“How is your school different?”
Recently, the Rodel Teacher Council members visited several schools in New York City that are exemplars for personalized learning. Tricia Dallas, a teacher at Richardson Park Learning Center in the Red Clay School District, contributed this guest blog post about her experiences on the site visit.
“How is your school different?” one of our teachers asked a tenth grader who attends the Bronx Compass High School, “Does it feel like a school?” The student thought for a while and replied, “It’s more than that. It’s a really good community.” Another student agreed, explaining, “My old school didn’t change for you. Now if I don’t get something I get an alternate assignment. I wish I’d had that before. The teachers here care. Teachers take time to help you.”
Bronx Compass High School, PS 422, and the School of the Future are three schools in New York City’s “innovation zone” or “iZone,” a group of schools charged with personalizing the educational experience of their students. The New York City Department of Education works with schools, the edtech marketplace and policy makers to design and scale promising learning models that prepare all students for college and careers. This has included working with technology companies to develop systems or software to personalize each child’s learning pathway and relief from certain state regulations, including seat time, and some grading and testing requirements. iZone administrators are granted a large degree of independence with their school budgets, allowing principals to use their money to best meet the needs of their schools. Although each program we visited was different, it was clear all the principals we spoke to had invested in two of the greatest factors that impact a school’s ability to personalize each student’s educational experience: teachers and the procurement of additional planning time. In addition, each school placed a great emphasis on teacher development and supported the ability of each teacher to develop student-centered curricula. Yes, teachers in these iZone schools are trusted with the freedom to develop their own curricula based on the Common Core Standards! It was clear that the staff at each school puts a lot of planning into the programs they develop and hold themselves accountable for student growth. Professional development is driven by the needs of the teachers and planned at the school level. School principals make a point to be visible throughout their schools and use teacher evaluation systems as an opportunity for reflection and professional growth. One administrator stated, “Personalization requires conversation,” another shared she works to develop a “culture of inquiry” with her teachers.
While the Department of Education iZone leaders stated they want student-centered solutions to come from schools, it is clear that their innovation initiative and the flexibility and autonomy that accompanies it is what gives schools the “green light” to find optimal ways to personalize learning for each student. And while none of the schools described and carried out their personalized learning plans in the same way, I feel that is just the point.