Personalized learning makes a difference in some Oklahoma schools 

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The expectation that learning occurs simply by student attendance in lecture settings is challenged by the many who work in education and more specifically personalized learning and know that, on the whole, students lack the attention, curiosity and passion to continue to justify the decades-old traditional school model.

One such educator is Chickasha Superintendent David Cash.

“It’s hard to find a kid truly engaged in the content,” Cash told Oklahoma Gazette as he described traditional high school. “You will find [that] kids comply, but that’s where the confusion is for most adults. They believe if a kid is in class, they are engaged.”

There’s perhaps no better place to see the juxtaposition between traditional learning and personalized learning, a model of education reform gaining traction in school districts across the state and United States, than Chickasha Public Schools, a medium-sized district in central Oklahoma.

As the longtime educator walks the halls of Chickasha’s Personalized Learning Campus, a single building for 120 students located next to the district’s high school, Cash describes an education model that meets each student’s distinctive needs and personal interests. It’s a departure from the traditional template in which students listen to a teacher, complete an assignment, earn a letter grade and accumulate credits to graduate.

“Here, it’s about learning,” Cash said as he pointed to the Personalized Learning Campus and then to the district’s traditional high school. “There, it’s about grades.”

Last January, the Chickasha Board of Education endorsed a plan by Cash and fellow school leaders to implement a personalized learning model at the high school, which serves about 700 students. Months later, the district’s ninth-grade building converted to the Personalized Learning Campus, where classrooms more closely resemble coffee shops and each student has access to a desktop or laptop computer. In August, when the 2016-17 academic year began, students and teachers embraced the model, which takes advantage of technology, personalizes instruction and challenges pupils to take ownership of their education.

On the campus, most students work quietly on their computers or are grouped together as they work on joint assignments. Others are meeting one-on-one with teachers.

“You have the best of both worlds,” Cash said. “Students have the ability to advance as quickly as they want or work on things as slowly as they need to. Bottom line: It’s on them to earn the credits they need to graduate.”

Unorthodox approach

In a state dedicated to improving academic achievement for all students, school reform has found a ready ally in Oklahoma. Policymakers and parents have called for new programs and initiatives to transform learning.

With personalized learning, school leaders present a fresh and somewhat unorthodox approach to learning, explained Carole Kelley, Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC) director of teaching and learning.

For the past two years, Kelley has worked closely with Oklahoma districts to implement the model, which meets the needs of students who score within basic, proficient and advanced levels in core subjects.

The former classroom teacher and school administrator notes that personalized learning is a culture shift and a learning and education process change that impacts entire school communities. Moving to student-centered learning, she said, is much like handing over the keys to students and trusting them to drive their own learning.

“The more freedom you give students, the more control teachers have,” Kelley explained. “Treat them as who they are, and they will engage. This is where the paradigm shift is. Teachers feel like the teaching comes out of their mouths. Now, students are engaging in their own education. When students hit a roadblock, that’s where the teacher comes in.”

At personalized learning schools, students have flexibility in how, what, when and where they learn, Ken Grover, principal of Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, told a group of administrators at the OPSRC office in October.

Grover’s urban Utah school has become the archetype for personalized learning. When the school opened in 2012, its new model addressed the district’s attrition rate. Students worked at their own pace and personalized schedules through online coursework and met in small groups with teachers. These days, Innovations students graduate at higher rates than other schools across the state.

In addition to serving as principal, Grover travels the country and works with districts interested in developing the model. During the 2015-16 school year, Oklahoma’s Oologah-Talala, Union City and Chickasha districts worked with Grover through OPSRC to adopt personalized learning models in portions of their schools.

Grover visits more Oklahoma schools as the interest in personalized learning spreads. In addition to OPSRC efforts to inform schools, research and writing about the model has intensified over the past year. In October, Education Week, a national newspaper covering education trends, published a special report dedicated to personalized learning. The publication reported positive early results at some schools that recorded significant student learning and engagement improvements.

“I think it is going to take off,” said Kelley, who predicted five to six more districts will implement similar models for the 2017-18 academic year.

Early success

At Chickasha’s Personalized Learning Campus, Cash counts off first-semester successes: Teachers report students are engaged in learning, hold higher grade point averages and show greatly reduced tardiness and disciplinary incidents.

Each student is assigned a mentor teacher, who is responsible for building a relationship with the youth. Through weekly meetings, the mentor is the point person for keeping students on track with coursework and discussing life goals.

“I think there were a lot of people that had the ‘wait and see’ approach,” Cash said about the community’s reaction to the school model, which also includes opportunities for students to participate in band, choir, agriculture and athletics.

Eighteen high school students will switch from traditional to personalized learning in January when the district returns from winter break. The growing challenge for the district is how to accommodate increased student interest and explore opportunities to implement personalized learning in elementary and middle schools, Cash said.

To Principal Michelle Pontikos, improved academics, attendance and disciplinary results aren’t limited to spreadsheet reports. The administrator also notes the quality of student transformation each time she visits the Personalized Learning Campus: the blossoming curiosity and the surge in academic success. During the fall semester, the lowest grade earned by any student was a C.

“Every student is different, and that’s the beauty of this,” Pontikos said. “There are all kinds of challenges in education, but you have to find a way to meet your kids’ needs. This is a great pathway.”

Print headline: Instruction shift, Oklahoma students drive their own learning process through personalized learning, a school reform model taking shape in the Sooner State.

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