How Cross District Collaboration is Driving Personalized Learning in Rhode Island

April 29, 2016


Over the past two decades, schools across the country have joined a national movement to integrate digital and face-to-face personalized learning — also known as blended instruction–into their curriculums. At the Highlander Institute in Rhode Island, we help schools and districts make these transformations and provide learners with the support they need to thrive in today’s economy. However, we noticed that the state did not have enough districts ready to tackle this work, and there were not enough of us on staff to support them should they suddenly become interested in pushing their classrooms to become more student-centered.

We found a solution to this problem through the Fuse RI fellowship program, which we first conceived in the spring of 2013.

We looked at the assets we had before us and realized that our greatest strength was our grassroots teacher base that was driving this work in isolated classrooms across the state. These teachers had already shown strong interest in convening and collaborating with peers during the free events that we had been hosting, like EdUnderground, EdtechRI Meetups, and EdCampRI. As a team we could point to about 30 K-12 teachers, who we knew were ready for a challenge and wanted to push the state farther and faster as our first group of Fuse RI Fellows.Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 5.09.17 PM

By design, we decided to take Fellows out of their home districts, partner them with a Fellow from a different home district, and then put both Fellows, as a team, into a third district or charter to support the adoption of blended and personalized learning models.

Although superintendents expressed concerns over offering up their best to this experimental fellowship, we insisted that this movement of information and the fresh perspectives on blended learning had amazing potential to transform education in Rhode Island for the better. As you’ll see below, we’re thankful that we stuck to our guns.

Cross-District Movement of Information

As we wrap up year two of our first cohort of Fuse Fellows (24) and Fuse Districts (12) we’re noticing a spike in cross-district knowledge sharing around blended and personalized learning that was absent in our tiny state just a few years ago. Simple things like privacy policies or 1:1 roll-out documentation are now being housed in centralized locations for all Fuse districts and Fellows to access, but even more exciting is the cross-district face to face information sharing.

Assistant superintendents from one district present to administration teams and Professional Learning Communities in other districts about the work they’re doing. Fuse Fellows reference vision statements and blended learning walkthrough tools that were developed with the program’s original districts during their meetings with newer districts to the program so that no one has to start this work from scratch. The collaboration happens both asynchronously through the creation and centralized housing of resources and in person through phone calls, presentations, and Google Hangouts. It’s exciting to see that the spread of information has led to further interest in collaboration amongst district leaders, which allows us to tackle topics like Open Education Resources (OER), content interoperability, and professional development as a statewide collaborative group.

Blended and Personalized Classroom Visits

The Fuse RI program is designed to support districts as they make the complex shift from teacher-centered models to personalized learning schools and classrooms. Fellows work to support district teams as they move through our district development framework, but oftentimes this shift is too existential. District leaders, principals and classroom teachers need to see this work in action to fully comprehend the vision and scope before planning iterative first steps. Highlander Institute has found cross-district model classroom visits to be the single greatest catalyst for taking a district team from stuck to excited in a very short amount of time.

By leveraging the Fuse Fellows as the connective tissue and guides for these classroom visits, Fuse RI has moved more than 200 educators through more than 15 different classrooms across the state of Rhode Island just this year. In one example, two Fuse fellows facilitated school visits with a team of eight district administrators and teachers from Central Falls, Rhode Island. This group visited an urban elementary school in Providence, a suburban district middle school in West Warwick, and a rural district middle school in the Foster-Glocester school district — all in one day. The goal was to see best practices in blended learning across districts, but these visits also sparked a blended learning cohort in Central Falls that is now designing and creating its own blended classrooms with six of the teachers that attended these visits. As a result of our Fuse fellows, Central Falls will now have its own model classrooms that other districts can visit in years to come.

There is no denying that the shift from traditional practice to personalized practice is difficult, and only a small number of districts, schools and classrooms across the state and country are doing this work in a sustainable and successful way. However, it’s reassuring to know that in Rhode Island we’re building a solid foundation of expertise and collaboration around this work so that as the systems get more flexible, the products get more powerful, and the stakeholders become more knowledgeable and invested – we will be ready to soar.

Shawn Rubin is the Director of Blended Learning at the Highlander Institute in Rhode Island and a member of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation Speakers Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter @shawncrubin.

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