Rhode Island School Makes Learning “Personal” for Students

Students in a classroom, all seated around their laptops at individual desks, respond to a teacher standing at the front of the classroom at a white board.

Students get some face-to-face help from a teacher in the Village Green Virtual School Learning Center. Photo Credit: Village Green Virtual School.

Students move at their own pace toward mastering standards and college and career readiness.

Picture this. Sarah, a 10th-grader, is in the learning lab finishing up an assignment on Julius Caesar. She has one more test and a final to pass before she moves on to 11th-grade material. She can take the tests whenever she feels ready. She can then shift her attention to mathematics, where she is several assignments behind.

Meanwhile, Tammy is working on a 10th-grade grammar quiz. Grammar isn’t her strongest skill, but by working at her own pace, she is able to master the assignments. If she doesn’t pass the quiz, she can retake it as many times as necessary until she gets a passing score.  She can also ask her teacher for help, if she wants, or go to a workshop in the afternoon with other students struggling with the same lesson.

For observers of this scene from a visit in spring 2015, it may seem like student learning is all over the map at Village Green Virtual Charter School. That’s because it is—by design. Sarah and Tammy’s school, founded in Providence, Rhode Island in September 2013 serving grades 9–10 with plans to expand to grades 9–12, was created with the express goal of “personalizing” learning for every student through a “blended learning” model of online curriculum and in-classroom teaching.

Teachers at Village Green work with students who ask for help or who they can see are struggling to master skills or strategies using the online curriculum. The model is designed to enable teachers to focus their attention on targeting the learning needs of each student. Students work on some subjects longer than others if they need to, and teachers work with groups of students that all need help on a particular skill.

No day at Village Green is routine. “There’s absolutely no typical day here,” said Khori Lopes, an English teacher who joined the school the previous school year. “Everybody is working on different things all the time.”

The school’s design supports this fluidity. There are no classrooms or bell schedules.  Students rotate throughout each day between online learning, small workshops focused on addressing specific skill gaps and advisory or reading groups. As Rob Pilkington, the school’s founder and superintendent said, time is considered a variable, not a constant. “Time shouldn’t dictate the structure of student learning. If an English lesson takes two hours to complete on a given day, and a science activity takes a half hour to complete, then why should a bell schedule allow only one hour each?” said Pilkington.

Laboratory for Statewide Expansion of Blended Learning

Village Green is the first school of its kind in Rhode Island. With support from the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school has served as a learning laboratory for educators across the State interested in replicating its blend of online courses and teacher-led instruction.

The image is a textbox that quotes Holly Walsh, the Director of Instructional Technology and E-Learning at the Rhode Island Department of Education. It reads, "We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a roadmap to guide them."

“We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a
roadmap to guide them,” said Holly Walsh, who oversees Rhode Island’s Instructional Technology and E-Learning work. The State believes technology can have a transformative impact on educational outcomes and has launched an ambitious effort to become the first in the nation to adopt blended learning statewide.

“Digital learning in all of its forms provides…unlimited educational resources for every classroom, allows our schools to design flexible instructional schedules and enables students and teachers to work closely together at a pace that is right for each student,” said Deborah Gist, former Rhode Island Commissioner of Education.

And they are well on their way to making this vision a reality. In the 2014–2015 school year, almost half (14 out of 32) of districts in the State started to implement 1:1 blended learning models, and all schools had the high-speed wireless Internet access blended learning requires. The State also hosts an annual digital learning conference and partnered with Village Green to chronicle its model and lessons learned.

Online Platform Allows for Self-Paced Learning

Village Green uses an online curriculum, called “Edgenuity,“ which allows students to move through assignments at their own pace. Every student has a workstation where they log into their own personal Edgenuity portal and choose what to work on. Students take frequent tests and quizzes, and complete practice assignments. A data dashboard displays skills they’ve already mastered in green, those they are on track to master in blue and those they are struggling with in red.

Khori Lopes said the real-time data has been motivating. “My students are very competitive. They don’t like to see ‘red.’ Even if they don’t like the topic, they try really hard to get ‘green.’ We can take a student’s work habits and completion rates and predict their graduation date. This makes things much more real for students when they’re falling behind.”

The data also help Lopes. She can monitor the performance and progress of individual students or multiple students at once, including overall grades, percentage of work completed and idle time. “There’s no excuse for not knowing where they’re at because the data is so immediate,” said Lopes. “If someone’s having a bad day, I can say ‘let me check your session log’ and I’ll see they’ve only completed a few activities. That’s a great middle of the day intervention. I can ask them ‘is something bothering you today; do you need to talk?’”

Learning to Make Choices

Because students have more control over how they spend their time at school, they are constantly confronted with choices. “We’re teaching them to manage those choices,” said Lopes. “We are routinely asking, ‘Where are you seeing yourself falling behind? Do you really want to save all of your English for June?’ Students need to get into the habit of making lists and schedules.”

Students say they appreciate the flexibility. “I like that I can get ahead in certain courses and take more time in others,” said Mike, who started as a student at Village Green last year after six years of homeschooling. When Mike was in the 11th grade he had already completed pre-calculus, which is typically taken in the 12th grade. While he’s far ahead in mathematics, he was playing catch-up in English and history.

Jesus, an 11th grader last year, said he also appreciates that he is not limited to a structured curriculum that requires students to move in lockstep. However, with less than a month left of the school year, he still had to complete about a third of his mathematics assignments before he could move on to 12th-grade mathematics. He was confident he’d get there because he could ask for help any time to fill the gaps in his skills. “If I was in a regular public school, they’d just move on without me,” he said. “Here, I’m able to move at my own pace.”

Even graduation dates are flexible. Some students, like Madeline, are on track to graduate in three years. Madeline, now an 11th grader, finished 10thgrade English in early April and, as of mid-May, had only 10 days of geometry work left. This year, she plans to complete requirements for both 11th and 12th grades and earn her diploma by the end of the year.

Madeline’s trajectory is not uncommon at Village Green. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of students are on track to graduate in three years, some of them taking Advanced Placement or other classes that earn them college credit. But for other students, even the four-year path can be challenging. While this kind of flexibility is a core part of the school’s model, the reality has come as a bit of a shock to teachers and administrators. “When we first got into this, we thought every kid would start at the starting line together and finish together, but the proficiency model just doesn’t allow for this,” Pilkington said. This year, the school will provide more structured time for English and mathematics to keep students from falling too far behind. Students will have instruction in English and mathematics three times per week with certified teachers instructing using Edgenuity and other online sources. The goal is to have groups of students work in a blended environment where the teacher can have a higher degree of oversight and control over pace and assessment cycle. In all other subjects, like history, science and foreign languages, students will continue to have complete flexibility to move at their own pace.

Teachers are Critical to Student Success

When people hear about Village Green’s heavy reliance on technology, many assume that teachers are obsolete. Pilkington said this could not be further from the truth. “While tech is critical, it’s not about the tech,” he said. “It’s about the relationships and rapport between students and teachers.” Teachers are constantly interacting with students, either individually or in small group workshops geared toward a particular skill or lesson where students need extra support.

Pilkington actually had to hire more teachers part way through the first school year when he realized the 17:1 ratio of students to teachers wasn’t enough to give students the individualized attention they needed. “We need more teachers, not fewer” to make our model work, he said. By the second school year, the student to teacher ratio was 10:1.

Because students have more ownership over their learning, teachers play a very different role. As Pilkington described it, “teachers are facilitators and coaches. They partner with students to help them get to the next level in their learning.” While it may sound like teachers have it easy, this is hardly the case. To prepare for classes, teachers must take the Edgenuity course themselves (including lessons, units, quizzes, tests and exams) to understand what material is covered. “This is a huge amount of time and effort,” said Pilkington. Teachers analyze student data on a nightly basis to see where each student is and what they will need the next day, compile other online sources to supplement Edgenuity, and create standard lesson plans for teaching workshops or facilitating research projects.

The main things the teachers are freed from at Village Green are quiz and test construction, grading, and designing core lessons. “However, they still have to plan the workshop and plan to re-teach Edgenuity in case a lesson is not grasped,” explained Pilkington.

Model Is Not Without Challenges

Village Green has entered uncharted territory with its self-paced model, and this comes with plenty of unexpected challenges. For Kevin Cordeiro, a social studies teacher at Village Green, one of the biggest adjustments has been staying current on a wide range of subjects. “For the first three to four months, I had no idea if the first kid I talked to each day was going to ask me about medieval Europe or the Vietnam War,” he said.

While they don’t yet know how this will all play out, it is a critical part of the innovation journey. Schools like Village Green are helping to inform a national conversation about what it takes to truly personalize learning for every student.


  • Flexibility is key for teachers. Teaching in a self-paced school requires a high degree of flexibility in responding to where students are in their learning.
  • Just because students are computer savvy, does not mean they are intuitive e-learners. Village Green has had to train students to become proficient with the Edgenuity curriculum.
  • While technology is critical, it’s not about the technology. The relationships and rapport between teachers and students are essential for student success.
  • Students value self-paced learning. Students at Village Green appreciate the ability to move at their own pace and have ownership over their time.
  • Misalignment between State tests and the self-paced model is a challenge. As more schools move toward self-paced models, districts and States will need to consider how to better align State testing requirements with individualized learning approaches.

For updates on Village Green’s progress, check out the school’s website.

Tools and Resources

Delaware’s BRINC Districts Collaborate to Personalize Learning for All Students

Teachers blend online and in-person instruction to engage students and increase college and career readiness.

Tim Brewer, science department chairman at St. George’s Technical High School in Middletown, Delaware, had had his students using computers for research and for sharing documents for eight years and considered himself to be “technology savvy.” Then, in the fall of 2013, he was asked to begin meeting with teachers from three other districts to design lessons that blended traditional instruction and online learning and gave students choices as to how to do their work.DE-BRINC Consortium pullquote 1

The experience was an eye-opener. “It had never occurred to me to teach this way,” he said. “It really shook me to my foundation.”

Brewer was one of 40 teachers from 10 high schools who met with experts and worked on designing blended learning lessons between 2013 and 2015. The BRINC Consortium—an acronym of Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational Technical, and Colonial—was formed to ensure that districts’ technology brought about instructional changes that would close achievement gaps and increase students’ college and career readiness by personalizing teaching and learning in Kindergarten through 12th grade.

Blended learning is an approach in which teachers deliver some instruction in traditional ways but also expect students to learn via digital and online media in and outside of class. Students are encouraged to follow a path of their choosing at a pace that is comfortable to them, as long as they meet expectations. That required Brewer and other teachers to make some major changes. “I had to take everything I was doing and reinvent it,” said Tara Saladyga, who teaches ninth grade physical science at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington. But, she said, “I’m comfortable with change. I don’t want to wait and keep doing something that is not giving me optimal results.”

The consortium used a portion of the 59 million dollar grant provided by Race to the Top funds and a 2013 Delaware Department of Education innovation grant to purchase technology, build a new learning management system, and to deliver high quality professional learning for educators. The learning management system, powered by Schoology and the professional development, provided by Modern Teacher, were invaluable in providing access for Delaware’s students to learn in a personalized environment. Three more districts—Appoquinimink, Caesar Rodney, and Red Clay—joined the consortium at the beginning of last year, the consortium now serves about 52% of the State’s public school students. All seven districts are continuing the training using local and Federal Title II grants with a goal of having all teachers at the 20 high schools in the seven districts using the blended learning approach by the end of school year (SY) 2016–2017.

As a result of this partnership, the Delaware Department of Education recently selected Schoology’s learning management system to replace its existing system to power online and blended learning for the entire state to shift education from being teacher-driven to student-centered, making active, engaged learners with access to the best, most effective technology.

Unprecedented Collaboration

“The business community is telling us that many of their employees are conducting work outside of office walls and using information and technology to produce reports, build relationships and, ultimately, achieve outcomes that positively impact the company and the customer,” said Mark Holodick, superintendent of the 11,000-student Brandywine School District in Wilmington.

“Now, we’re doing the same with blended learning—recognizing that students can access information and demonstrate they’ve acquired knowledge and skills outside the four walls of the classroom wherever and whenever they want,” he said.

Urban, rural, suburban and vocational-technical school districts are involved and each has different strengths, which they share through collaboration. Eventually, the lesson plans and curricula the teachers are developing will be made available across the consortium.  “For the first time that I am aware of, you have districts from across the State collaborating entirely voluntarily, and they are seeing the benefits,” Holodick said.

“The opportunity to collaborate at every level, from superintendents to administrators, teachers to students, has pushed our thinking and progress on blended learning best practices,” said Mike League, Indian River’s instructional technology specialist. “It’s that collaborative spirit of the BRINC Constortium which has encouraged the sharing of ideas, lessons learned, and resources across district lines to improve the learning experience in our classrooms.”

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Kentucky Rolls Out a One-Stop Shop for Student and Teacher Data

Practical resources improve educator effectiveness and keep track of students’ progress.

Crystal Brown has taught fourth grade at Hinsdale Elementary in northern Kentucky for nine years. She knows a lot about good teaching but, in a classroom of 28 students with different strengths and challenges, tailoring her instruction to each student’s learning needs has always been difficult.

Without other resources to make it easier to personalize the support she gave to students, Brown has spent much of her career with one-size-fits-all tests and teaching materials; however, this approach meant that many students were either left behind or not sufficiently challenged.

But recently, thanks to a new data platform called the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System (CIITS), she is better able to help her students set appropriate academic goals and provide them with targeted support.

“Whenever my students take a test, their score comes up automatically on their computers so they can see right away if they met their goal,” she said. “It’s immediate feedback for them, and it This graphic has a quote from Amy Braunwart, teacher at Ryland Heights Elementary School: “This really helps with goal-setting. I have a much better sense of what realistic targets are than I did in the past.”shows me what I need to teach. I can move to the next skill if I see all my kids got questions 1 to 3 correct, or maybe I can pull a small group of students who got questions 9 and 10 wrong together for extra help.”

CIITS went live in August 2011. Eighteen early adopter school districts began using it right away and the other districts in the State came on board in early 2012. Now, all of the State’s 44,000 teachers and 3,500 school and district leaders are using the system.

It gives teachers ready access to student data, customizable lessons and assessments, and a growing selection of professional development resources, such as training videos and goal-setting tools.

CIITS was a core part of Kentucky’s Race to the Top plan. The State was already building the system prior to receiving the award, but the additional funds made it possible to add resources and accelerate expansion to more districts.

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Massachusetts Addresses Nonacademic Barriers to Learning

Schools are working to boost student achievement by identifying students’ nonacademic needs.

At John J. Doran Community School in Fall River, Massachusetts, elementary students begin each day with a morning meeting. Sitting in a circle, they talk about important events in their lives and ask questions about their classmates’ experiences.

Morning meetings are part of the routine at many schools. But these conversations are particularly important for students like those at Doran, who are coping with hunger, homelessness and family instability and other issues. Ninety percent of the school’s students live in poverty and the community’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the State.

Students use this time to practice ways to stay focused in class, manage anger and work through conflicts with their peers. Last year, for example, a group of second-graders who were routinely sent to the principal’s office for acting out and getting into fights used the morning meeting to brainstorm ways to control their tempers. Their teacher posed questions such as: What kind of clues does your body give you that you’re about to lose your temper? Once you identify your triggers and cues, what can you do to relax?

This graphic has a quote from Maria Pontes, principal of John J. Doran Community School: “Before, we were much more reactive. Now, data drives everything we do.”The morning meeting helps create a sense of belonging and emotional safety for students which, research shows, translates into improved academic and behavioral outcomes. This activity is a central part of Responsive Classroom, a nationally recognized social emotional learning program associated with gains in mathematics and reading achievement in addition to more emotionally supportive classrooms.

“Our kids are much more focused on being successful,” says Maria Pontes, Doran’s principal. “When I first came on board, it was such a chore to get these kids to focus on their work. Now, they’re like ‘bring it on.’ They’ve really taken on the challenge.”

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Focusing on Mathematics Adds Up to Higher Achievement – Turner Elementary School, Turner, Maine

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Turner Elementary School, a grade 4–6 school, is located in a small farming community 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Forty-two percent of the 200 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 18 percent have disabilities.

Four years ago, Turner and other schools throughout the district were struggling to improve student performance, especially in mathematics. At Turner, 64 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or above in mathematics on the State test in school year 2010–2011. Three years later, the number has sharply increased, to 84 percent.

The school used Title II and Title VI funds to provide professional development opportunities during the school year and the summer.

Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only three years?

Cynthia Alexander, principal: We created a team of staff across the grade levels. Known as the Advanced Tier Team, the group meets every five weeks to look at data and develop an individual learning plan for every student who needs extra support, not just special-education students. We determine if students need interventions in math or other subjects and what those interventions should be. Then, at the next meeting, the responsible person brings updated data so the team can see if the intervention is working and whether adjustments are necessary. But we don’t just look at academic data; we also look at behavioral data and trends so we are focusing on the whole child.

We also have professional learning community meetings once a week, during which teachers meet by grade level to review data and plan instruction for individual students.

If students need interventions, we want to make sure they get that support without missing regular class time. So we have Intervention Time 3 days a week for 40 minutes. During that time, students work on a specific skill, like fractions, so they can fill in knowledge gaps.

We also have an interventionist—a certified teacher who provides support both in and out of the classroom. And we have mini-groups that meet daily. For example, if students are having trouble with fluency, they will meet in the mini-group for eight minutes at the beginning of the literacy block. Teachers tell us that is really helping.

Q. Why focus on mathematics?

Becky Foley, assistant superintendent: Four years ago when I came to the district, I talked with the administrators,

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

and they really wanted to focus on math. Across the district, we were not doing well in math on any level.

Alexander: The first year, the district math committee came to the school and observed three different math lessons on the same day. At the end of the day, the committee gathered to discuss what they had seen.

Foley: This experience was very effective because all the observations happened on the same day and the discussion was immediate. We held similar observations for the first two years we were phasing in a new math curriculum and will probably do it again in a year or two.

Alexander: We looked in particular at implementation for math. If we don’t have implementation practices in place, we get gaps in the curriculum, and students don’t have access to the same instruction. That means over a period of years, we are creating gaps among students.

We need to teach all of the units in a curriculum. We aren’t giving teachers a script, but we are making sure they have a guide to stay on track and cover the same skills, without missing some units because they run out of time. We have built extra days into the plan for use if a teacher needs extra time to cover some material. But if a teacher is two weeks behind, we need to look at what we need to do to support that teacher.

We also look at how we can educate parents. The way we teach math now is different from the way we learned it when we were in school. So we need to help parents understand it. At our fall Open House/Curriculum Night, teachers meet with parents by grade level. They show parents the math curriculum so parents can help their students. In the spring we have Math Night. Teachers set up displays at cafeteria tables, and parents come play math games at each booth. They get a ticket for each game they play, and at the end of the night we hold drawings for prizes.

Foley: We use a very systemic approach—we need everybody working together to help students improve achievement.

You can learn more about Turner Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

States Set Policies to Raise the Bar for Teacher Prep

Title: States Set Policies to Raise the Bar for Teacher Prep Description: This graphic depicts policies that states have put in place to raise the bar for teacher preparation. The graphic has four steps with a teacher standing at the top, teaching. Each of the steps has text about one example of a policy that enhances teacher prep. The first step says: “Conduct annual accountability reporting on teacher prep programs and graduates.” The second step says: “Require clinical practice with effective cooperating teachers.” The third step says: “Require certification and testing in subjects taught.” The fourth step says: “Raise the bar on admissions.”Recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students. Research confirms that the most important in-school factor in a student’s success is a strong teacher, and excellent teachers are especially important for our neediest students. States are already taking a variety of steps to ensure that all schools have the excellent teachers all students deserve.

This graphic highlights ways in which State policies are strengthening teacher preparation to ensure that teachers enter the classroom with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The PROGRESS blog has previously reported about New York’s new ‘Clinically Rich’ model which requires clinical practice with effective cooperating teachers, and Tennessee’s annual accountability reporting.  States are also focusing on outcomes of teacher preparation programs, such as placing and retaining teachers in high-need schools and fields and measuring teacher impact on student learning.

As part of its Excellent Educators for All initiative—designed to ensure that all students have equal access to a high-quality education— all States created and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) State Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators earlier this year. These plans include strategies to close gaps in equitable access to excellent educators, including improving teacher preparation as a key lever to improve students’ access to teachers who are well-prepared to meet their needs. ED recently announced the approval of 16 states’ plans to ensure equitable access to excellent educators: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.


National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: All Means All – Imogene Giesinger Elementary School, Conroe, Texas

Four students are working together at a table, two seated and two standing. They are actively discussing a book they are reading and diagramming out the story on a piece of poster paper.

Giesinger students analyze the meaning of a book they are reading as a group. Photo Credit: Giesinger Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Imogene Giesinger Elementary School is a preK–4 grade, Title I school located in a fast growing suburb outside of Houston. The school’s increasingly diverse 617 students come from both households that are economically disadvantaged and affluent; they live in homes, apartments and rural areas; two-thirds of the students are white, 19 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are African American. To meet all of their students’ needs, Giesinger’s teachers compile data on every student from common formative assessments and meet together in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to devise and evaluate strategies. Administrators meet with all third- and fourth-grade students to review the students’ results, celebrate progress and set goals.

The school has accomplished the rare feat of eliminating the achievement gap among different groups of students. For example, 96 percent of all fourth grade students were proficient or advanced in mathematics; 97 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunches were proficient or advanced and 89 percent of the Hispanic students were proficient or advanced. In English language arts, 88 percent of all students, 88 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and 89 percent of Hispanic students were proficient or advanced.

Q. What is the secret to closing the achievement gap?

Rebecca Page, principal*: We give common, formative assessments in each grade and use district benchmark tests to identify students who are not where they need to be and then fill in the gaps. The teachers know who didn’t get it, and then they go back and organize their students into small groups for guided reading or guided mathematics. Those groups are fluid in the classroom and across grade levels. Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.

Connie Payne, Title I teacher: We have a philosophy of getting together by grade level and sharing among our teachers. There is always someone at every grade level who kind of lifts you up when you’re down and gives you new ideas of how to approach a student or a learning objective; then you’re back on track.This graphic has a quote from Rebecca Page, the principal of Giesinger Elementary School: “Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.”

Page: We have high expectations for all of our students. All means all. I or the assistant principal get together with each third and fourth grader to review their results, celebrate progress and set new goals. And they graph their progress.

Payne: If you have high expectations for your students then you have to be current in your teaching because our kids are always changing. Ms. Page is supportive of us being current in our teaching practices.

Q. What support is provided for teachers?

Payne: The district provides excellent professional development and has instructional coaches who provide teachers with a lot of support as they go from training to implementation of best practices. Our teachers realize that improvement is a refinement process. You’re not going to try something once or twice and see an impact on students. Change is difficult. It takes time, and Ms. Page has always been great with that.

Page: Our scores on our common formative assessments and district benchmarks are very public. All the teachers in a grade level say these scores are all of ours. They get together and talk about areas of strengths and weaknesses. It is sharing and open communication about what we need to do to address our students’ needs. It’s what are we going to do together for our kids. Our teachers are very committed.

You can learn more about Imogene Giesinger Elementary School’s success here.

*Rebecca Page retired as principal after school year 2014–2015.

Innovative Massachusetts Schools Foster Deeper Engagement with Hands-On Learning

Two students, a male and a female, work on a science project.

Eighth grade Renaissance students participate in a rollercoaster expedition. Photo Credit: Springfield Renaissance School Teacher.

Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.

Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”

School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.

To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.This graphic includes the following text. The title is “Innovation School Autonomies.” Under the title are six bullets, with the following six autonomies listed: curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development, and school district policies.

The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.

The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee.  The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Educating the Whole Child – Haines Elementary School, Haines, Alaska

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Haines Elementary School is located in rural Haines, Alaska. The K-8 elementary school has 200 students and shares a building with the high school. About 15 percent of the students are Alaska Natives and 15 percent are students with disabilities. About half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Haines cares deeply about every student’s success.  The school uses a variety of assessments to closely monitor every student’s progress and teachers meet three times per year to analyze the data and plan interventions. Students who need extra help in reading come to school 30 minutes early for individual or small-group tutoring or to use a computer reading program that has produced strong results. Some kindergartners stay 45 minutes after school to work on their mathematics or early literacy skills. Students identified as needing special education services get the help they need from paraprofessionals and special education teachers within the regular classroom.

Haines also uses several strategies to increase student engagement in school. Teachers use technology across the curriculum and the school provides students with enrichment opportunities as well as individualized interventions.

These efforts have lead to important gains for Haines students.  The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient or advanced in reading increased 14.3 percentage points between 2011 and 2013; writing scores for this group increased 9 percentage points during that period. Mathematics scores increased by 20 percentage points. During that time, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without shrank rapidly.

Over 90 percent of the school’s students are proficient or advanced in reading and writing and 85 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote high performance among students and close achievement gaps?

René Martin, dean of students: We focus on whole child education, which involves Response to Intervention strategies, engaging parents and making all staff aware of students’ needs. Response to Intervention means that teachers try to meet each student’s needs, intervening early on when they begin to fall behind to get them back on track. The intensity of the assistance students receive is increased as needed, but some students who still need more help may then be identified as needing special education services. Everybody understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do. We also do a lot of professional development because teachers have to be aware of what is new in theory and practice—the world is different, and children are different.

Barbara Pardee, Title I reading specialist*: We have a lot of special education needs. So we looked across the students’ Individualized Education Programs to see what they had in common. We saw that short-term memory issues were a common thread and students needed help with auditory processing. So we brought in a computer-based program that helps students improve their memory and attentioThis graphic has a quote from René Martin, dean of students at Haines Elementary School: “Everyone understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do.”n skills and increases the speed at which students process information. It was not easy to implement, and we needed a lot of training. But we got the whole team on board with the priorities and said, “As a school, we are working on this.”

And it’s working. A student told me that he now could hear words when before it sounded to him like mumbling. We actually saw improved performance in math first. Now we use it for all second graders regardless of ability level, including gifted and talented students.

Martin: We formed child study teams and believe that the majority of interventions need to be done for the majority of students. We have managed to decrease our special education population from 20 percent to 14 percent because we provide support for all of our students and don’t push them aside.

Martin: With our early intervention strategies, we are working to make sure that no students fall through the cracks and that every student can move forward and have hope for the future. Because we are small and rural, students don’t even know what is possible. So another thing we are doing is sending students to Juneau to learn about careers.

You can learn much more about Haines Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

*Barbara Pardee retired after school year 2014–2015.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Working as a Team – Prairie Elementary School, Cottonwood, Idaho

A class of students from Prairie Elementary stand in front of hteir yellow school bus before departing for a school field trip.

Prairie Elementary School sixth graders depart for a school field trip.
Photo Credit: Cottonwood School District.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from their successes.

Prairie Elementary School in Cottonwood has 196 students, kindergarten through grade six, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s income. These students have become more mobile than in the past, as families move more often.  Prairie is one of only two schools in the Cottonwood district; the other is a combined middle-high school. It was the only school in Idaho to be awarded Blue Ribbon status in 2014.

Prairie Elementary joined a five-district consortium to give the school’s 14 teachers (some of whom also work at the high school) more peers to work with and access to additional resources. Lead teachers from the schools in the consortium come together three times annually to plan and prepare lessons and materials aligned with the Idaho Core Standards to share with their colleagues. For example, the third through sixth grade teachers in the consortium are all using online Khan Academy videos as part of a statewide pilot program. The school’s recent gains have been so significant that the State invited Prairie teachers to give a presentation in the State capital on what they are doing that is making a difference.

Q. How do you engage families and the community?

René Forsmann, principal: Everybody is always welcome, and we are fortunate to have a lot of backing from parents and the community.

The picture shows Rene Forsmann, the principal of Prairie Elementary School, on the left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school's teachers, on the right.

Caption: Prairie Elementary School principal René Forsmann, left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school’s teachers, right. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

To improve student achievement, we have to take it on as a team. We are all in this together. Each student means something to the community, parents and staff, and our parents have high regard for teachers. We provide lots of opportunities for parents to participate in our classrooms, on our field trips and through coaching and mentoring. Our drug-free group, Kindness Rocks, provides activities for students and parents, bringing families together to work on art projects, fly tying, bracelet making, bingo night, etcetera. With each activity, there is always a message regarding kindness and anti-bullying.

We have open houses that are attended by 90 percent of parents. During the fall open house, they are given information about the Title I program, after-school program, after-school activities and school expectations throughout the year.

Fall parent-teacher conference attendance ranges from 85 to 95 percent. School concerts are attended by approximately 250 parents, friends, grandparents and community members.

We want kids to be in schools so, when students are absent, a call is made to parents to find out details. We also do home visits when students are absent from school for three to five consecutive days.

Our community stands behind our school, passing a property tax levy every year since 2005.

Q. How do you use data to improve student achievement?

Forsmann: Our work is data-driven. We look at data for individual kids and group students by ability. The important thing is to use the data—to not do data to do data.

We look at the data for each student and break students into different categories at different times of the day. Every student has enrichment time at least once per week, and we use the data to inform what happens during this time. We also use the data to help teachers teach to their strengths and provide after-school support. And we have students involved in accountability as well and provide rewards when they do well. We give awards for attendance, because students have to come to school to learn and succeed.

We have been fortunate to receive grants for technology, so all of our classrooms have iPads, Chromebooks and laptops. We load them with programs that students can use for extra support or advanced coursework. So with the data about students’ abilities, their teachers are able to use the technology to teach students at their current level. We can be there for all students. With many things going on in class at once, teachers have to be guides or facilitators.

You can learn much more about Prairie Elementary School’s efforts and success here.