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The high school graduation rate in Utah’s Juab School District was 78 percent in 2009. For the last three years in a row, it has been 97 percent, and the superintendent attributes the whole of that increase to the district’s efforts to personalize learning.

The district has followed a winding road to get here, though.

In 2011, Jim Shank, the superintendent then, spearheaded a one-to-one iPod program, seeing the promise of technology as a means of giving students targeted academic support. Like many school districts at the time, Juab (pronounced Joo-ab) passed out the devices to all its students before really stopping to think about what personalized learning could – or should – mean.

Teachers didn’t get much professional development to learn how best to use the iPods in the classroom and there wasn’t a lot of clarity around how the technology could help the district achieve concrete learning goals.

“At the heart of personalized learning is building a positive relationship with every student, every single day.”

Krystle Bassett was a high school language arts teacher at the time and now serves as the district’s innovation specialist.

“I wandered through blindly – excitedly, but blindly,” she said.

Looking back, Rick Robins admits the district put the cart before the horse. When he moved from principal of the high school to superintendent in 2013, he initiated a conversation about priorities with school board members, educators and the community. In thinking about how a semirural school district could support equity and opportunity for kids, they talked a lot about personalized and competency-based learning.

In the years since, the district has made a number of structural changes – including redesigning its grading system, changing the length of class periods in the high school, switching from iPods to iPads and better using those devices to transform instruction rather than just provide a new medium for traditional activities – but Robins said the most important piece of their personalized learning program is a “foundational focus on relationships.”

“At the heart of personalized learning is building a positive relationship with every student, every single day,” Robins said.

Juab School District, a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, has about 2,600 students spread across five schools and approximately one-third of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. Twelve percent of students do not have access to high-speed internet at home.

Historically, students learned what they could over the course of a semester or a school year and got a grade based on a combination of their effort, behavior and academic mastery. The bell schedule and academic calendar were seen as nonnegotiable; student learning is what varied.

According to Robins, the shift to personalized learning started with a vision first articulated by Shank. He suggested rethinking what was considered nonnegotiable, to help all students learn more. And it opened Robins’ eyes. Class periods could be lengthened, lunch periods could be moved around, deadlines could be changed – all in service of student learning.

Related: Giving students a say

The driving philosophy now is that all students should achieve certain learning outcomes and the school day should be built around helping them do so.

A big part of this shift was to change the grading system. Teachers now assess students’ proficiency across four categories: basic, approaching, proficient and advanced. They are not supposed to offer extra credit or change a student’s grade based on classroom behavior. They should, however, change grades throughout the year as students learn more and demonstrate greater mastery.

The high school graduation rate in Utah’s Juab School District increased from 78 percent in 2009 to 97 percent for the last three years in a row.

Juab has sidestepped much of the controversy in Maine (and other places trying this) by developing a “competency-referenced” rather than “competency-based” system. Students can still get credit for a class if they haven’t fully achieved mastery, just as in a traditional classroom a “D” still allows a student to move on. (Many schools with similar programs increase the bar for passing and require students to effectively get a B for credit.) And transcripts still include traditional grades so that families – and colleges – can see something familiar.

The question of how a proficiency-based report card will affect college admissions is a common concern for families around the country. The New England Secondary Schools Consortium has been collecting commitments from the region’s colleges to ward off these worries. So far, 79 institutions have made official statements saying proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not disadvantage any student in the admissions process. That includes elite institutions like Harvard, MIT and Dartmouth.

In Utah, however, the conversation between high schools and colleges about nontraditional transcripts is still young.

Robins sees clear benefits to doing away with class rank and assessing students as individuals on their own path to mastery. But superintendents like him aren’t the only ones who have to be convinced.

“Until higher ed really buys into that vision, I think we’re going to continue to struggle,” he said.

But when it comes to giving parents and students a better understanding about academic progress, Robins believes that focusing on proficiency with every assignment in every class has been “revolutionary.”

“The change that I’ve seen in parent-teacher conferences has been amazing,” he said. “To evolve from not being clear about what a letter grade really means to the laser focus on learning that our parents and teachers have now.”

Personalized learning in Juab is still a work in progress. But the district’s successes have created momentum it can continue to build on.

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

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