Truesdell Education Campus in the District of Columbia Public Schools, is quickly becoming one of the most innovative elementary schools in the region, with the student academic gains and outcomes to prove it. Central to this innovation is an instructional model that personalizes learning for all students, in a partnership with Summit Public Schools, a leading charter network with ten schools across California and Washington State.
The partnership, called Summit Basecamp, supports partner schools around the country to explore or expand personalized learning.
For the past several years, Truesdell, which serves students in grades preK-8, has experienced substantial increases in the number of English Language Learners and children from low-income households. Too often in urban education, such population shifts result in declines in academic results and progress.
Instead, Truesdell’s partnership with Summit is seeing a dramatic increase in student learning, increased attendance and decreased disciplinary issues. At Truesdell, a data-driven, personalized learning culture has erased much of the status quo of the traditional education establishment, transformed the role of teachers and driven widespread improvement in its initial year of implementation.
Truesdell is one of two DC Public Schools, and one of dozens around the country, currently partnering with Summit Basecamp to personalize teaching and learning. This approach represents a compelling model for school transformation, as the Truesdell experience, discussed in this paper, describes.
A Smart Personalized Learning Solution for Washington, D.C.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students at the Nation’s Capital traditional public and public charter schools are outpacing the nation in math and reading score gains over time. Fourth-grade students in both D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and D.C. public charter schools averaged higher proficiency rates in 2015 as compared with 2013 in mathematics; reading performance also increased.
But growth remains a work in progress in one of the nation’s most vibrant choice environments. Educational challenges including degrees of urban poverty, a growing English Language Learner community, and inequities of opportunity within a diverse student population demonstrate the limitations of many traditional teaching methods.
“Even in a school that we were improving year by year, the growth wasn’t quick enough,” said Adam Zimmerman, Truesdell’s Director of Strategy, Logistics and Innovation. “You would see it in our test scores, we would incrementally grow, but I think this team realized and were frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t reach every kid with the model we were currently using.”
The DC Public School leadership team recognized Truesdell’s record of progress and supported their vision for change, notes Truesdell Principal MaryAnn Stinson.
“Our leadership is innovative, aware and know the research,” Stinson said. “They believe in a fail-quick model where you can pivot, change and improve.”
“We were frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t reach every kid with the model we were using.”
Truesdell’s Director of Strategy, Logistics and Innovation
So DC Public Schools’ leadership committed to supporting Truesdell’s team in adopting and implementing a completely new instructional model for its seventh and eighth grade students this school year; a burgeoning spinoff of the highly successful Northern California Summit Public Schools.
According to Truesdell’s administrators and educators, the Basecamp program, which adapts and deploys the core tenets, methods and technology of personalized learning, allows schools to do just that, even with vastly diverse demographics.
“This was a set of resources we could use to reach every one of those kids,” Zimmerman said. “We have worked hard this year to marry the DCPS curriculum and the Summit work. The marriage looks different in different classes.”
Summit Schools, Summit Basecamp
Summit Public Schools, a high-achieving charter school network, was founded in California’s Silicon Valley.
The first Summit Public School, Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City opened in 2003. It was recently named the #1 high school in Silicon Valley for preparing Latino students for success beyond the classroom. Success can be found on a number of important indicators:
- Seventy-eight percent of Summit Prep’s Latino students pass at least one Advanced Placement test, compared to California’s state average of less than 40 percent and the national average of less than 20. Latino and high-poverty students at the school score notably higher than their peers in English Language Arts and math.
- Eighty-two percent of students from low-income households meet or exceed English Language Arts standards and 49 percent meet or exceed math standards. Seventy-one percent of low-income students at the school meet or exceed English Language Arts standards and 34 percent meet or exceed math standards. The success of the first school quickly led to replication across Northern California.
The schools’ founding mission, “to prepare a diverse student population for success in a four-year college or university, and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society” has resulted in high levels of college acceptance and retention as well as strong student/teacher satisfaction. At Summit schools, a student’s day is defined by real-world, work-themed projects and reflective personalized learning time, in which students goal set and track their own progress with access to constant, actionable, real-time data. Learning expeditions and mentorship further students’ relationship with their community in exploratory and relational ways.
Today, 100 percent of Summit’s graduates exceed University of California/California State University entrance requirements. Acceptance to a four-year college by students is nearly as high, and its students are completing college within six years at double the national average.
In 2013, Summit leadership began focusing their efforts on strengthening and streamlining its personalized learning model by hiring an engineer to work alongside the schools’ teachers to build out its Personalized Learning Plan into a dynamic platform that could serve as a backbone to its students’ and teachers’ experience.
In 2014, the vision of expanding accessibility to personalized learning to schools nationwide resulted in another new partnership, this time with Facebook. According to the Secondment Agreement formed between Summit and the media giant, Facebook provides Summit with free, full-time access to six of its engineers.
Growing interest in personalized learning across U.S. education has drawn considerable attention to the Summit Public Schools as a national leader in this work.
“A lot of people are trying to do the work we’ve been thinking about as well,” said Lizzie Choi, director of Basecamp for Summit Public Schools. “We built the personalized learning approach as well as the platform inside the organization but we wanted to figure out how we could give it away to other schools and really understand what it meant for different contexts – urban, rural, small, large.”
The Facebook partnership yielded an updated and streamlined package and PLP tool deployable to schools nationwide, for free. Summit then developed a program in which it could partner with schools across the country and provide them the support and resources needed to explore and expand personalized learning within their own communities: Summit Basecamp.
The first year, 70 schools applied to be Basecamp pilot schools. Acceptance into the program includes professional development, design and community support, and the tools and resources for a school to move toward a personalized learning environment.
Nineteen schools were chosen this year – fifteen traditional district schools and four public charter schools.
“We were looking for a philosophical fit, mindset and commitment,” Choi explains. “We knew these schools would be our 19 first proof points…Schools committed to a philosophical approach and vision. They are not committing to be a Summit school, they are committing to a set of principles. They are committing to students engaging in deep, enriching projects where students are measured by their cognitive skills. They are committing to building communities of learners where students are wholly known through one-to-one mentoring with students. And they are committing to students owning their own learning and moving at their own pace through a competency-based progressed. These commitments allow us and the Basecamp community to have a common language and a common bar and more easily learn from one another.”
Summit Basecamp is a free program that provides educators the tools, platform, resources and professional development to bring personalized learning to their schools.
Foundations of the program are intensive summer training and ongoing professional development and support which continue throughout the school year. Other program components include a deep catalog of resources (over 700 playlists of learning content and a cognitive skills rubric aligned to Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards as well as over 200 deeper learning projects), competency-based diagnostic and cumulative assessments, and a college goal-setting module.
Student progress is constantly tracked and viewable to students, parents and educators via an extensive interface. The program provides training, design and implementation support and an open source curricula while allowing schools to tailor to their education community.
Any U.S. school, traditional public, public charter, or non-public, is eligible to apply. The first phase of the current application process closed March 4, 2016, but applications will open again in the fall. More details, including the application, program and technical requirements, can be found at http://summitbasecamp.org/
Summit has an open application process for traditional public schools, charter schools, and nonpublic schools nationwide. Schools receive a two-week summer training “bootcamp” where the focus is personalized learning and how best to activate classrooms as collaborative spaces where teachers facilitate deeper learning projects rather than traditionally teach only content. Summit Basecamp’s Summer Training mirrors the student experience where adults also become self-directed learners and go through the student experiences as well. A week of Summer Training might include experiences in data-driven instruction, understanding the cognitive skills rubric, how to assess student work mid-instruction, and the teacher’s role.
Summit’s success hinges on its PLP platform that allows users to collect and analyze data quickly and efficiently to shape curriculum and daily decision making.
The backbone of Summit’s approach is the online Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) tool. The PLP helps students set both short and long-term goals while tracking progress toward these goals, prioritize their work, learn content at their own pace, complete deeper learning projects that apply to real-world situations and reflect on their learning. By tracking students’ growth and performance across their entire academic careers, the PLP lets them connect their daily decisions to their long-term aspirations.
“Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three elements to intrinsic motivation and…the PLP forces kids to engage with those principles every day,” Zimmerman said. “They have the autonomy to choose where they’re working every day and get feedback if they’ve mastered the content or the cognitive skills on a common language.
“Personalized Learning Time (PLT) depends on the teacher and student. We trust our teaching teams to design and structure conditions that will maximize learning for each student based on individual student needs. In general, teachers provide PLT for students to work in their content area during their class periods. In addition, we have PLT for three hours on Thursdays during which time students sign up for workshops with teachers in the classes they need help or have questions.”
“Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three elements to intrinsic motivation and…the PLP forces kids to engage with those principles every day.”
Truesdell’s Director of Strategy, Logistics and Innovation
In a recent survey published by The Hechinger Report, both teachers and students at the 19 Summit Basecamp schools reviewed their experience four months into deploying the model. The results were overwhelmingly positive:
- Ninety-four percent of teachers reported they enjoy working in a personalized learning school and 87 percent reported having shared their personalized learning experiences with other teachers.
- 87 percent of students recognized the self-directed learning Summit Basecamp provides as an important college skill, and 80 percent reported feeling as though they had improved as self-directed learners, just since the beginning of the school year.
This attitude was widely reflected at Truesdell. While one student told me she preferred learning from the white board at the front of the classroom, most students confirmed that the constant reflection of the daily rubric and self-pacing of their PLP had led them to improve. All said they access their PLPs regularly at home.
Smart-Tech, Data and True Personalization
Innovation was always buzzing at Truesdell. The classrooms have had computer stations for years, the students have school-issued tablets.
Some digital learning work, like Spatial-Temporal Math (http://mindresearch.org/stmath/), game-based instructional software designed for K-12 students, was in place. Today, Truesdell students work with adaptive digital content including i-Ready Math, MyON, Newsela and Imagine Learning.
“Our vision is to be a model school,” said Principal Stinson. “I think that many of us and the school leaders realized that we really need to be forward thinking and innovative about what is going to make a change because obviously what’s been happening in the past hasn’t made the radical change that we need. So we were prepared and we had done some personalized learning work…There were variances with how kids progressed through those programs, but those were all in isolated silos. It was still pretty much lock step with everyone else.”
Of particular value to Truesdell’s preparation to adopt personalized learning was the school’s involvement in the Education Innovation Fellowship program, run by Washington, DC’s CityBridge Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund.
The yearlong, competitive fellowship program “introduces teacher leaders to the most promising innovations in personalized learning and offers them opportunities to pilot personalized learning models in their own schools. The Fellowship provided Truesdell fellows’ opportunities including their trip to Northern California to investigate the new model and determine whether it would effectively deploy in DC city schools.
Summit Basecamp, the Truesdell fellows found, epitomized high-quality personalized learning, an adaptable, interface and design team, constant real-time data freeing up educators to work with individual students and self-directed student learning through personalized, content-specific “playlists.” Students access playlists’ diverse arrays of learning resources, making their own choices. This helps each student learn how they learn best, acquiring skills and habits (goal-setting, planning and reflecting on their own learning) to become self-directed learners.
The model provides schools with training, software and access to constant design support. Full engagement in Summit Basecamp’s Community of Practice, a virtual monthly meeting to discuss challenges, further supports school collaboration and improvement.
The fellows were sold; the PLP was smart and innovative, the extensive curricula and projects included in the model would free teachers to focus on individualizing student learning and the skills rubric would directly translate to actionable data in the classroom. Truesdell also had the means to immediately implement.
The summer before adopting the personalized learning model, the school had to upgrade its WiFi infrastructure. Staff had scoured local schools for unused technology and had been given a local middle school’s tablets.
“It was the adaptive change that was going to have to happen but technically we were ready,” Stinson said. “We had enough and we could resource what we had.”
“Joyful Rigor,” reads a sign in the hallway outside the principal’s office at Truesdell.
“School became a lot harder for these kids overnight,” Zimmerman said. “All of the skills we are teaching are measured on a transparent rubric, they have to master the material that’s put in front of them in a really fast and real way.”
Furthering the model’s demands is its no failure policy. The lowest grade a student can receive is a C-. Failure to earn that grade results in an Incomplete until a C- grade has been earned.
A typical day at Truesdell is truly non-traditional. Students spend 30 percent of the day in Personalized Learning Time, working to meet goals set on their individual personalized learning plan or “playlist.” Each student uses the Personalized Learning Plan, where students set both short- and long-term goals while tracking progress toward these goals, prioritize their work, learn content at their own pace, complete deeper learning projects that apply to real-world situations, and reflect on their learning.
The other 70 percent of the day is spent in project time. Project time is aligned to and evaluated on a rubric of 36 cognitive skills; the 36 skills needed to be successful in the 21st century economy, according to the program’s creators, a combination of the NextGen science standards and Common Core standards.
“Those are the critical thinking skills, the collaboration skills, how you solve complex problems,” Zimmerman said.
Teachers augment PLP and project time with daily regrouping of students based on day to day learning and content mastery as assessed by the Dashboard. This rotation model allows teachers to pull students with similar struggles into small groups and direct a lesson based on very specific learning needs.
Summit Basecamp provides a concrete conversation for teachers and students and a common language across the school; the message a student hears daily is clear and repetitive, the sort of broken record, backed by data, that drives a meaning home, Stinson said.
Supporting the Role of the Teacher
Nationally, the number of college freshman who plan on majoring in education is at its lowest point in 45 years, with only 4.2 percent intending to pursue an education major. The reasons vary from low pay to high-stress and the result, even within the field, is high turnover.
Truesdell has a high success rate of attracting strong teachers. Currently, eight Truesdell teachers are Teach for America corps members, and twelve are TFA alumni who renewed their commitment to urban educators. Summit Basecamp furthers the school’s ability to attract and retain high-energy teachers, Stinson said. And at Truesdell, where an extended school day and regular Saturday sessions keep teachers in the classroom longer, a positive, progressive environment is key.
“When you’re a young teacher, you need to have something where you say ‘I feel really good about myself and I’m recognized as a professional who is making a change,’” Stinson said. “Basecampers are part of something special that can be transformative to not only Truesdell, but education in general. That’s powerful.”
Supporting teachers with ready-to-use information on student progress against specific skills and learning standards, the Basecamp model provides teachers with the tools to truly personalize.
“[Summit] frees up our teachers’ time so they can really look at the data and know what the next step is for each and every kid.”
“Almost all teachers have a desire to meet their students exactly where they are, which requires that you know exactly where they are,” describes Summit’s Choi. “I think now teachers are spending their time on higher-leverage activities instead of inputting data on a spreadsheet. They’re focusing on that rich discussion with students knowing what they know and don’t know. You can tailor the questions with small group intervention. [Teacher] relationships with their students have never been stronger. They’re not about management, they’re rich about cognitive skills and digging into the meat of the work and reflecting on how you are as a learner so they feel they know their students as a whole as they’ve never before.”
“[Summit] frees up our teachers’ time so they can really look at the data and know what the next step is for each and every kid,” Stinson said. “And that is what frees up the time. So the curriculum is set, the lessons are set right down to the text that you’re going to use or what the math lesson is, the projects are all built out, they’re really fabulous and now the teacher can spend more of their time on each individual kid.”
“There is a misconception that if I use tech in my classroom I will lose that community feeling and that connection [with my students] and I will no longer have my role as a teacher,” Choi said. “This is actually the opposite, this allows us to connect.”
High levels of student engagement in Summit’s personalized learning classrooms are one of the most striking characteristics for visitors. The benefits of this can be found not just in measures of academic growth, but in other indicators as well. The school has one of the District of Columbia’s lowest suspension rates – only two long-term suspensions have been issued schoolwide, and none in the grade levels implementing the Basecamp model.
Re-designing for English Language Learners
Between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, the ELL population at Truesdell increased by 14 percent. In many other schools, this might have caused leaders to lower their academic expectations.
Instead at Truesdell, in math, ELL student proficiency increased 20 percentage points, from 31 percent to 51 percent between the 2012-14 school years. In language-intensive content areas, gains were less significant. From 2012-14 ELL students scoring below basic in reading dropped from 28 to 17 percent, and proficiency numbers have had dramatic swings within each of these school years.
Truesdell staff recognized early on that to meet the educational needs of their challenging demographic, more resources and curriculum needed to be built into the platform. “We immediately had a meeting. We brought in the ELL manager from the District and we were able to share back and start to brainstorm what that would look like,” Stinson said. “And that was also discussed at the other school in DC participating in the program, Columbia Heights Educational Campus.”
“I think that Summit is the first to say that they’re learning how to serve this population,” Zimmerman said. “Their first cohort of Basecamp schools I think has brought a lot to the table and they’ve ultimately partnered in this work because we’re all trying to serve this population well. They’ve been tremendous in adapting the technology to the needs that we’re seeing on the ground. They just added a function this week where you can add resources to a kid’s playlist for the ELLs.”
“Through the discussion of the cognitive skills and in designing and getting the professional development on how to form your groups for the projects, the ELL students are very much included and really empowered because they’ve had so much conversation around their cognitive skills…all the skills that are needed to meet that goal,” Stinson said.
Stinson observed a small group where an ELL student asked her fellow students to define a word, then immediately took back a leadership role as soon as she understood the word in context.
“They’ve been taught to respect each other collaboratively and then work as a group to get a project done and for ELL students. A lot of what they need is opportunity to talk in a safe space with their fellow students and to read a lot of texts and do the non-fiction reading and all those projects build all that out,” Stinson said.
A TRUESDELL ELL SUCCESS STORY
Evelin is an eighth grade student who moved to the United States from El Salvador in 2015.
“When she arrived at Truesdell, her English speaking, reading, and writing ability was very limited,” said Leah Myers, English teacher at Truesdell. “She was embarrassed to even attempt to speak in front of her peers. Additionally, her written expression was limited to imitation; she did not understand the syntax of the English language.”
“Evelin is now one of the most confident writers in class and often helps others, especially students who are new to the country, with their writing,” Myers said. “She now excels at complex activities, such as sentence expansion and sentence combining.”
Evelin particularly benefitted from the reading, writing and listening practice offered through the Writing Revolution. According to Myers, the program, that was in place prior to Basecamp, became a more powerful experience within the context of the Basecamp model as students are able to apply the explicit writing instruction to authentic tasks and projects.
For an eighth grade project entitled ‘Justice and Injustice in Our Community,’ students had to choose an injustice apparent in the nation’s capital, research the topic and write an argumentative essay about why it was unfair and how it could be resolved.
Evelin chose to write about immigration reform.
“Using the skills she learned through the Writing Revolution, she effectively wrote about a culturally-relevant problem.”
— Leah Myers, English teacher at Truesdell
Parent awareness is intrinsic to high-quality personalized learning, starting with full access to their child’s daily “dashboard,” or rubric scores in core content areas.
“Parents all have log-ins so they can see their kids’ grades in real time,” Zimmerman said. “They can see their kids’ scores on the cognitive skills in real time. They can see the resources that we provide them with the ability to raise their grades.”
Stinson and Zimmerman acknowledge that the parent engagement component through Summit Basecamp is still in a growth period at Truesdell, but the program was built to intentionally involve and engage parents.
Engagement with parents has been a strength at Truesdell prior to their personalized learning work, an important factor which has surely contributed to its success. The school maintains its partnership with the Washington-DC-based Flamboyan Foundation, whose model for fostering parent engagement can be found across many of the city’s most successful DCPS and public charter schools.
“Parents … can see their kids’ scores on the cognitive skills in real time.”
Truesdell’s Director of Strategy, Logistics and Innovation
Central to Flamboyan’s model is the structured use of Academic Parent-Teacher Team meetings and home visits. Parents at each grade level come together to analyze student performance data in ELA and math. Goals for family involvement are set with each family, and parents are provided with materials to help students practice activities directly related to their learning-trajectory at home.
A 2015 grant from another DC education foundation, Fight for Children, further bolsters this important work at Truesdell.
“Parents believe in the educators in our building and they see us as the experts,” Stinson said.
“This past year we thought maybe 50 percent of schools would continue,” Choi said. “We have been told all 19 of our schools want to continue to use the PLP tool. So we will continue to be engaged in relationships and support in their schools and see what it takes to go from a pilot to something that becomes the bread and butter of what you do at the school. We will also have a much larger portion of schools who will be joining us; the demand has been really strong. There’s an energy in the nation and people are ready to do this and people want to do this together. We’re building the program around the demand and who is going to meet that philosophical bar.”
The Truesdell team, impressed by their initial experience with Summit Basecamp and energized by their Summit training, found that the process of implementation was sometimes difficult, often challenging, and completely transformative. The program transformed both the approach of educators and resulted in schoolwide commitment to the model. This summer, the school will send a team of sixth grade educators to the Summit summer training as the school scales into a full middle school program next year.
“What we’re coming to is this is a process, not a thing, and what the platform does is provide a really unified way to have kids set goals,” Zimmerman. “First, start with their passions. Identify their passions and say, what do I want to do with my life. What do I want to do in the next five years, ten years, what college do I want to go to and what high school do I need to get into. Once they have those passions and those goals then it’s all about teaching them the process of how you achieve those goals.”
“There are good correlations between completion rate and cognitive skills [improving since implementations],” Stinson said. “Particularly in the two metrics of attendance and suspension; culture and climate. We grew a point and a half in attendance and went from 14 suspensions last year to no suspensions this year, which speaks to the engagement the kids have.”
“I think overall, student satisfaction is very high,” Stinson said. “I can’t wait to measure it.”
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