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Personalized Learning’s Big Test Is Coming This School Year

After a year of disconnection and loss, schools like Odyssey STEM Academy in California must repair the damage caused by COVID-19 and racial injustice.
By Benjamin Herold — July 20, 2021 16 min read
Gia Leon, a student at Odyssey STEM Academy, poses for a portrait at Hollydale Park on July 15, 2021, in South Gate, California.
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Last month, as her junior year of high school limped to an end, 17-year-old Gia Leon ventured back inside Odyssey STEM Academy in Lakewood, Calif., for the first time in months, hoping to find a better Wi-Fi signal than she could catch in her crowded home.

It was the last official day of her school-arranged internship with the Los Angeles-based Autry Museum, dedicated to telling the diverse stories of the American West. Leon had spent weeks digging into the history of the Shindana Toy Company, founded in the aftermath of the civil unrest in nearby Watts in 1965, when thousands of Angelenos took to the streets to protest and loot as part of a furious response to police brutality. Now, to complete her training as a student guide for the museum, she was going to lead her own online tour.

Leon told a couple dozen adults about Shindana’s hugely popular line of racially affirming dolls.

“Her name is Baby Nancy,” Leon said as she directed her audience’s attention to a photo of one doll that became a best-seller. “She is amazing. She has brown eyes, full lips, a cutely shaped nose, and of course curly hair, while also rocking some very cute dresses.”

Following along was Odyssey STEM principal Becky Perez, who noted with pride how an opportunity for Leon to pursue her own passion had helped transform a shy, anxious freshman struggling with mental-health issues into a confident public speaker, comfortable adopting the mannerisms and vocabulary of the museum world. This was what Odyssey’s version of the much-hyped, highly fragmented personalized learning movement was all about: meeting children where they are, tapping into their interests and connecting them to opportunities outside the classroom, then letting them show what they’ve learned by doing more than fill in bubbles on a standardized test.

The approach seems custom-made for a public education system now facing a crossroads. After the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and another tumultuous racial reckoning spurred by police violence, the nation’s schools must figure out how to re-engage millions of kids, each of whom has their own story, their own strained relationships in need of repair, their own academic holes to fill, and their own healing to do.

But after a decade of hype and billions of dollars in funding, is “personalized learning” really up to the challenge?

Skeptics abound, especially when it comes to the many examples of the movement that remain committed to the kind of algorithm-driven customization that powers companies like Amazon and Netflix. Software isn’t going to fix what’s broken in America and its schools, doubters insist, pointing to the limited evidence of this strategy’s effectiveness.

Proponents, however, note that even before the pandemic, the field was moving toward “whole-child” personalization. The idea was to leverage new technologies to support students’ personal growth, well-being, and connections to caring adults, as well as to optimize their pathways through Algebra. Major backers included the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the venture and philanthropic arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, who promised hundreds of millions of dollars per year in support.

Founded in 2018, Odyssey STEM Academy embodied this new philosophy, seeming poised to merge the competing streams of the personalized-learning movement inside a traditional public school where 91 percent of students were Hispanic and 93 percent were considered poor.

Then COVID-19 hit, blowing huge holes in everything that made the school special and highlighting just how hard the educational recovery effort ahead will be.

Take Leon’s Autry Museum tour. It ended up taking place entirely on Zoom. The Los Angeles-area 5th graders who were supposed to be her “authentic audience” weren’t able to take part. The other aspiring student guide with whom she’d been collaborating didn’t show up either, leaving the teen alone to fill an extra hour of time.

The whole thing felt a bit anti-climactic, Leon said later, during a remote interview from the bedroom in her grandparents’ house that she shares with two brothers and a cousin, which doubled as her classroom for the bulk of 11th grade.

“It was a little weird, just being in a room and talking to a computer screen,” she said. “If the tour was in person, it would have been more heartfelt. I would have dressed up really nice in slacks and looked all professional.”

Seeing students for who they really are

Back in the mid-1990s, Paramount, Calif., was in the midst of another dramatic upheaval. The population of the aging, mid-sized suburban city 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles was already on its way from mostly white to three-fourths Hispanic and more than 40 percent foreign-born. Then, three students were shot in a span of five months, and a fresh round of civil unrest followed the acquittal of four police officers caught on tape beating motorist Rodney King.

“It was horrifying,” said Perez, the Odyssey STEM principal who grew up in the surrounding community and was a Paramount High student at the time.

Like many of her friends, Perez had parents who were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and hadn’t made it past elementary school. Both worked long hours in a factory, which meant Perez was responsible for picking up her infant sister from the neighbors after school, then making dinner each night while juggling babysitting and homework.

It was a teacher who eventually threw Perez a lifeline, pulling her out of freshman math to push her to run for student council. Such encouragement would ultimately lead Perez to also get involved with jazz club and peer counseling and the Los Angeles Youth Commission, all out-of-school opportunities that helped her finally feel in control of her own life.

The experiences also helped Perez get into Harvard—an opportunity that her parents initially wanted her to turn down.

Principal Becky Perez poses for a portrait in the student greenhouse at the Odyssey STEM Academy on July 15, 2021, in Lakewood, Calif.

“Their philosophy was family first. They wanted me to stay home and go to community college, so I could continue to babysit,” she said. “All of this informed the ways I see young people, and the need they have to be seen.”

Figuring out how to forge such connections with a new generation of Paramount students wasn’t easy, however.

After leaving Harvard with a master’s degree in education, Perez came home to work as a teacher. Her first year teaching middle grades at Paramount Unified’s Gaines School was a disaster. She’d expected the kids would automatically relate to her. Instead, they acted like she wasn’t there, throwing textbooks and getting in fistfights inside the classroom.

“I wouldn’t have re-hired me,” she said.

Still, Perez came back, eventually making her way up to a position as a curriculum specialist in the district’s central office. Her focus became making schools more equitable. Even at Paramount High, she realized, there were separate tracks that went a long way to determining students’ destinies; Perez herself had gained access to entire worlds that most of her classmates were shut out of, largely because she was placed into the school’s gifted program.

In 2017, Paramount Unified enlisted three partners to help launch a new high school. The nonprofit group Big Picture Learning would provide guidance on how to connect students to out-of-school internships and mentors. Software company Altitude Learning, which had received at least $15 million from CZI, would provide digital tools to track students’ progress. And Boston-area educational consultancy NuVuX, which got its start helping students at a $43,000-a-year private school invent life-saving wearable technologies, would bring its hands-on studio model to a public school.

Perez was thrilled when she was tapped to help craft the new school’s curriculum, although one thing gave her pause.

The person leading the effort would be veteran progressive educator Keith Nuthall, a 57-year old white man with a penchant for brightly colored bowties who had never worked in Paramount before.

“At first, I was like, ‘Who is this guy coming into my community?’” Perez said.

“But then I asked him how students would be selected for the new school. He said, ‘By random lottery.’ And that was all I needed to know.”

Connecting students to projects they care about

Forgoing selective admissions criteria meant that the demographics of Odyssey STEM students would mirror those of the surrounding community. Included in the school’s first class of students was Gia Leon, who at 14 was stuck in a difficult relationship that was causing her significant anxiety and depression that she felt unable to share with her stay-at-home mom or her dad, an immigrant from Peru who worked in a local Toyota factory.

“Being in a Latinx household, mental health is like a taboo for some reason,” Leon said. “Like, ‘We give you everything you need to survive, why are you so sad?’”

Her new high school, however, made plenty of space for the sarcastic, self-reflective teenager to figure herself out.

One of her first project-based units at Odyssey STEM was called Cyborg Enhancements. After reading about the ethical implications of gene editing and studying the science of human perception, Leon and her classmates were sent to the school’s “Idea Lab,” a makerspace containing everything from sewing needles to 3-D printers. Their assignment was to design and prototype cybernetic improvements to their own bodies.

“I was kind of confused,” Leon said. “I was also super intimidated by the laser cutter.”

Examples of students' hands-on learning projects hang in the studio at Odyssey STEM Academy on July 15, 2021, in Lakewood, Calif.

But then she started working alongside the students she’d gotten to know in Odyssey’s close-knit advisory groups, a staple of the Big Picture Learning model. Practical help also came from Aaron Laniosz, the former architect NuVu hired to run the Idea Lab. And at the same time, Perez and the other adults at Odyssey STEM connected Leon with both a school counselor and an outside therapist agreed upon by her parents.

Suddenly, the separate strands of her life, each of which she’d been struggling to process separately, seemed to come untangled, opening a new direction forward.

Leon and her lab partner wound up making a long wearable sleeve with embedded sensors to monitor the wearer’s body temperature and heart rate, and an embedded smartphone, programmed to give affirmations and self-care reminders when signs of stress appeared.

“Sometimes, I would forget to eat, or forget that I was doing a good job,” she explained. “It helped me learn how to help myself, by understanding my own anxiety and calming myself down.”

That ability to describe her own progress was exactly the outcome Nuthall and Perez were after.

“The real value is in students showing what they’ve done at different points in the process and then having a conversation about how the evolution took place,” Nuthall said. “That’s how you grow.”

Merging the strands of the personalized-learning movement

From its outset, America’s new “personalized learning” movement was riven by an old divide.

Some adherents believed technology could be leveraged to transform schools by helping each child master academic content in the most efficient manner possible. Others believed technology should sit in the background, as a tool that each child could use to explore his or her own big questions about the world.

A former classroom science teacher himself, Nuthall leaned towards the latter camp. Before coming to Paramount to help start Odyssey STEM, he’d spent much of the 1990s helping other Southern California educators integrate newfangled technologies like the "World Wide Web" into their classrooms. He went on to become director of assessment for the San Diego County Office of Education, where he came to believe that the standards-and-accountability movement taking root in America’s schools was stifling the creativity and curiosity of students and teachers alike.

The first new school Nuthall helped launch was called Del Lago Academy. Located in Escondido, Calif., it also featured interdisciplinary projects, out-of-school internships, and opportunities for students to gather evidence of their own learning. For all its progressive bona fides, however, Nuthall found that Del Lago lacked the type of digital learning management system necessary to support the kind of feedback loop between teachers and students that he sought. The result was an enormous burden on teachers, who were expected to give constructive feedback on evidence that the school’s technology system didn’t support, such as from student presentations and digital badges earned through community work.

“We needed a technology platform that could facilitate that conversation in a more efficient and reciprocal way,” he said.

At Odyssey STEM, Nuthall decided it would be a priority to lighten the assessment load on teachers. That meant adopting the learning-management software program made by Altitude Learning. Formerly known as AltSchool, the company had once been the darling of Silicon Valley, raising tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Zuckerberg and Marc Andreesen to build out a “technology stack” that included ceiling-mounted sensor packs capable of tracking everything students touched and said in the classroom—a prime example of the big-data-driven model of personalization then in vogue. After significant backlash, the company had recently rebranded and changed leaders. New CEO Devin Vodicka, a former California Superintendent of the Year, and his staff assured Nuthall that Altitude’s platform could be adapted to his vision.

Nuthall and Perez also enlisted NuVuX to operate the new school’s Idea Lab. That meant Odyssey STEM teachers would be responsible for supporting Laniosz, the resident expert running the IDEA Lab, rather than designing and leading the school’s complicated hands-on projects themselves.

By the end of that first year, Leon and the rest of Odyssey STEM’s inaugural class were showing what the new model had made possible.

The students partnered with a local nonprofit called Dream Catcher of Los Angeles, which uses horseback riding to help children with special needs. Working in teams, the teenagers researched, built, and installed a complete “equine sensory trail,” complete with interactive stations designed to give Dream Catcher’s young clients a variety of hands-on therapeutic sensory experiences.

“My group used fabric, wood, and letter blocks cut out on the laser cutter, so the kids could feel different materials and move things around,” Leon said. “That was probably the most fun I had at Odyssey.”

Navigating the pandemic and its fallout

Odyssey STEM Academy’s sophomore year also got off to a strong start, adding a second class of roughly 140 new students and expanding into an additional makerspace, an outdoor environmental sustainability complex where students conducted soil analyses and ran a seed-to-table program.

But in March 2020, COVID-19 forced the school to change course dramatically.

Perez and Nuthall reluctantly scaled back the remaining studio projects they had planned. The connection between academic learning and hands-on design was severed, and many students’ relationships with their outside mentors began to fray. Then, as COVID’s death toll mounted and the economy tanked, many students stopped completing assignments, and some stopped logging in altogether. Odyssey STEM’s once-promising personalized-learning model was starting to unravel.

“We didn’t know what was happening with a lot of our young people,” Perez said. “We had to regroup and reestablish rapport and try to earn back families’ trust.”

That required a relentless stream of difficult decisions this past school year.

First, Odyssey STEM overhauled its daily schedule, so that students had more time to meet one-on-one with their advisers and advisers had twice as much time to get kids the supports they needed. Then, the school took on the considerable responsibility of seeking parents’ permission to coordinate school-based mental health supports with services being provided by outside therapists, social workers, and case managers.

When it came to instruction, meanwhile, Perez also decided to double down on Odyssey STEM’s core philosophy. Teachers scrapped dozens of planned lessons and instead asked students to say what they felt capable of working on, raising uncomfortable questions about whether the school’s academic rigor was being diluted.

One student, for example, had stopped completing assignments in part because he’d been enlisted to help keep his stepfather’s plumbing business afloat. He ended up getting credit for explaining how he helped fix a collapsed sewage pipe. Another got credit for installing recessed lighting as part of a home-remodeling project his father had taken on to help make ends meet.

“The danger is that kids are going to design teddy-bear clothes instead of a cyborg project backed by a research paper,” Perez said. “But the regular curriculum wasn’t enough” to keep students actively engaged.

Amid all the adjustments, surprising new opportunities also arose. It turned out that hosting exhibitions of student work online made it easier for parents and teachers to take part. Sending home supplies, technology, and portable “maker kits” allowed kids to do more hands-on design work outside of the Idea Lab. And this past year, 70 Odyssey STEM Academy students took at least one online college course, roughly three times as many as school administrators had anticipated back when their plan was for students to travel to area campuses.

All of those strategies will likely continue during the 2021-22 school year.

“It was like the pandemic forced us to do what we set out to do,” Perez said.

Still, the road ahead is full of challenges, versions of which will likely face thousands of other schools trying to recover from the pandemic. This fall, Odyssey STEM will welcome onto its campus roughly 280 students who have never physically met most of their classmates and teachers, necessitating a huge new community-building effort. So far, at least, it’s still proving difficult to connect students to the in-person internships and real-world audiences that make their work feel relevant and exciting.

Further complicating matters, Nuthall has moved on, to launch another new school, this time a charter school in California’s Cajon Valley Union School District. And as part of a seismic, pandemic-inspired reshuffling in the ed-tech market, Altitude Learning recently sold its software platform and re-branded a second time (the company will now be called the Learner-Centered Collaborative), introducing fresh questions about the technology ecosystem that has helped make Odyssey STEM’s promising personalized-learning model possible.

Where does all the change and uncertainty leave Leon?

She’s still a work in progress, the rising senior said at the end of June, caught between her dreams and the lingering effects of the pandemic.

She hopes to go back to the Autry Museum to design an in-person exhibit on the Shindana Toy Company, but isn’t sure if the opportunity will come together. She’s praying her parents will finally be able to buy a home of their own, but they’ve already been saving and planning for almost four years. She’d like to feel more confident and less afraid of being judged, but the prospect of returning to the complicated social world of in-person school is already making her anxious. Being elected senior class president only magnified the excitement and the worry.

In other words, Leon said, the road ahead is likely to be full of highs and lows. The good news is that Odyssey STEM Academy has taught her to track her journey.

“I like seeing that I take steps back and go in different directions. It lets me know that I am making progress on myself and that I’m growing up and understanding the world around me,” she said. “That’s the point, after all.”

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