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Powering Personalized Learning in Chicago

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By Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag

Reimagining learning can happen anywhere -- in an old Navy warehouse, former dental clinic, or an open field. On a recent trip to Chicago, we experienced three schools flourishing in dated buildings and custom designed spaces. All three were supported by nonprofit innovation catalyst LEAP Innovations.

Cesar Chavez. Back of the Yards is a tough 10 square block neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. It’s across the tracks and two miles southwest of the home of the White Sox. Almost all of the kids grow up in poverty and almost half are new to English. What they need is a really good education. Fortunately, the Mexican-American community is served by one of the best neighborhood schools in America.

The Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, a K-8 Chicago Public School, serves about 1,000 students from preschool to eighth grade in three facilities a few blocks apart. After a phone interview, Barton Dassinger took a teaching job at Chavez in 2000. Barton did training to be a principal and then did a short stint as a magnet school principal before returning to Chavez as principal seven years ago.

An extended learning grant in 2010 kickstarted personalized learning at Chavez. Rather than paying for instructional coaches, he bought extra time from his teachers. This allows for an additional hour each day of instruction for students. Chavez staff also began experimenting with adaptive learning software.

Chicago is a decentralized district that pushes budget and decision-making to schools allowing Dassinger and his colleagues to align staffing and support systems to their learning model.

Dassinger is a spreadsheet ninja. He helps teachers use pivot tables to pinpoint high-value targets and proudly shares his school’s data with visitors. “I really like looking at data, but that’s not the ultimate end. The end is helping kids. Knowing the data is what’s getting us there,” said Dassinger. A Breakthrough Schools grant from LEAP Innovations allowed Dassinger to hire a data analyst and really start to focus on how personalized learning would help each student in the Chavez community.

LEAP Innovations, lead by Phyllis Lockett, supports many schools in Chicago through professional learning, providing resources and personalized learning support. Two other schools we visited, Intrinsic and CICS Irving Park, showed similar signs of progress and innovation supported by LEAP.

Irving Park. This K-8 school in the Irving Park neighborhood (west of Wrigley Field on the north side), started on the path to more personalized and blended learning several years ago. Similar to Chavez, there is a real focus on community and culture. CICS Irving Park staff work hard to ensures that there is a counselor on staff and that they know kids and families that attend their school.

Chicago International Charter School (CICS) is a diverse portfolio of 16 neighborhood schools (and was recently included on our list of 85 Elementary and Middle Schools Worth Visiting).

CICS Irving Park is piloting personalized learning in third and fourth grade and is using the Summit Personalized Learning Platform in grades 6-8. CICS Irving Park staff have found that discipline issues have gone down and engagement has skyrocketed. In addition to personalized playlists, they use Lexia and ST Math to support students. 

Teachers receive training and ongoing support from LEAP on how to create more personalized environments but also adapted and added growth mindset as an important piece of this framework. They want students to move towards demonstrating competencies with an “I can figure it out” mindset.

The move towards more personalized learning will not take away from the CICS commitment to strong culture -- in fact, they are making sure that these commitments work in tandem with each other.

Intrinsic. Founded by former Chicago Public Schools official Melissa Zaikos, Intrinsic Schools were launched in in a former lumber yard transformed into innovative learning spaces. (Listen to an EdNext podcast with the Intrinsic architect.)

Like Chavez, Intrinsic is an NGLC grantees and works with LEAP to innovate and create personalized learning environments for students. The personalization at Intrinsic is embedded in the school structure itself, where big open Pods are used for learning. Students rotate between different groupings (individual and multi-person groups) to work.

Teachers and students said that Intrinsic allows more agency and autonomy in their teaching and learning. There are approximately 1,000 students, 16% with special learning needs. Students have large blocks of time to work on core subjects (Science, ELA, History) and within each block are working in a myriad of different types of groups.

Teachers use entrance and exit tickets to assess student understandings on a given topic each week and then work in groups or one-on-one with a teacher (there are three, including a special education teacher, in each Pod). Students are also supported by strong advisory at the beginning of each day and student-led conferences (SLCs) throughout the year.

Intrinsic works to empower students through these avenues to develop EPIC skills - empathy, perseverance, independence and curiosity. One student told us that the school helped him realize he could be a leader and that life is more about how we treat each other than it is a test or paper. Students curate a portfolio of meaningful work that they proudly showcased on the walls and in their classroom Pods.

Through technical assistance and professional learning grants, including the Breakthrough Chicago Schools Grants offered in partnership with LEAP Innovations, schools like Chavez, CICS Irving Park and Intrinsic create powerful personalized learning environments that serve their unique student population and communities.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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