One School's Quest for Personalized Public Education

A San Diego-area high school hopes a new program based on individual interests will keep more students in class. Will it work?

Students walk across a grassy field in front of a school building.
Students change classes at Vista High School. The 2,600-student campus will be a high-profile national test run of how personalized learning can work in a large, public high school.  (Mike Elsen-Rooney )

SAN DIEGO—To understand just how far Vista High School will go to keep kids interested in school, consider the case of 17-year-old Hernan Hernandez and his skateboard.

Hernan, an avid skateboarder, was bored in gym class. So were his classmates. So, late this spring, Hernan approached Principal Anthony Barela with a potential solution: What about offering them a skateboarding course instead?

“I’m pretty sure if you told them they could skate and get an A, they would do that,” Hernan told Barela, a former football coach who is maniacal about keeping Vista High School students in school.

Barela agreed: He’ll work with Hernan to design a skateboarding course, part of the school’s dramatic transformation toward meeting the needs and interests of the roughly 2,600 students, most of whom are Hispanic and working class, who attend this open-air suburban high school. Next year, Vista will enter an uncharted era: Every freshman will embark on a new curriculum designed to help them find and pursue their interests.

A $10 million prize from the national nonprofit XQ Super School Project is already overhauling Vista High, encouraging more cross-disciplinary, independent projects; enhanced access to technology; and close attention to social and emotional skills. The changes support a contention of high-school reformers nationally and some educators here: “The way we’re teaching students, it’s not working,” the Vista science teacher Allison Whitman said during a recent weekday before school ended for the summer.

District officials have been pushing similar changes in all of Vista’s schools since a series of student forums four years ago revealed an unexpected truth. After Matt Doyle, Vista’s acting superintendent, helped interview more than 2,000 middle- and high-school students about their school experiences and dumped all of his interview notes into a software program that identifies the most frequently mentioned words, one word rose to the surface: “irrelevant.”

“That was kind of a gut check for us,” Doyle said, and it prompted the district to issue a challenge to all its schools—to create classes more tailored to their students’ interests. Vista High School and Barela leapt at the opportunity.

Vista High School was struggling with chronic absenteeism, and, most vexing to Barela, 10 percent of students who entered as freshmen dropped out before senior year.

The idea officials came up with two years ago, called the “personalized-learning academy,” or PLA, eventually formed the basis for the school’s winning XQ-grant application, and will be the model for the curriculum that Vista rolls out this fall.

In September, Vista’s entire incoming freshman class of about 700 will be split into five “houses” of between 130 and 150 students and four teachers each, with the teachers trained to home in on the students’ strengths and preferences. The XQ prize money, paid out over the next five years in $2 million installments, will fund total conversion of the school by 2020.

For Barela, the barometer for success for the inaugural freshman class is straightforward: “If we don’t lose ’em,” the school is making progress.

Vista’s transformation comes in the midst of increasing national attention on the potential of personalized learning— and the new technologies enabling it—to solve a whole range of challenges facing schools, from student behavior, to job readiness, to academic achievement. The term encompasses a variety of techniques, often involving technology, meant to give students more control over what they learn and how fast they learn it. Advocates say it’s more effective than having an educator present one lesson, at the same pace, teaching a group of students with different interests and needs. But the approach is so new that, so far, little evidence exists to suggest it can deliver on its potential, and there’s little agreement about what it looks like in practice.

Vista’s willingness to extend personalized learning to all 25,000 of its students will make it one of the first districts in the country to take on the approach system-wide, Doyle said. And the changes at Vista High School will become a high-profile national test run of how a personalized-learning approach can work in a large, comprehensive public high school, the kind most U.S. students still attend.

Already, the new system at Vista is creating anxiety for students, teachers, and parents who are new to the approach.

“People are scared,” said Craig Gastauer, a former science teacher at Vista now leading the training for the school’s ninth-grade teachers, “because they haven’t seen it—they haven’t been able to wrap their minds around what this change is going to look like.”

Principal Barela, a devoted fan of the school’s successful athletic teams, is optimistic, and analogizes the school’s to new model to high-school sports. In sports, constant feedback from coaches helps athletes identify the skills they need to practice and then put to the test during games. There’s no question about whether those skills are relevant, Barela said; why not replicate that model in academic classes, allowing teachers to act more like coaches who work together with students to help them improve in areas they consider important?

Students sit at desks, speaking to one another.
Students prepare to present a final project in Jeb Dickerson’s 11th-grade history class in Vista High School’s personalized-learning academy. Next year, all freshmen will take part in personalized learning. (Mike Elsen-Rooney)

Vista’s personalized-learning overhaul next year, for all of its uncertainty, is not the school’s first foray into the approach. School officials have been closely watching the progress of the pilot personalized-learning academy. It opened two years ago, with a class of about 150 students who opted into the program as juniors with the option to continue through their senior years. The same offer was made to last year’s juniors, and the opt-in program for the upperclassmen will continue while all the new freshman embark on the class-wide, personalized-learning initiative.

And while early results from the pilot academy are promising, the experiment hasn’t always been smooth.

Hernan, the skater, participated in the pilot and found the freedom in class disconcerting. He became easily distracted by having a personal Chromebook laptop at his fingertips.

“There’s times where you are like, wow, I just wasted two hours,’’ said Hernan, who once spent the better part of a class Googling “Supernovas’’ during a unit on the Big Bang theory. His grades slipped over the course of the year.

Jeb Dickerson, who teaches American history to juniors in the pilot academy, found his students growing restless while working on independent projects he’d designed to give them more freedom.

“The teachers and students wanted something different, but we were not necessarily prepared, and [the students] were definitely not prepared to make good on that,’’ said Dickerson. “The direction I’m headed [in] is more structure,’’ he said, alluding to an important lesson he’s gleaned from the experiment. “I don’t think it conflicts with the idea of giving them more ownership.”

Vista’s early trials and errors echo the experiences of many schools trying the personalized-learning approach, according to Betheny Gross, the research director at the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

“One of the risks of personalized learning is that we move away from the traditional classroom, which is a one-size-fits-all model, to a different one-size-fits-all model,’’ Gross said. “Just this new version has beanbag chairs [letting students sit anywhere they want] and computers.’’

(Vista has opted for rolling chairs that students can wheel around instead of beanbags, and every student will have a personal Chromebook.)

Principal Barela said the experience of the teachers in the pilot academy pushed him to focus more on teacher training this fall. The challenge ahead, Barela said, is to find a balance between teachers butting in to students’ work and teachers giving them free rein—that will be part of the training. Finding the right balance might also mean taking risks on topics not traditionally covered, one reason Barela was so open-minded about Hernan’s skateboarding proposal.

Kelly Humann, the PTA president and a parent of a 10th-grader, has seen personalized learning work at the magnet middle school (a selective school that admits students by application) where she’s also sent her children, but wonders how it will translate to a much larger high school where not all the students necessarily choose to be there. “We’re all worried to see how it’s going to be implemented,” she said.

But Humann said the approach, at its best, can reach students at varying academic levels in the same class. The middle-school program worked equally well for her high-achieving daughter and her son in special education, she said. And Vista High School’s personalized-learning experiment is causing parents who might typically opt for selective high schools to consider sending their kids there, Humann said. “I’m excited … a lot more kids are going to experience what my kids have experienced from the beginning.”

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Vista’s experiment comes at a time when schools across the country are turning to personalized learning as something of a pushback to test-heavy instruction and as a way to prepare students for jobs of the future, said Gross of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.  “We’re coming out of a prior wave of reform that was very focused on testing,” Gross said. “We kind of lost sight of the kids in all of that.”

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.

Some Vista students from the pilot academy won’t know for sure how, if at all, personalized learning changed their high-school experience. Hernan, the skater, didn’t sign up for this fall’s academy, fearing the freedom would prove too tempting and his grades would continue to slip.

But he did come away from the experience with a better sense of how he works as a student. “Whoever you are and how you work with others and with yourself,” he said, “that’s basically what it all comes back down to.”

Hernan plans to dedicate his senior year to working on a skateboard apparel company called Brofu that he founded with some friends. He’ll take courses in graphic design and photography offered through the school’s vocational-tech program to get better at designing clothes and digital marketing, while sticking with more structured classes for his core academic subjects.

And even though Hernan won’t be in personalized-learning classes anymore, Principal Barela thinks Hernan’s experience wasn’t in vain. ”For me, that’s a total win,’’ Barela said. “He’s taking an active role in his learning. Fantastic.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.