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Education Funding

Betting Big on Personalized Learning

By Ross Brenneman — June 18, 2014 9 min read
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The sign welcoming travelers to Iredell County, N.C., labels it as “Crossroads of the Future,” but that might not be assertive enough for the people living there.

The county, home to Iredell-Statesville school district, prides itself on innovation and direct action in responding to the needs of children. The system sees itself as a model for the future, not just a pit stop.

“There’s no such thing as a school system standing still,” said Superintendent Brady Johnson. “If you’re not innovating, you’re gonna go backwards, and kids will regress. That’s unacceptable to us.”

Innovation often benefits from strong finances, but Iredell-Statesville doesn’t have that luxury. The district has one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in a state that ranks 47th in per-pupil funding rates in the country.

To make up for a lack of resources, the district has vigorously pursued grant funding from the Obama Administration. In December 2012, the district won $20 million to pursue a personalized-learning initiative—complete with a 1-to-1 program—through the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top district program.

Across the country, schools and districts have waded into personalized learning and 1-to-1 programs with varying success. Iredell-Statesville set out to be a showcase not just for personalized learning but for how to bring together the members of a school community to implement policy changes effectively.

Slow and Steady

When the district announced it won $20 million in federal grant money, teachers wanted to know what kind of vision the money would help fulfill.

“I think they expected on Day 1 that they were going to get laptops and we were going to say ‘Go!’,” said Traci Fox, the blended-learning coordinator for the grant. Instead, the district created a new outline to explain what personalized learning would entail, and what would lie ahead for both educators and the community.

District personnel like to make it clear that the costliest and most conspicuous component of their personalized-learning plan—the 1-to-1 program—is not in fact the central component.

“This was not a technology project,” said Patrick Abele, executive director for the grant initiative, known officially as Project IMPACT.

Patrick Abele, executive director of Project IMPACT, stands for a portrait at North Iredell Middle School in Olin, N.C. Abele cited the district's implementation of technology in helping to achieve more personalized learning.

Not all of the Race to the Top-winning districts employ a specific director. But Iredell-Statesville hired Abele because the district was wary of making the kinds of mistakes that have plagued student-computer rollouts in other districts. Last fall, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District had to slow its $30 million 1-to-1 iPad implementation plan due to an array of management and logistical issues. The Miami-Dade district had similar problems.

Iredell-Statesville also hired consultants from the firm Education Elements to flesh out what kind of personalized-learning plan would work best for its schools.

Part of Abele’s value to the district was his own experience with poor technology implementation; in 1997, when he was teaching in another North Carolina district, he was approached to help implement a grant-funded 1-to-1 effort.

“My professional development was, ‘Here’s the start button, here’s where you turn it on,’” he said. In his current position, he wants to establish deeper practices.

That same if-you-want-something-done-right mentality drove several teachers in Iredell-Statesville to apply for new blended-learning coordinator positions created as part of the district’s plan.

“When I was teaching, I was always thinking, ‘I wish there was someone that can help me find these resources and go through them and make sure they’re good, because I don’t have time for that,’” said Erin Walle, now a blended-learning coordinator at North Iredell Middle School.

Those coordinators, along with instructional coaches, form the backbone of the IMPACT initiative, charged with tailoring professional development for teachers the way teachers tailor instruction for their students. That means some teachers will focus on learning group management, for example, while others may be given extra training in using the district’s data system.

“We didn’t jump the gun and make this about devices,” Johnson said. “We made it about blended learning, and then purposefully tailoring professional development to get our teachers ready for that. That’s turned out to be a very, very wise decision.”

That’s not empty bluster: North Carolina’s other RTT district, the Guilford school district, halted implementation of its 1-to-1 program after a quick and rocky rollout in September 2013; Iredell hadn’t even received schoolboard approval to purchase its computers until February 2014.

As for that decision, the district convened a focus group of teachers and students to make a final purchasing recommendation, since they’d be the ones actually using the devices every day. Each member had ample time with each device. When the process was completed, they reached a consensus on using the MacBook Air.

“We didn’t say, ‘Oh here, by the way, is the device we picked for you,’” said Melanie Taylor, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “I think they have felt like it was something that we were working through with them, and not something that was being done to them.”

Professionally Personal

Meanwhile, in the year leading up to laptop distribution, the district poured on the professional development, training teachers how to integrate personalized learning into their instruction, with the expectation that the devices, once purchased, would fit snugly into the lesson plans teachers would already be using. Teachers received their computers a month and a half before students, along with a thorough grounding in digital ethics and Apple training.

Eighth grade social studies teacher Mark Wellman, center, helps students Holly Griffin, left, and Sierra Hundley with their laptops at North Iredell Middle School in Olin, N.C.

“I don’t think you could just transition to blended learning with some technology, without all the rest of this being in place,” Abele said. “I just don’t think it would be successful.”

Iredell-Statesville’s personalized learning plan uses a classroom-station model, under which different groups of students in a classroom work on different projects. (The technique involves the term “stations,” but students aren’t physically rotating.) While students eventually learn the same content, teachers can spend more time with students working on more complex tasks.

At North Iredell Middle School during a visit this spring, for example, social studies teacher Kathy Shoemaker wound her way through sets of students working on projects about the Middle Ages. One group had their laptops out, making timelines. Another group was offline, discussing the feudal system. Down the hall in Mark Wellman’s social studies class, some students read biographies of Abraham Lincoln on their computers, while others watched a video about him.

The jump from mere whole-class instruction to personalized learning is a by-product of the station model, educators in Iredell-Statesville say, because it encourages students to interact more often with the teacher.

“You’ll have the small group with you and you’ll explain it and you’ll go through everything and then the child that would never say, ‘Well I don’t get it,’ will say ‘Can you help me?’ because they’re only talking to you in front of six other kids, not all 24,” Walle said. “It’s nice to see different sides to the kids.”

A Learning Curve

Even so, the transition has required some teachers to adopt a new mindset on their work in the classroom.

"[Personalized learning] wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, but it was definitely a learning curve for me and for the kids, because you’re putting that responsibility into their hands more than you ever really have before and giving up that classroom control,” said Joanna Jester, a 6th grade math teacher at East Iredell Middle School. “It’s not that ‘I’m the boss and I’m the teacher and I’m gonna stand up in front of the room’ anymore. It’s more, ‘I’m here to help you when you need it.’”

“I think it’s been an adjustment but I think it’s been an adjustment that has been pretty streamlined and it’s worked,” Jester added. “I can see a difference.”

Teresa Renegar, a language arts teacher at North Iredell Middle, echoed those thoughts.

“It’s just opened up so many different avenues to teach differently, and to reach the different learning styles,” she said.

Every school has a shortened class period specifically for exploration, or remediation for students who need extra help. Students who have fallen behind in a subject seek out help from their teachers, while the other students have time for clubs or studying something of their choosing.

Teachers also say that the new instructional model—particularly with the addition of computers—has increased engagement.

“I’ve seen their behavior struggles go down, their grades go up, the completion of assignments completely go up simply because they can email to me. They love to email their assignments to me,” said Angie Charles, a language arts teacher at East Iredell Middle School.

The computer rollout is too new to have generated much data, but East Iredell Middle School Principal Jimmy Elliott estimates that school-discipline infractions have been cut in half. He attributes that effect in part to the sense of ownership that students feel over their laptops, even if they don’t technically own them.

“We don’t ever tell them that we would take [the laptops] away from them, but they don’t want any reasons for anybody to look for to take away those devices,” he said.

Compounded Success

At the very least, the Iredell-Statesville district is proving itself to be savvy in pursuing and implementing new initiatives.

Since August 2010, Iredell-Statesville has won, in total, $25.8 million from the Obama Administration, including funds from the Investing in Innovation competitive-grant program and through the Office of Adolescent Health, to test a comprehensive sex education initiative. Iredell-Statesville even gained entry to the Education Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program, which features student art in the department’s headquarters.

Johnson estimates that the district has only missed out on one federal grant to which it has applied. Just one other district in the nation, Miami-Dade, seems to have achieved the same record of grant success at the federal level in recent years.

“Success breeds success,” Taylor, the associate superintendent, said. “We’re a very data-driven district, and we were prior to the grants, and that’s something that not all districts have in place, so they don’t have metrics and data to be able to share those successes.”

No one is entirely certain what will happen when the grant runs out at the end of 2016. Abele, the project director, doesn’t seem sure he’ll still have a job. The district is as attached to the computers as the students are, though, so something in the budget will likely have to give. Abele joked that educators will have to bring their own snacks to professional-development lessons.

Johnson vowed that, whatever the answer, Iredell-Statesville will keep moving forward.

“The best days of public education are ahead of us,” he said. “You haven’t seen our best work yet.”


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