a yearlong fellowship for district and charter school teachers interested in personalized learning.

The Fellows began by visiting other schools, including KIPP Empower in Los Angeles and New Design High School in New York City. Inspired by the work of others, they began developing their own instructional model to personalize learning in their classrooms. While their needs and experiences were similar, what they designed was drastically different.

New Classroom Models

Donovan developed a competency-based system for his physics classes. He created 40 standards that the students progressed through at their own pace during the school year. Standard 19, for instance, covers Newton’s first law.

While this approach allowed Donovan to better meet his students’ academic needs, it also served another important purpose. It encouraged all of his students, including those with poor attendance or behavioral problems, to become independent learners. “I realized I could help our kids gain the skills they needed in college,” says Donovan. “They would learn organization and self-management—and take ownership of their learning.”

Dixon tried something different: She created a station rotation model in which students rotated between teacher-led instruction, small group activities, and independent study. Within each station, Dixon used technology, including adaptive software, to provide students with targeted instruction based on their skill level and to better track each students’ progress.

But she didn’t stop there. She also adopted a 1:1 tablet-to-student ratio in her class to foster greater digital literacy. Many of her students had little access to devices and high-speed Internet at home. School was the only place they could get these skills. “I asked myself what ‘21st century learners’ meant,” says Dixon. “For my students, it means that we are connected and are able to figure out ways to problem solve.”

NGLC Takes Notice

During the 2013-14 school year, Dixon and Donovan started to see progress in student engagement, achievement, and passing rates on interim assessments. Encouraged by what they saw, Donovan and Dixon shared their work with colleagues and school leaders.

But while individual CityBridge Fellows were seeing gains in their classrooms, taking personalized learning to a broader scale would require overcoming significant challenges. “Principals were saying that to get their whole building on board, they themselves needed funding, design thinking, and expertise,” explains John Rice, Manager of Blended Learning for D.C. Public Schools.

At the same time, opportunity was on the horizon. The Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) grant, which supports personalized learning and tech innovation nationally, was working to create a series of regional-level competitions. Washington D.C. was on the list. “NGLC wanted to leverage the strengths of its existing national challenge and combine that with a local organization that had boots on the ground, strong ties to educator networks, and deep knowledge of the local system,” says Margaret Angell, Director of CityBridge’s Education Innovation Portfolio.

NGLC asked CityBridge to launch a regional competition called “Breakthrough Schools: D.C”. They used this competition to distribute up to $6 million to support the redesign or launch of schools with personalized learning models in the District.

During the initial round of the Breakthrough competition, Donovan and Dixon supported their own schools to submit a Breakthrough grant application. In the spring of 2014, CityBridge announced its first cohort of grantees. Out of 23 applicants, 6 schools including Wheatley and E.L. Haynes, received initial $100,000 planning grants.

New Models For Everyone

Since being selected, Wheatley has used the grant funding to purchase additional hardware so that other classrooms, along with Dixon’s, can become 1:1. Middle school teachers at Wheatley are using these new devices to begin piloting their own blended learning initiatives. “NGLC is giving schools creative license to think and reimagine teaching,” says Dixon.

At E.L. Haynes, math and science classes in 9th and 12th grade are moving toward a competency-based model. The school is also using Breakthrough funds to enable teachers to visit and learn from other schools with competency-based models elsewhere in the country.

Breakthrough Schools: D.C. continues to grow. On December 6, CityBridge announced a second round of Breakthrough grantees:

  • Capital City Public Charter School
  • Cleveland Elementary
  • DC International School
  • Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School
  • Sustainable Futures (pending charter approval)
  • Thurgood Marshall Academy
  • Two Rivers Public Charter School

By 2017, CityBridge expects to support up to 20 district and charter schools in D.C. in their shift toward personalized learning.

Insights to Catalyze Personalized Learning

What can other districts learn from the way that personalized learning has unfolded at these two schools?

  • A bottom-up change process, starting at the classroom and school level, has the potential to lead to whole district redesign. “One of the challenges in our school system is that so many people are locked into the current way of ‘doing’ school. They don’t conceptualize doing something completely different,” says John Rice. “But if there is a critical mass of schools doing something innovative, that’s when we start to see system change.”
  • Seed funding can act as a catalyst to carrying out great visions. Schools must design models that will ultimately be sustainable, but seed funding can play a critical role in supporting schools to develop and implement new approaches during the launch stage.
  • Personalized learning should not be a cookie-cutter process; what works in one classroom or school may not work elsewhere. Donovan and Dixon’s experiences illustrate that personalized learning can look different. Although a 1:1 tablet-to-student ratio is central to Dixon’s model, sophisticated devices and software are not a major focus in Donovan’s classroom. Teachers should lead the design of models that meet their students’ and schools’ unique needs. Districts, national foundations, and community partners can play a role by supporting teachers and ensuring that schools have autonomy to develop their own models.
  • Efforts to implement personalized learning must balance innovation with scaling effective tools and models. Although a cookie-cutter approach to innovation would be flawed, teachers and school leaders also shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. CityBridge runs design workshops that provide teachers and schools space to learn from each other and from 2Revolutions, a design firm specializing in personalized learning.

In the coming months, other school districts can follow the progress and evolution of E.L. Haynes, Wheatley, and the rest of the Breakthrough grantees. The critical lessons that emerge here in the District will inform other school redesign efforts and, ultimately, district-level change around the country.

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