Winooski School Tackles Equity in Personalization

Editor’s Note: Inspired by Sarah Bertucci, our professional development associate, Eagle Rock is leading five schools through a yearlong project with the objective of improving equity at those schools by means of independent projects. Last summer, Growing Equity Together was launched with representatives from all five schools gathering on at our campus in Estes Park, Colo., to make plans. Today’s post is an update from Winooski Middle/High School — one of the five schools involved in this innovative program.

From Lindsey Cox, iLab Humanities Teacher — Winooski Middle/High School

As one of the schools participating in The Growing Equity Together Project, Winooski Middle/High School is nearing the end of its first continuous improvement cycle aimed at supporting students in Grades 6 through 9.

ilab-winooski-logoThe objective is to develop the confidence these youngsters need to be successful when working on personalized learning projects.

Winooski is a small town in northwest Vermont that also serves as one of our nation’s refugee resettlement locations. Our middle/high school has about 380 students in grades 6-12 with about 30 percent being English Language Learning (ELL) students and 70 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch status.

Over the past four years, Winooski has benefited from being part of a student-centered learning grant in collaboration with Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., with funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

The grant effort, known as the Partnership for Change, has supported educators in shifting their teaching and learning systems to be more student-centered by being more personalized and proficiency-based. Simultaneously, legislation passed in 2013 known as (PDF) Act 77: The Flexible Pathways Bill (PDF), mandates a progressive educational agenda for the entire state because it requires all students — beginning with the class of 2020 — to graduate based on proficiencies instead of Carnegie units.

Act 77 also requires students in grades 7 through 12 to maintain personal learning plans (PLPs) as a tool to chart their path through their educational career, and allows for new opportunities for students, including dual or early college, virtual learning and community-based learning.

With the backdrop of Act 77 and the Partnership for Change, Winooski was eager to join this project as we enter our second full year of implementing personalized learning at the middle school for all 6th through 8th graders. This is also our fourth year utilizing iLab — a personalized learning lab offering at the high school level. After conducting our empathy interviews and attending the summer institute, it was clear that our focus should be on interventions that support all students in both completing and succeeding in their personalized learning projects.

In our research, we came across a study called (PDF) “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap,” (PDF) that offered a new approach to help first-generation college students succeed. The study suggests discussing class differences with students rather than just ignoring them.

Here’s what MarYam G. Hamedani, a co-author on the paper, psychologist and associate director of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, had to say about the research:

“When incoming first-generation students heard stories from junior and senior students with different social-class backgrounds about their struggles and successes in college, they gained an understanding on how their backgrounds shaped their own experiences and how to see this as an asset.

“We posited that if we were able to use upperclassmen of varying race, class and perceived intelligence backgrounds, we could increase our own students’ confidence in their skills around personalized learning.”

At Winooski, our first hurdle was to develop a tool to measure students’ confidence around the skills they need to be successful on personalized learning projects, and then administer this tool as a benchmark. Next, we had to design a way for all sixth through ninth graders to hear a succinct and similar message from a number of upperclassmen.

We looked at a number of potential measurement tools including the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (PDF), Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale, the Psychological Sense of School Membership, the National Survey of Student Engagement (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), the University Attachment Scale (France, Finney, & Swerdzewski, 2010).

We also looked at the (PDF) Academic Motivation Scale (PDF) (Pascarella, E. T., & colleagues), and an emerging new survey from John Weiss at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Mich., called the “Circle Up” survey — an interactive assessment tool to measure youth developmental experiences in out-of-school time spaces.

While each of these tools had many merits and possible applications for our work, in the end we went with the General Self-Efficacy Scale. We even communicated with one of the co-authors — Dr. Ralf Schwarzer — about modifying the scale to simplify the language and administration techniques to accommodate our ELL students.

Here is a link to the final measurement tool we implemented with our 6th to 9th grade students: After a few weeks delay while our 1:1 technology roll-out occurred, we had our students take this survey in their advisories the first week of October. We assigned each student a unique identifying number connected to demographic information so that we are able to analyze the data using a variety of subgroups without asking students to self-identify their subgroups.

Following completion of the survey, we held two separate assemblies in our auditorium. Each assembly featured a half-dozen 10th to 12th graders — each of whom spoke on their experience with personalized learning. The first assembly was for the 9th graders and the second assembly was for the 6th to 8th graders. The 25-minute panels consisted of three of the same students and three different students. The teacher moderator posed three main questions to the panelists:

  1. Describe a specific experience you have had with personalized learning that did not go well.
  2. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
  3. What are the components of a successful personalized learning project/topic?

Additionally, each was asked what advice they would give students who are new to personalized learning.

Our hope was that every student in the audience would connect with someone they considered to be like them and were motivated by that student’s ability to overcome obstacles to personalization. Or, by seeing students they assume to be “good” at school and hearing their struggles, they too would have more confidence to tackle personalization.

Currently, we are working with our schools’ data analyst to break down and correlate the information we collected in order to make meaning of what we have done and devise some next steps on this journey.

From a quick analysis of the first round of surveys, we anticipate that confidence might not be the right characteristic to be measuring. Confidence levels were benchmarked much higher than anticipated — possibly stemming from students having a false understanding of their own ability levels, or the variety of skills that are associated with successful personalized learning projects.

Either way, we look forward to sharing our analysis of the data and our next steps as we help our students find success in the new world of student-centered learning.

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About The Author: Lindsey Cox is a humanities teacher in the iLab, Winooski Middle/High School’s personalized learning classroom. She was formerly the project manager for the Partnership for Change working in the Burlington and Winooski School districts.

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