As a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, Gail Pletnick would have fit into many of the categories that schools put students in today, she says.
The superintendent of Arizona’s 24,000-student Dysart Unified School District likely would have qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, for example. She might also have been labeled an English-language learner, since Polish was spoken in her northeastern Pennsylvania home. And she was the first of 21 grandchildren, from both sides of her family, to earn a college degree.
Her personal experiences have made her look at all students as being capable of achieving high goals, she says now. “I truly believe that despite whatever difficulties and background a child has, if you encourage and support them and create opportunities for them, they can do or be whatever they want to,” she said.
Ms. Pletnick, 59, has taken that ability to look at students individually, coupled with a penchant for doing more with less, and translated it to the fast-growing Dysart district, where she has been superintendent for six years. Under her leadership, Dysart was one of the first districts in the state to adopt the Move On When Ready program, a competency-based pathway to high school graduation based on the idea of personalized learning.
With a very limited budget, she has found ways to use innovative technology as a teaching tool to improve student achievement, which already seems to be reflected in the district’s steadily climbing state test scores. For example, since 2005, the share of Dysart students who meet or exceed state reading standards has risen from 59 percent to 81 percent.
Bursting at the Seams
Ms. Pletnick took the helm of the Dysart district in 2007, after serving two years there as an assistant superintendent and after a full career teaching at every educational level from preschool to college both in Pennsylvania and other Arizona districts. She inherited a growing district. Since 2000, Dysart, which serves students in fast-growing Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix suburbs, has tripled in size. Ms. Pletnick has had to juggle the growth with a budget that did not rise at the same rate and with a student population of which half come from low-income families.
When the state, working with the Phoenix-based Center for the Future of Arizona adopted the voluntary Move On When Ready initiative, it made sense to Ms. Pletnick. The national initiative, developed by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, breaks away from the traditional idea of seat time and focuses instead on personalization. Students move on when they’ve fully grasped concepts and ideas, regardless of the number of days in the classroom.
That approach resonated with Ms. Pletnick, who has a sister with disabilities and who watched aunts and uncles without college degrees succeed by taking their own directions with education and careers.
“Everyone’s path looks different,” she said. “Sometimes, we predetermine for a student whether 180 days of instruction in a year or 12 years means they get a diploma.”
Dysart began implementing the Move On When Ready model, which gives school systems a choice of using several specific curriculum providers, putting the program in place in 2011 in one K-8 school. Now the initiative is in place at two K-8 schools and two high schools. This year, 11 Arizona districts, including Dysart, have incorporated Move On When Ready into at least one of their schools.
Arizona’s version of the Move On When Ready model has students demonstrate mastery through end-of-course exams to prepare for college and careers. Doing so earns them a high school diploma as early as their sophomore year, though they don’t have to leave high school.
Taste of College
Ms. Pletnick has arranged for college-level courses to be taught by Dysart teachers and visiting community college professors. Students seeking a more direct route to a career can take advanced career and technical education programs. A student, for example, might graduate with a high school diploma, as well as an associate degree. Others might leave the campus with a diploma and a vocational certificate in phlebotomy or heavy mechanics.
Ms. Pletnick has been instrumental in helping Dysart model the initiative for other districts in the state, said Amanda Burke, the director of education innovation and strategy at the Center for the Future of Arizona. “She’s very clear in her communications about the importance [of the initiative] and she is focused on making sure graduating students in her district are career- and college-ready,” Ms. Burke said. “It’s been great to see how it has unfolded.”
Recently, the district has taken the idea of Move On When Ready a step further, adopting performance-based grading. The goal is to put more emphasis on student mastery of content versus “compliance grading,” in which a student gets credit just for turning in homework or other assignments. Under Dysart’s system, performance on assessments must count for at least 80 percent of a student’s grade in grades 7 through 12.
Not everyone has been enthusiastic about that change. In 2012, parents started an online petition protesting the policy, particularly in mathematics. “The problem is that the tests are weighted so much that it seems like the more homework you do, the less it matters,” parent Cheryl Martin told The Arizona Republic at the time. The district also wants to provide opportunities for students to pursue their education at all hours, the way they’re accustomed to tapping into information today. That means there’s a digital-learning center open after school hours, and the district is investigating flipped- and blended-learning models of education.
“We need to personalize education and tap into students’ skill sets and interests,” Ms. Pletnick said. “If it doesn’t make sense to them, if they can access that learning somewhere else, it’s not going to work.”
Bring Your Own
Part of making sense to today’s students is using technology, Ms. Pletnick said. But she views technology solely as a tool to improve student learning. “It isn’t about technology for the sake of using technology,” she said. “We’re at the point where we look at what has to be accomplished and what we need to get it accomplished.”
But doing that in tight economic times has been a challenge. State funding for Dysart was slashed in half five years ago just as its growth was exploding, and the district has been unable to get voters to approve a bond issue. At the same time Ms. Pletnick endorsed a Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD policy, which she said has been extremely successful. Students bring laptops, iPads, iPods, and other devices to class to augment what the schools offer. She said she was warned that the effort could be fraught with problems, but “all those terrible things that people predicted have not happened.”
The district has also been an early adopter of some open educational resources, like Flexbooks, an e-textbook platform provided by the nonprofit CK-12 Foundation, a Palo Alto, Calif., aggregator of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content, and has piloted some technology products at low or no cost like the Knewton Inc. differentiated math-readiness platform, which provides adaptive instruction.
Richard Crandall, a former Arizona Senate education committee chairman who is now the director of the Wyoming education department, said he’s been so impressed with Ms. Pletnick’s work in Dysart that he organized a January visit to the district with 75 Wyoming education leaders to show them what innovation can look like.
“She finds ways to get things done with very, very limited resources,” he said. When it comes to technology, “she has embraced this model that there’s no excuses. … We’re going to get this done.”
Though Ms. Pletnick has been willing to try new things on a tight budget in Dysart, one of her biggest strengths, said Traci Sawyer-Sinkbeil, the district’s school board president, is the ability to bring people together and collaborate. “She emphasizes that we’re all here for the growth of the student, so let’s see what all of you here at the table can do to make that happen,” Ms. Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week