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Personal Learning as the Gateway to Equity and Access for All Students

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By Dr. Matt Doyle, Assistant Superintendent of Innovation, Vista Unified, Jessica Borah, Pedagogical Coach, Rancho Minerva Middle School, Juan Ayala, Principal, Rancho Minerva Middle School

Now more than ever before, equity and access matter for all students. The pace of technological advancements in priority sectors like clean energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, healthcare, and information and communication technologies is exponential, proving that Moore's Law is alive and well not just for computer chips. In order for all students to understand the increasingly complex world of work and, most importantly, develop the skills and dispositions necessary to successfully navigate multiple career changes in their lifetime, their learning pathways need to become more personalized to the unique strengths, interests, and needs they bring to the classroom. As educators, a central task to ensure this success is to close the equity and access gap.

In the Vista Unified School District, a key focus is to make learning more equitable and accessible for all students. This means that particular emphasis is placed on designing programs, opportunities, and pathways that engage students faced with intractable challenges like poverty, language acquisition, and learning disabilities. To this end, I have invited Jessica Borah, a pedagogical coach, and Juan Ayala, Principal of Rancho Minerva Middle School to join me in this blog to highlight how their team is placing a laser focus on closing the equity and opportunity gap.

At Rancho Minerva, we strive to provide equitable opportunities for all of our students regardless of their background. Our goal is to focus on each learner's strengths and interests to ensure academic success and access to learning opportunities that can pave the way to their future goals.

Rancho Minerva is in its third year of participation in the Vista Unified Personal Learning Challenge. We have partnered with Summit Learning, which allows an explicit focus on cognitive skills and habits of success alongside the development of content knowledge.

All of our sixth and seventh graders are working on real-world projects in their core classes, which allows them to engage in creativity and critical thinking to apply their content knowledge. For example, in their science class, sixth graders studied the impact humans have on their environment. This project involved data collection at both the school and community level, as well as identifying the causes of plastic trash and food waste and brainstorming solutions for this problem. The project culminated with a presentation to school administration suggesting ways that the campus can reduce its impact on the environment. In this project and others, students receive feedback on cognitive sSkills, which are interdisciplinary competencies that require higher-order thinking, such as hypothesizing and constructing an explanation.

During personalized learning time, students work at their own pace to demonstrate competency on standards-aligned content knowledge across all core subject areas. This model allows teachers to facilitate self-directed learning and personalize their teaching to meet each student where they are. Not only are our students learning math, science, language arts, and history; they are also learning what works for them to be a successful, independent learner. Students exercise choice in determining which resources to review, when to take assessments, and the environmental conditions under which they learn best. Our students are empowered to make their own decisions about when and how they learn, which has led to increased engagement and ownership of learning.

These habits of success are then reinforced with our mentor program. Each student is assigned a staff mentor, meeting one-on-one every other week. During these check-ins, mentors touch base with students and provide support in the form of reflecting, planning, and goal setting. Mentors also help students connect their short-term academic goals to long-term future goals while encouraging self-advocacy and providing social-emotional support.

Ensuring all students have access to quality electives that mirror the world of work is a major goal our staff strives to meet. In our Design Lab class, students gain real-world work experience through our ABC Printing Bulls digital art business. Customer orders received through www.ABCPrintingBulls.com include custom-designed posters, banners, logos, and 3D- printed solutions for items such as broken umbrella handles, keychains, and technology device holders. Our students take charge of the business from start to finish, beginning with customer consultation, then progressing to designing and delivering the order, and ultimately making sure the customer is satisfied with the final product. Our design engineers not only get exposure to real customer service practices, but also operate using professional design applications including Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Tinkercad. Students leave the class with expertise in customer service, communication, teamwork, and design programs.

The most compelling demonstration of our focus on equity and access has been our broadcast journalism and video production classes that participate in the Panasonic Kid Witness News. Rancho Minerva students have gained national recognition for their work with video storytelling. In fact, last school year Rancho Minerva students won the Panasonic national award for a short documentary that featured a WWII World War II veteran and a 14-year-old girl that focused on patriotism and family. Like all of the elective courses at Rancho Minerva, our broadcast journalism and video production classes don't just focus on the technical side of the field, but embed literacy and academic rigor as well. Before any of the filming, editing, and final cuts are made, students must come up with a story to tell. They create storyboards and come up with ideas that will help them tell their story. The process challenges students to create, collaborate, and develop high-level communication skills. For the third year in a row, Rancho Minerva students will be traveling to New York City to celebrate and share their award-winning documentary, 'Nurtured by Nature.'

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In addition to the electives described above, we offer multiple opportunities for students to participate in Career Technical Education, which exposes them to three different career paths including photography, coding, and medical/laboratory science. At Rancho Minerva, all students are given the opportunity to participate in these electives and are encouraged to bring their own unique strengths to the table. Through this exposure to the world of work, we continue to inspire our students to continue developing their passions and see the connection between their learning and their future.

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