In addition, the low cost of technology that allows different students to work on different projects at the same time has made personalized learning an even more attractive route, Gross said.
Early data from Vista’s pilot program suggests that, for most students, the more-flexible class environment of the personalized-learning academy has been helpful. Of the first cohort of juniors, 60 percent boosted their GPAs, school officials say.
Teachers also reported a big improvement in student behavior. Barela said 70 percent of the students in the pilot academy improved their attendance, and there was only one disciplinary referral in the academy during the first cohort’s first semester. “We have so many kids who are typically on that fringe, in class regularly and participating … who felt like they belonged here,” Dickerson, the 11th-grade history teacher, said.
Teachers could also better handle disciplinary issues because they’d developed deeper relationships with students, and they were able to rely on other teachers in the academy because they shared students and had more time to collaborate with each other, said the 12th-grade history teacher Matt Stuckey.
For example, when one senior cursed at another student in the middle of a presentation, Stuckey calmly approached the student and walked outside with him while another academy teacher carried on with the class. Stuckey learned more about the conflict—the two students were longtime friends, and had gotten in a fight—and resolved it without punishing the one who’d cursed. Later, the student approached his teacher and offered a mea culpa, acknowledging that he’d lost his composure.
Dickerson believes the academy’s approach played a role. “I’d like to think, at least in theory, [that] personalized learning is about taking responsibility for oneself,” Dickerson said. If the student hadn’t been a part of the pilot personalized-learning academy, he said, the conflict “would’ve never happened that way. They’ve had a lot of time to explore themselves and their values.”
Vista’s pilot personalized-learning academy helped the school win the highly competitive XQ competition, and they have lots of ideas for what they’ll do with the money. About half of the first $2 million installment will go toward training staff, Doyle said. Teachers will get a four-hour block of time during the school day each week to meet with a small group for planning and training, Barela said.
Another $800,000 will go toward updating classrooms. The school will distribute rolling chairs and Chromebooks, as noted, and several flat-screen TVs per classroom instead of one projector, so that groups of students can project different images at the same time.
Though Barela’s immediate hope for personalized learning is to improve attendance, his plans for the next five years are more sweeping. As part of the XQ grant requirements, the school identified several performance goals. Vista committed to improving not only its graduation rate, but also students’ college readiness and state math and reading exam scores by at least five percentage points by the time the incoming freshman class reaches its senior year.