Winooski Middle/High School Tackles Equity in Personalization

December 16, 2016

As one of the schools participating in The Growing Equity Together Project, inspired by Sarah Bertucci’s Deeper Learning and Equity fellowship, we are nearing the end of our first continuous improvement cycle aimed at over time progressively supporting Winooski Middle/High School students in grades 6-9 to develop the confidence they need to be successful when working on personalized learning projects.  Winooski is a small town in northwest Vermont that also serves as one of our nation’s refugee resettlement locations.  Our middle/high school has approximately 380 students in grades 6-12 with about 30% being ELLs and 70% qualifying for Free/Reduced Lunch status.

Leveraging funding and policy

Over the past four years, Winooski has benefited from a grant in collaboration with Burlington High School in Burlington, VT known as The Partnership for Change. The Partnership for Change is designed to support educators in shifting their teaching and learning systems to be more student-centered by being more personalized and proficiency-based.  Simultaneously, state legislation passed in 2013 known as Act 77: The Flexible Pathways Bill, emphasizes a progressive educational agenda for the entire state as it mandates a shift to proficiency graduation requirements as well as the use of personal learning plans (PLPs) for 7-12 graders. This tool enables students to chart their path through their educational career, and allows for new opportunities for students such as dual or early college, virtual learning, and community-based learning.

With the backdrop of Act 77 and the Partnership for Change, Winooski was eager to join The Growing Equity Together Project. The timing of this project is opportune as Winooski Middle/High School enters into our second full year of implementing personalized learning at the middle school for all 6-8 graders and our fourth year of a personalized learning lab at the high school level called iLab.  In moving forward with these initiatives, it became clear that our focus should be on interventions that support all students to both complete and succeed on their personalized learning projects.

Launching the Project

In our research, we came across a study, “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap,” that offered a new approach to help first generation college students succeed.  The authors suggest discussing class differences with students rather than ignoring them. We posited that if upperclassmen of varying race, class, and perceived intelligence backgrounds could share their successes and struggles with their younger peers, we could increase our own students’ confidence in their skills around personalized learning and work towards our goal of 100% of 6-9 graders completing projects and 90% meeting proficiency on those projects.

Our first hurdle was to develop a tool to benchmark students’ confidence around the skills they need to be successful on personalized learning projects.  Next, we had to design a way for all 6-9 graders to hear a succinct and similar message from a number of upperclassmen and then, after creating a debriefing activity for students, reassess their confidence levels.  After much research into potential measurement tools, we decided upon the General Self-Efficacy Scale and communicated with one of its co-authors, Dr. Ralf Schwarzer, about modifications to simplify language and administration techniques in order to accommodate our ELL students. We had our 6-9 grade students take this survey  during first week of October, and assigned each student a unique identifying number that would allow us to later analyze the data using demographic information without asking students to self-identify their subgroups.

Following the survey, we held assemblies featuring panels of 10-12 graders who spoke about their experience with personalized learning. The teacher moderator posed three main questions to the panelists:

  • Describe a specific experience you have had with personalized learning that did not go well.  What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
  • What are the components of a successful personalized learning project/topic?
  • What advice would you give students who are new to personalized learning that you wish you had known before you started?

Our hope was that students in the audience would connect with older classmates who overcame similar struggles and leave the assembly with motivation and confidence to tackle personalization. We designed a short debrief activity for students to do in their advisory groups about two weeks after the panel. After debriefing, students took the survey again.

 What we are learning

Currently, we are working with our schools’ data analyst to measure progress and correlate the data we collected to devise meaningful next steps for this journey.  From a first analysis of the data, we were surprised that the confidence levels among students had benchmarked so highly. A possible explanation could be attributed to students just beginning to understand their own ability levels since successful personalized learning projects are associated with a variety of skills. Therefore, we may consider measuring additional skills and attributes that lead to effective personalized learning to get a better picture moving forward. Either way, we look forward to sharing our analysis of the data and our next steps as we support all our students to find success in the new world of student-centered learning.

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