This Fall, Arizona’s Yuma Elementary School District One will become the nation’s first traditional school district to convert to a districtwide personalized learning model for all students in all schools. Superintendent Darwin Stiffler and instructional team studied blended learning models from around the country, and one right in Yuma, carefully evaluating their own students’ educational needs in making the deliberate choices they felt necessary for the success of their own model. Details follow.
Adding the Right Tools
On Yuma Elementary School District One’s website, the feature that stands out most prominently is its “Countdown to Personalized Learning.” Amid multicolored balloons, a clock indicates the days, hours and minutes until August 10, 2015 – the scheduled launch date for a districtwide conversion to a new personalized learning model for all students.
Yuma is a city of 93,000 in the Southwest Arizona desert, not far from the California and Mexican borders. Local educators have joked for years that the community, whose high school mascot has been The Criminals for the past 100 hundred years, is not widely regarded as a cauldron of cutting-edge education innovation. But it is fast becoming home to an exciting initiative to improve educational opportunity for children — offering a glimpse of what might be possible for students nationwide.
Schools embracing classroom technology is not unique, but this may be the nation’s first example of an entire school district making the transition to a personalized learning instructional model all at one time. In Yuma, it is as much about learning as it is about the technology. District leaders have worked to design a new instructional model for students and support model for teachers utilizing state-of-the-art digital learning software, computer devices and dedicated training for teachers they feel will best meet the educational needs of the 9,000 students they serve in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“It is our goal that personalized learning will marshal increased student engagement, bolster differentiated instruction, and foster an environment of increased communication between students, educators, and parents,” explains Superintendent Darwin Stiffler. “This initiative will not only enhance each student’s educational experience, but will intentionally add the tools necessary for our educators to be better equipped for a 21st century education.”
Meeting Educational Needs
Arizona’s eighth grade reading proficiency rates have held somewhat below national averages, with 28 percent scoring at proficient or above. Yuma’s students have generally performed slightly lower than state averages. Passing scores on the state AIMS reading test in the Yuma elementary school district, 72 percent, trailed the 78 percent state average in 2013 and 2014.
Statewide, Arizona’s $7,500 total per student spending level is the nation’s fourth lowest. State-level school funding fell 18 percent between 2008 and 2015. And while school spending is down, the number of students enrolled in Arizona’s public schools are predicted to continue growing faster than just about anywhere else.
A human capital challenge is also a factor for many Arizona school districts, with experienced educators seeking new opportunities elsewhere or retiring, producing an acute statewide shortage of qualified teachers.
Finally, a by-the-numbers look at Yuma’s student population suggests that building a school culture of educational excellence will involve addressing a range of other factors:
- According to the U.S. Census figures, just one in seven heads of household in Yuma One possess a bachelor’s degree or higher. One in five did not earn a high school diploma.
- One in four families with children under 18 live below the poverty line. One in three speak Spanish at home.
- Yuma is home to Marine Corps Air Station, with some 4,000 Marines, as well as the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, with 2,000 daily employees. Children of military families often face specific educational challenges connected with the realities of active duty life that include high student transiency and mobility rates, which may be particularly well suited to personalized and blended learning approaches.
Why Blended Learning?
How can we do better to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education—not just mastering the basic skills, but gaining the knowledge to succeed and thrive in life after high school? These are critical questions for all education leaders, and at the heart of what matters most in American public education.
One way that a growing number of schools across the country are answering that question is by implementing blended learning as a strategy to personalize for individual students’ strengths, needs and interests, through a combination of computer-based lessons with personalized instruction by traditional classroom teachers. Doing so effectively provides each child with the ability to move at their own pace and on their own path. Teachers are supported through practical professional development and more time to focus on each student, so that they can offer personalized instruction and tutoring, while also monitoring students’ progress on computer-based lessons.
Education Elements, the California-based company chosen by Dr. Stiffler and his team to guide the design and implementation of their new, personalized learning instructional models, earlier this year published the results of a study of 5,000 students attending nine partner school districts that have implemented blended learning programs. They report that students participating in blended learning instruction outpaced their peers on national-normed tests by 25 percent in math and by 54 percent in reading. Results for 2014-15 are just now emerging, but they are seeing similar trends across the districts they have partnered with to design and support this work.
Yuma Elementary School District One in Arizona work holds promise to become a model for the use of blended-learning teaching methods districtwide across its school system. The story starts with a charter school called Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School. Ten years ago, the charter school made a dramatic change to its instructional model and began realizing robust improvements in student outcomes. The school and its charismatic founder Rick Ogston quickly built a reputation that drew education leaders and luminaries from around the globe to trek to Yuma to see its thought-provoking model firsthand.
Dr. Stiffler, as superintendent of one of Yuma’s school districts, watched as one of the city’s charter schools became a national model, and committed to his own plan for excellence. He and his team are launching a district-wide personalized learning model to serve all of its 9,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Stiffler’s team believed that to build the best program they needed the flexibility to make deliberate choices, rather than being restricted by a one-stop shop option. They invested in significantly upgrading their internet infrastructure. They purchased Apple iPads for all students, and iPad minis for teachers. They selected Google tools to enable collaboration among teachers as well as among students, and for digital content they made selections based on grade level and use case, selecting from leading content partners including Imagine Learning, Achieve 3000, ST Math, Edgenuity, Khan Academy and Gooru Learning. Students and teachers will access their digital content and actionable data through the Education Elements personalized learning platform, Highlight. Yuma’s goal was to be both as streamlined and simple as possible while also offering the best available technology that would meet the needs of their community.
The Yuma community has bought into the plan, approving a $4.8 million bond to finance the necessary technology purchases and infrastructure upgrades.
“We are excited to see our sister schools join us in providing technology infused personalized education,” said Carpe Diem’s Ogston. “As we all know, it isn’t about the technology but the opportunities technology provides.”
This vital insight is one that has driven the leaders of Yuma Elementary School District One to approach this transition with a broad field of vision toward redesigning their instructional program. A team dispatched to a national Personalized Learning Summit in San Jose, California interacted in workshops with education leaders from around the country to learn from their models and experiences.
The Yuma team brought experts from Education Elements, a highly-regarded industry leader, to Yuma to help develop and articulate their vision for personalized learning, use design-thinking practices to develop new instructional models that would best address students’ present state of learning readiness and achievement, and select digital content and tools. This process also included professional development sessions to support leader and teacher success with the new personalized learning models, and will continue over the course of the next few years to support and refine this implementation.
So Goes Yuma, So Goes the Nation?
New models like Yuma’s, leveraging technology, adaptive learning software and timely, easily-actionable information on students’ performance, support classroom teachers and allow them to personalize student learning in powerful ways. Exceptional teachers have always found ways to personalize instruction, but with these supports their human capital is multiplied in ways that allow them to amplify the attention they give to individual students.
What such an approach can offer public schools more broadly has been the subject of much attention in recent years.
Across America, the average public school now spends $12,000 annually per student, bringing the total taxpayer investment to 5.4 percent of the nation’s GDP. But national measures of student outcomes, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show that many students are not mastering key skills during the K-12 years. It is not clear that at its current levels of productivity, present spending levels will be sustainable.
The 2013 NAEP reading exam, for example, found that just over one in three eighth grade students scored “proficient” or higher in reading. That means that nearly two-thirds of these teenagers have not mastered foundational reading skills even after taxpayers have spent nearly $100,000, on average, on their elementary and middle school educations.
Other school systems are making exciting improvements to their schools by implementing more personalized learning using these kinds of technologies. For example, public schools in the District of Columbia are implementing schoolwide blended learning programs. In South Carolina, the Horry County School District, which includes Myrtle Beach, is also implementing similar reforms to use Personalized Digital Learning in school classrooms.
These changes, and particularly the significant reforms that are underway in Yuma, Arizona, are an example of what can happen when families have the power to choose their children’s schools and schools are required to innovate to attract students.
As Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman envisioned, allowing families to choose their children’s schools will encourage innovation throughout the public school system. By encouraging competition, and allowing schools to innovate to attract students, all schools will be encouraged to improve to provide all students with better educational opportunities. Effective schools of choice in this way offer benefits to all students, not just those exercising choice.
In Yuma, a promising model for teaching students was pioneered at a charter school has ultimately led to the traditional public school system undertaking a bold redesign to improve its instruction. This summer, Carpe Diem is adding a new elementary school campus that for the first time offers its personalized learning model to lower primary grades.
“Our new campus provides not only the technology but the classroom structure to individualize learning for students,” says Ogston. “It’s an exciting time for Yuma’s kids as our schools partner together to provide the best personalized learning opportunities possible.”
Millions of students nationwide stand to benefit if other schools and school districts follow Yuma’s example.
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