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Straight Up Conversation: LEAP CEO Phyllis Lockett

Phyllis Lockett is CEO of LEAP Innovations, which runs an 18-month program training educators in 140 Chicago schools how to implement personalized learning. Before starting LEAP, Phyllis was founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, where she helped raise more than $70 million to support opening 80 new charter schools. I recently talked with Phyllis about LEAP and how to train teachers in implementing personalized learning. 

Rick Hess: So, what does LEAP do?

Phyllis Lockett: We want to create tailored learning pathways for every single student. Our work gives districts and schools foundational change management support to make sustainable shifts to a personalized learning model. LEAP's largest program, the Pilot Network, is an 18-month program that provides educators with up-front planning, professional development and design, on-the-ground coaching, and connection to personalized learning practices and a curated edtech product—we gather a panel of internal and external experts to evaluate edtech tools for effectiveness against our personalized learning framework, and schools are then matched to the product that best fits their needs. The teacher training program includes a six-month planning process, and then a full year of continuous hands-on support from our team of coaches. We are committed to helping schools implement the most effective practices and adaptive technology tools, which help educators tailor the learning experience for every student. 

Rick: What's the big idea behind it? And how big is the organization?

Phyllis: LEAP Innovations is founded on the belief that all children, regardless of race, cultural background or socio-economic status, have unlimited potential and the right to a high-quality education. At LEAP, our construct for the future of education is grounded in our framework for personalized learning. Synthesizing findings from neuroscience, learning science, instructional improvement, and the world of work into a tangible, actionable vision for schools, the LEAP Learning Framework provides educators with concrete strategies to tailor a personalized learning plan to the needs and opportunities of their learning environments. Our organization works in tight partnership with prominent local and national foundations, more than 2400 educators, and 140 schools across Chicagoland. In the process, we've impacted nearly 40,000 students, 90 percent of whom are children of color, and more than 80 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Our framework has also officially been adopted by the state of Utah, and leveraged by schools in 23 states as part of their work to make learning more personal.

Rick: How do you determine which schools and teachers participate?

Phyllis: We have aimed to build a model that meets schools and communities—as well as students—where they are. While we work with a diverse array of public, charter and archdiocese schools, we generally look for environments with strong, inclusive administrative leadership and a culture of collaboration and drive for improvement. Overall, it's critical that each school's priorities and goals align with the values of personalized learning, and that school leaders are willing to partner with their teachers, giving them the freedom and support to innovate from the ground up.

Rick: You mentioned on-the-ground coaches for these teachers. What do the coaches actually do?

Phyllis: After a six-month planning period, during which educators create and hone their classroom design, our coaches work alongside teachers for a full school year as they put their designs to work. They are full time members of our team, and all former educators themselves. Coaches visit educators at least once every two weeks to provide on-site support and are on-call for regular touch bases and guidance. They coach educators through three innovation cycles, through which they help teachers map out plans that move toward their big-picture goals, gather measurements that benchmark their progress, and implement new practices.

Rick: What kinds of work do teachers do in the course of their participation?

Phyllis: For the first six months of the Pilot Network, school teams work intensively with our professional development team. Our coaches help educators build their design and set tangible plans. Participating educators collaborate closely with their administrative teams—and each other—and conduct a series of learning visits to observe advanced schools in action. As part of their design process, teachers create a profile of every student in their classroom. This follows extensive conferences with each student, and often starts with "empathy walks" to follow the path, quite literally, that students take to and through school. Teachers then plan the different modalities of learning they'll support. These include small group instruction, kids working together on projects or problems, and learners working independently. Rather than assigned seats and industrial-style rows of desks, the environments are completely reset often to include collaboration zones, soft seating, and student portfolio "libraries." Teachers revamp their schedules to accommodate increased student choice and mentorship, setting time for student-led conferencing, small group instruction, and independent projects. Along the way, we help educators identify ways for students to demonstrate mastery. Parent-teacher conferences are reframed to become student-led conferences, where learners guide conversations about their progress and where they need more support.

Rick: How have other faculty at the schools reacted to the teachers who participate and to the pilot projects?

Phyllis: There is, as you know, a lot of "initiative fatigue" out there. But when teachers see their colleagues creating more engaging, personalized classrooms, they inevitably want to join in. Those initial classrooms become models that the whole school can rally around as educators innovate with their own take on personalized learning. This has meant that, during LEAP's first five years in operation, demand has grown every year. Of the schools that have participated in our Pilot Network program, nearly 40 percent have engaged multiple teams for multiple years. Teachers become intrigued when they see their peers re-energized with the experience.

Rick: What's been the reaction from principals and central offices?

Phyllis: They are thrilled. They see the positive impact both in their schools' performance, and more importantly, with the development of their learners. Our principals say that this collaborative approach, which brings teachers to the table as co-leaders, has changed their school cultures. As educators and principals recognize the potential of this new approach, Chicago Public Schools has stepped up to meet demand. Personalized learning has appeared prominently in the district's 5-year plan and it's created a new office to support the expansion of personalized learning.

Rick: How do you know how effective the program has been? What kinds of evaluations have been conducted?

Phyllis: Our early results are showing double-digit percentile point gains in literacy. Schools are reporting higher attendance rates and lower suspension rates. Most importantly, students are excited to be in school. Take Perkins Bass Elementary in Englewood. After implementing school-wide personalized learning, Perkins Bass has completely transformed from a struggling Level 3 school—on probation for 18 years—to a Level 1 school for the last two years. In that time, students' math and reading scores have tripled. Prior to personalized learning, teacher retention was below state and district levels. Now it exceeds state and district levels, at 89 percent. Although class size can be as high as 42 students, personalized learning helps create a focused, productive and energized learning environment. In our second Pilot Network cohort, students in our ELA pilot gained an average of 2.94 test-score points over the control group on NWEA, a national assessment that measures student growth. In other words, a typical student in the Pilot Network gained 13 additional percentile points above a typical comparison student starting with the same score—i.e., 50th percentile to the 63rd percentile.

Rick: How much does all this cost?

Phyllis: Last year, we commissioned an independent research firm to look at the costs of implementing personalized learning in schools. It reported that whole-school personalized learning models require modest investment to start—start-up costs ranged from $338K to $780K across the six schools, and $233 to $1,135 on a per pupil basis—and prove sustainable without ongoing grant funding. It is important to us—and the research suggests—that this is a model that can withstand and sustain shifting state and local budgets.

Rick: Where does the funding come from?

Phyllis: We are fortunate to have generous donors that allow school teams to access our services at subsidized rates. As a result, the cost-per-school team of doing this work is significantly lower than the cost of running the program on our end. Our 18-month program costs us $75,000 per school team, but through philanthropic underwriting, we are able to charge schools only $27,500. This includes access to our continuous, personalized professional learning services, as well as year-long use of one of our rigorously vetted supplementary edtech products for all participating students. We've raised more than $30 million to support our work. Our donors have included local Chicago leaders like The Pritzker Foundation and The Crown Family Philanthropies, as well as national philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, New Profit, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Rick: What are the keys to making this work in practice so that it doesn't become another empty-calorie effort at "collaboration" or "personalization"?

Phyllis: To us, innovation requires the fundamental, firm belief that our industrial-age, one-size-fits-all system must evolve to a more personalized approach designed to identify and tap the potential of every student. It starts with a firm understanding of the "why" for every community—what problems can innovation solve, and how can the approach be personalized to meet the specific needs of students. Then, we must ground this transformation in a set of achievable practices that ladder up to wholesale change. Teachers often want to create classrooms that are more inclusive, collaborative, and personal—but have trouble understanding the steps they will need to get there. We know that these changes require time. So, we start by identifying areas where they can make tangible improvements now, help them identify the supports they will need to do so, and then build off of that foundation.

Rick: What brought you to this particular work?

Phyllis: Education is in my blood. I am a proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools. My great-grandfather, parents, godparents and most of their friends were educators. For my family, education had been the connection to opportunity. But, for far too many of our students—particularly children of color—that connection has been broken. When I returned to Chicago after working in corporate America for several years, I was frustrated by the state of my home community. The degree of poverty and violence, and the state of our schools, jarred me. My early work in education focused on evaluating and replicating the most promising school models, and included creating Chicago's first magnet school. We brought more than 80 new schools to life. But while graduation and college attendance rates markedly improved for these students, too few children were impacted. Change was incremental because we were still operating within the one-size-fits-all system. I wanted to challenge the system.

Rick: What's the one big lesson you'd offer to others who are trying to tackle this work?

Phyllis: First, change has to start with listening to and engaging educators. There's a perception that systems are resistant to change. And in some ways, they are. But it's so rare, in my experience, that people actually take the time to engage deeply and sustainably with educators. This isn't a one-and-done approach. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes coaching. It takes support, it takes a community, and it isn't always easy. But we're seeing a profound change in practice and outcomes. Second, when you have a real vision for change, a strategy to challenge the status-quo, people are going to tell you no. They're going to tell you that it will never work, that the problems you're trying to address are too big, or that you're not the right person to get the job done. But that's just not true. Stick to your vision, ignore the naysayers, and keep moving forward.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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