Future of Learning

Personalized learning gives students a sense of control over chaotic lives

In a high-poverty Colorado school trying to turn itself around, individualized approach brings wide-ranging benefits.

A student at Summit K2, in El Cerrito, California, works on an art project while listening to music. Colorado’s Prairie Heights Middle School joins more than 330 partner schools on the Summit Learning Platform nationwide.

A student at Summit K2, in El Cerrito, California, works on an art project while listening to music. Colorado’s Prairie Heights Middle School joins more than 330 partner schools on the Summit Learning Platform nationwide.

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Dawn Hillman, principal of Prairie Heights Middle School in Evans, Colorado, describes her student population as “pretty at-risk.” About three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly used measure of poverty. About one-fifth don’t speak English fluently and receive services as English language learners. About 12 percent have disabilities.

Mary Hulac, an eighth grade English language arts teacher, says many students are simply exhausted from the trauma that defines their lives outside of school. But teachers try to frame school as a safe place — a break from the outside world. And this school year, with a new focus on personalized learning, students have a new way to take control of their lives.

This wasn’t the original goal of the new learning model, but Hulac sees it as an important consequence.

“I think they’re finding reward in this and that they can control their outcomes for a change,” she said. “In their personal lives, they cannot.”

Faced with the threat of closure after years on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools, Prairie Heights reorganized itself as a “school of innovation,” and it put personalized learning at the center of its plan.

Related: The path to personalized learning is not straight

The model is anchored by the Summit Learning Platform, an online tool designed by the Summit Public Schools charter network and then supercharged by Facebook engineers. It offers a comprehensive curriculum for grades five through 12, stocked with instructional content, projects and assessments that students access on-demand, at their own pace. Students who use the platform are prompted to set short- and long-term goals, and teachers monitor their progress and facilitate their learning along the way, using data generated by the system to offer additional instruction as students need it.

Hillman said when school leaders were trying to understand why some students were performing so poorly, they identified inconsistent instruction across classes and grade levels as a root cause. Rigor, she said, was hit or miss.

Last school year teachers started experimenting with blended learning, using computers to give students targeted support. Student performance improved briefly but then it plateaued, Hillman said. Her team decided Summit offered a pre-packaged way to give students even more individualized instruction.

But the transition to personalized learning — and to Summit — has not been easy. Adopting this new approach to instruction has been a heavy lift for teachers who have to rethink the way they run their classrooms and master an entirely new curriculum.

Related: Tipping point: Can Summit put personalized learning over the top?

And for students and parents, adjusting to a new grading policy has been tough. Students once turned in assignments and settled for the grades they received. But the new system prioritizes mastery: Students need to score eight out of 10 on assessments in the Summit system to move on to the next topic. Hillman said many students have complained that a seven out of 10 is equivalent to a C and should be good enough.

“Striving for that B isn’t the culture of the school yet because we’ve just started that implementation,” she said. “What we’re working on now is a culture of perseverance.”

In her English language arts class, however, Hulac says she is already seeing positive changes. She calls it a groundswell. At the beginning of the year, students resisted the extra work it took to manage their own learning. Some disliked the fact that teachers could monitor their progress in real-time through the online platform. Others were overwhelmed by the new grading expectations and didn’t enjoy the constant goal-setting.

But Hulac says her students have started to appreciate that they can move at their own pace. They like the one-on-one feedback from teachers and are beginning to recognize their strengths. Hulac says she has fewer behavior problems in class because more students are engaged, rather than bored or lost.

Related: OPINION: How do teachers know if they are getting personalized learning right?

Not everyone has bought into the new model. Some parents are wary of the time their kids are spending on computers (even though Hillman estimates no more than 30 percent of a student’s day is spent with digital content). And even Hulac has days when she hates the online platform and the extra work that comes with helping students move at their own pace.

But if students continue to grow as they have this first semester, Hillman hopes more teachers, parents and kids will embrace the shift in the years to come.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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