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A year of personalized learning: Mistakes, moving furniture and making it work

Teacher Catherine Connelly leads a lesson on giving compliments in Vista’s pioneering new class on social and emotional wellness. Connelly loved the curriculum, but not the rolling furniture.

Teacher Catherine Connelly leads a lesson on giving compliments in Vista’s pioneering new class on social and emotional wellness. Connelly loved the curriculum, but not the rolling furniture.

Vista High School principal Anthony Barela had a vivid image of what school in San Diego could look like after a $10 million grant to reimagine learning: Rolling desks and chairs, with students moving freely and talking about their work. Better attendance, class participation and graduation rates.

One year later, Barela has watched some of this vision flourish — including new classes and ways of teaching — while other parts never took off.

“Oh, I hate [the furniture],” observed teacher Catherine Connelly one spring morning, as she watched a student propel himself across the room in a rolling chair. Connelly, who is pioneering a new course in social and emotional wellness, added: “I don’t know who thought white desks and rolling chairs were good ideas for high school students.”

Vista’s trials and errors started when the school became an XQ Super School Project, with a five-year grant by the national nonprofit to bring a personalized-learning approach to this suburban district. With year one down, teachers, students and administrators are still negotiating the promise and pitfalls of personalized learning on a large scale, lessons that may shed light on the relatively new reform that so far seems to be facilitating modest achievement gains.  

Barela contends that Vista’s approach is making a tangible impact in an area he’s long considered paramount: attendance. More kids are coming to school; attendance rates among last year’s ninth-grade class were up 15 percent from the previous year’s freshmen, according to Barela, and 10 percent from the same class’s eighth-grade rates. The average GPA for freshmen was slightly higher (0.2 percent) as well.

We’re literally learning as we go along. You can know what stress is and what anxiety is, but how do you teach a teenager?
Rick Worthington, Vista High School ninth-grade Wellness teacher

This nearly majority-Latino city began its experiment with personalized learning three years ago, after a districtwide survey revealed that thousands of high schoolers felt their education wasn’t relevant. District officials theorized that students’ disillusionment with the curriculum contributed to Vista High’s 10 percent dropout rate. In response, they launched an experimental Personalized Learning Academy for 150 juniors and seniors deemed at risk of dropping out.

Grades and attendance rates for students who signed up for the new academy rose slowly over the next two years, giving Vista officials sufficient evidence that their approach could work on a larger scale. They applied for and won the $10 million XQ grant, which meant that they would need to replicate the features that had made their academy successful on a much larger scale: creating smaller communities, making changes gradually, giving students more control, and focusing on students’ social and emotional wellness.

Smaller communities

Vista school officials started by trying to replicate the academy’s intimate structure, in which four teachers shared the same group of 150 students and got a block of time each day to plan lessons together and review who needed additional help. Sharing information helped them develop closer relationships with students and better tailor their lessons.

For the 2017-18 school year, they broke up Vista’s freshman class of almost 700 students into six self-contained “houses.” Teachers say they appreciate the chance to work more closely with the students, along with a small group of their colleagues, and believe it’s helped contribute to a drop in disciplinary incidents.

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