Forget the Tech—Believing in Every Student Comes First

Personalized Learning

Forget the Tech—Believing in Every Student Comes First

By Dr. William C. Collins     Apr 4, 2017

Forget the Tech—Believing in Every Student Comes First

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

In mission statements across the country, references to personalized learning abound, hanging proudly from schoolhouse walls. We admire them and use them as shining examples of our aspirations. Yet when we speak about “every student” and “all children,” do we really believe those words at our core? I have a suspicion that these simple words—“every” and “all”—are often overlooked by the hundreds of people who make up an educational organization.

At Newington Public Schools (NPS) in Connecticut, the belief in all students is at the heart of every decision we make. In part, it's because of the diverse group of students we serve. Of the 4,000 students enrolled in NPS, 45% are minorities, 40% are economically disadvantaged, and 15% are students with special needs. The district also proudly welcomes about 100 students from the neighboring capital city of Hartford as part of Connecticut’s Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation settlement.

At NPS, we've had our share of challenges, just like any other community, yet we remain a high performing, progressive school district. In 2016, our Anna Reynolds Elementary School was the recipient of the National Blue Ribbon Award for high performance, and every school in the district routinely outperforms the competing magnet school on standardized assessments. The secret to our success? Believing in every student, and enacting initiatives that demonstrate that belief. Let me explain.

Laying the groundwork for success

Ten years ago, NPS was the second district in the state to implement a “Bring Your Own Device” policy (BYOD), going 1:1 for all students in 2010. We also developed our own proprietary data warehouse, dubbed “NPS Data,” which is a user-friendly repository for district, state, and national student data. The home-grown system is used by teachers and administrators to inform instructional decisions. NPS is also home to well over 100 certified Google Educators, trainers, and innovators. Some might say that our district personalizes education using these resources, and they would be right, but that isn’t the secret to our success.

Newington Public Schools has done more than simply invest in tech and talented staff. We’ve become a leader in STEM Education by changing the way we structure schools. The district was the first in the state to open STEM Academies as part of their general public-school program. The academies allow for personalized—and engaging—instruction. At the middle school level, they function as a school within a school. Students take their humanities and wellness classes outside the academy in the morning, while the later part of the day is reserved for design challenges.

The high school academies, which students apply for based on interest, operate more like universities. Each academy has a planned program of study with numerous branches students can choose from. There's an Academy Counselor and a Workforce Development Specialist assigned to guide students through the options, as well as assist with job shadowing, internships, and numerous other opportunities available to them. Again, exciting work, but not the key.

Tackling challenges first

While our 1:1 program and innovative academies are important to NPS’s success, what makes our schools great is our core belief that every student can succeed. This is exemplified in our approach to new initiatives. In short, we begin with the challenges first.

Our 1:1 initiative, for example, began at the first grade level, proving that these tools could extend and enhance learning and be used successfully even by a 5-year-old. The program started with 1:1 iPads in two first grade classrooms in 2010. After courageous teachers piloted several other devices in multiple grade levels, we expanded the iPads to Pre-K through second grade. Now, every student in grades 3-12 has his or her own Chromebook that remains with them even in the summer.

Similarly, our STEM academy programs began at the middle level, proving that adolescence is no excuse for lowered student expectations. Middle level educators told us, with the greatest conviction, that students in those grades were not ready for the rigor we were about to expect from them. We were told that a seventh grader could not comprehend the concepts of biomedical engineering because changing hormones somehow prevented rational thought in every 10-14-year-old.

Attempting to shatter this deeply ingrained mindset, we designed the application process for our first STEM academy to be by random lottery. We wanted to prove that it wasn’t just “the best and the brightest” who could achieve at this level—and it certainly wasn’t only elementary and high school students. We started with a few essential ingredients: a partnership with the Jackson Laboratory, $300,000 in capital funding from the Town of Newington, 25 excited seventh graders selected through blind lottery, two energetic instructors who understood that “even middle school students could do this,” and an unwavering belief that “every meant every” and “all meant all.”

Every middle school student met with success, entering high school having already passed Algebra I, and in many cases, Geometry as well. Today, the same remains true at our Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, where middle schoolers learn to fly six different aircrafts and have partnered with GKN Aerospace, Sikorsky Aircraft, and even NASA.

We have had similar success with our Special Needs students who attend our Transition Academy, located at the entrance of Town Hall. Each of our students has a personal job coach and learns valuable skills to be successful beyond school. The location also allows students to provide services to the Board of Education and Town Government. Each year, our Transition Academy students go on to successful careers, many even earning advanced university degrees, something even we wouldn’t have thought possible before committing to serving these students' unique needs.

Getting results—for every child

The impact of personalizing learning is clear. The tools and gadgets and innovative school structures are without question helpful, but alone they can’t make the difference. Instead, we’ve had to shatter the long-held, limited expectations for our students and commit to believing that every child can achieve at higher levels, and that all students add value and can be successful regardless of age, race, or exceptionality.

Despite our best intentions, in order to transform education, we must understand that limiting children because of our preconceived ideas can no longer be the norm. All the tools and resources at our fingertips must be looked at as tools and not an answer to personalizing learning. At the end of the day, it is our core beliefs about our students that make the difference. Unless we believe that every truly means every, and all truly means all, our mission statements will continue to hang limply upon the wall, merely unachievable words by institutions designed for yesterday, yet expecting tomorrow. So believe.

Dr. William Collins serves as the sixth superintendent of Newington Public Schools (@NewingtonPS) in Connecticut. He began his teaching career at Newington High School in 1985, before being appointed principal in 2004. He was appointed Superintendent of the district in 2009 and serves the Newington community with pride and honor to this day.

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