Far away from the political noise that is never too far away from education policy, three Rhode Island schools—both district and charter—are working together tirelessly to pilot a personalized learning program. And despite fear, wariness and even some resistance, the verdict so far from those doing the work is that this model is helping their students. Pawtucket Learning Academy (PLA), Blackstone Valley Prep High School (BVP) and Pleasant View Elementary in Providence make up the first cohort of
schools who have signed up to participate in our personalized learning pilot program at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. In this program, the lessons are digital and the teacher is more of a facilitator, able to help and support while students progress at their own pace as they engage in real-life learning through projects. “Two years ago we could never have imagined that Pawtucket teachers would be driving to Blackstone Valley Prep High School for professional development and now, no one is batting an eye,” says Donna Stone, our director of personalized learning at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. “It doesn’t feel like anyone is saying one is good and one is bad; it’s two groups of people piloting the same model and enduring the same struggles in the hope of improving student learning.” Educators from all three schools spent two weeks in California over the summer being trained in this personalized learning model developed by Summit Public Schools. The Rhode Island team is now working off what they learned from Summit to create their own distinct version of a personalized learning model.
What Do the Teachers Say?
Tom Anderson of the PLA is a 17-year math teacher who was understandably wary of the switch to personalized learning but has already come to see it as invaluable for his students. He calls it a “humbling experience” and describes feeling like a first-year teacher all over again. “If I’m not open to change, the kids aren’t going to get what they need. Education needs to change. We’ve been doing the same thing for decades and if we don’t become more adaptive to what the students need, we are hurting them.” In some ways, the teachers become more important even though they are no longer at the front of the room delivering content. Instead, they serve as coaches, leaders, mentors and project designers. Their time is freed up to interact with students individually and in small groups. Students can get the help they need without having to raise their hand in front of a whole class and say, “I don’t get this.” Benjamin Masse, a third-year history teacher at the PLA, also said he’s been humbled by the experience. “It’s knowing that I don’t need to be that ‘be all, end all’ in the classroom and I can focus more on cognitive skills instead of content, not only helping the kids become good students, but also good citizens. We are collaborating with BVP but we are also collaborating better with one another. While the students are becoming better students, we are becoming better teachers. And kids are learning how to learn.”
The Students Say
Several students indicated that there seem to be fewer behavior problems and class disruptions with this model because they don’t have to sit and listen to a teacher for long periods of time and can track their own learning. One student said he used to act up if he already got the lesson and was ready to move on; now he can move on when he's ready. “I like that it moves at my own pace but in college we need to work at professor’s pace so the projects have deadlines,” said BVP sophomore Edy Pineda. “It’s both self-paced and teacher-paced. The teachers help a lot, and if I don’t understand something, they are more free to help me.” Malenyah Vicente, also a sophomore, said she isn’t as keen on the new way of learning—she feels like she’s on the computer too much. However, she likes that the program helps her set academic goals and track her own progress.
Going big next year
Next year we’re looking to double the size of the first cohort and plan to include both district and charter schools again. Not only is it an opportunity to serve kids in new and more personalized ways but it is also an opportunity to continue to break down some of the artificially manufactured walls that arise between district schools and charter schools. Slowly but surely, these walls are being replaced by the belief that the best way to serve our students is to work together—across schools and discipline—to adapt their learning to the world of today. District-charter collaboration around personalized learning will be an important lever in getting our kids where they deserve to be.
Elsa Duré is the CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the growth of public charter schools and building district-charter collaborations across Rhode Island. Duré holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in urban education policy from Brown University. She is also a 2015 Pahara NextGen Leader, a program of the Aspen ...