Can SEL Support Personalized Learning? How One Chicago School is Finding...

Personalized Learning

Can SEL Support Personalized Learning? How One Chicago School is Finding Out

By Amanda Ronan     Mar 28, 2017

Can SEL Support Personalized Learning? How One Chicago School is Finding Out

This article is part of the guide: The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

Change has proven rewarding at CICS West Belden, a high-performing K-8 charter school in Chicago, which recently shifted to a personalized learning model. Through the use of learner profiles and online programs, teachers are better able to tailor instruction to each student’s needs. But those outcomes have not been without challenges, and the adjustment wasn’t easy for everyone.

The transition started back in 2011, when Chicago International Charter School (CICS), a charter school network focused on college preparation, hired Distinctive Schools (a school management organization) to redesign and manage four of its 14 schools. CICS West Belden was one of them.

At the time, CICS West Belden was already one of the top performing schools in the city. But despite the school’s high test scores, its growth was stagnating. And uncertainty about next steps led to low teacher morale. “They were ready for the next level,” explains Scott Frauenheim, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Distinctive Schools. For CICS West Belden, the “next level” was shifting to a personalized learning model, moving students towards competency-based education.

The process included three years of planning, professional development and small-scale experiments supported, in part, by grants from LEAP Innovations, followed by a one year pilot, which took place during the 2014-2015 school year. The pilot involved five classrooms, one at each grade level from first through fifth. Schoolwide implementation then brought these changes to more than 500 students in grades K-8 in fall of 2015.

This transition affected everyone at the school, impacting everything from classroom design to the skills students needed to be successful—but that was a struggle for some. Teachers and administrators realized they needed to do more to support students through the shift in the school model.

Recognizing the Importance of SEL

Frauenheim and Colleen Collins, director at CICS West Belden School, recall that the issue came into focus for the school in fall of 2015. Students returned after summer vacation to find that their desks had been replaced by couches, their classrooms had new bouncing chairs and their teachers’ desks had been repurposed into student workspaces.

The transition to a personalized learning model went beyond altering the physical space. Students were also expected to take more ownership over their learning. As part of the new model, teachers began assigning more independent work through online programs including ST Math and Lexia, which allowed more time for working with partners and learning in groups.

Every student also had a learner profile outlining their strengths, needs, interests and motivations to help them set personal goals. Students were given more choice about how and what they learned throughout the day—but that kind of responsibility didn’t come naturally for every student.

Collins explains that it was especially problematic for middle schoolers, who had been in school long enough to get used to their roles in a traditional model. “The students who’d seen the most success in school struggled the most. They wanted to follow directions. They didn’t know how to take ownership,” she says.

Witnessing some of the students struggle to handle new expectations around skills like personal accountability, organization and time management, the leadership team took action. They began reshaping their existing SEL practices to fit the needs of students in the new learning environment.

Bringing an SEL Framework to Life

In fall of 2015, Distinctive Schools began developing an SEL framework that highlighted existing best practices from its CICS schools and brought new areas into focus. The organization turned to the CASEL Foundation, the Preparing Youth to Thrive guide, and the collection of competencies and guiding questions in the MyWays framework from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) for inspiration.

Yearly milestones defined in the framework guided Collins as she worked with teachers to tailor the framework to meet the specific needs of CICS West Belden’s students. Currently, the school is focused on two areas: implementing its revamped character development program and piloting a mentoring model, which the school adopted from Summit Public Schools.

In 2016, with the new SEL framework in place, Frauenheim and Collins began to use PRIDE (Distinctive Schools’ character education program) to build a common language around the SEL skills they believed to be most critical for student growth. They revised the acronym that originally supported habits such as positivity and readiness to stand for: Problem Solving, Responsibility, Integrity, Drive, and Empathy.

The new PRIDE traits are tightly intertwined with classroom management, and are integrated and celebrated in numerous ways throughout the school. The school uses a ticket-based positive behavior system that lets students earn prizes for demonstrating PRIDE habits. At a weekly assembly, students are publicly recognized for embodying specific traits.

The PRIDE program has become core to the school’s model, but it didn’t solve all of the problems students were facing—especially those related to self-direction and goal setting. Since the transition to personalized learning, students are responsible for completing and frequently updating their own learner profiles. This process requires students to self-reflect, and they need guidance.

In the summer of 2016, Collins and Frauenheim observed mentoring in action during their trip to Summit Basecamp, a two-week professional development experience hosted by Summit Public Schools. They realized that it was the obvious next step for CICS West Belden.

Currently, the school is piloting a mentor block to help students build skills around work habits like self-direction and responsibility. The focus on these habits was inspired by both the work at Summit Basecamp and the Habits of Success quadrant of the MyWays framework. In the pilot, teachers meet with students once a week to discuss progress in classes. The information gleaned during these mentoring sessions is added to learner profiles so that students and teachers can document specific goals in both academic and non-academic areas.

Next Up: Improving SEL Data

According to both Frauenheim and Collins, these SEL practices have had a positive effect on students, but that is hard to prove. “When I go to a board meeting, I can show academic gains and growth in the classroom,” Frauenheim explains. “But we need help with true measurement of student growth in other areas.” They are interested in finding a more robust way to collect SEL data that measures the impact of their work.

One step they’re taking is to run a middle school pilot in fall 2017 to experiment with the whole-student competency plot from MyWays, which displays an individual student’s progress in the various competencies over time. Frauenheim believes the approach might offer a way to measure SEL performance and that the visual nature of the plot will help students, families and funders see growth, and will help teachers identify strengths and areas for growth.

Combining academic and SEL data into one easy-to-use dashboard for teachers is another big goal for the school. At CICS West Belden, teachers have two hours of planning time built into each day to analyze data and use the results to create purposeful small groups for targeted instruction. “Teachers do so much heavy lifting—pulling data from 20 plus sources on a given day. I’d love to be able to give them a one-stop shop for data to help smooth their planning,” says Frauenheim.

The school’s decision to prioritize SEL skills is paying off. Students are more self-directed and empowered, and that has reignited the school’s stagnating growth. Since 2013-2014 they’ve seen steady improvement on NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments in reading and math, with students demonstrating 163 percent growth in reading and 153 percent growth in math; an exciting feat for a school that was already performing so well.

This story is part of an EdSurge Research Guide about how schools are redefining student success using MyWays, a framework developed by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). This guide is made publicly available with support from NGLC.

Amanda Ronan (@amanda_ronan) is a former teacher turned curriculum writer, education journalist and middle-grade author.

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