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Building on Success: Scaling Personalized Learning Across a Network

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By Jin-Soo Huh, the executive director of academic innovation at Distinctive Schools

Along with other trailblazer schools around the country, Distinctive Schools embarked on a journey to transform its schools to be more student-centered. Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden, managed by Distinctive Schools, served as the pilot school to make learning more personalized for students. The result: a school where students had more agency and deeper relationships with teachers. Academic learning increased as students received more tailored instruction, including additional small-group instruction with teachers supplemented by just the right level of practice from online programs

CICS West Belden had created a model in which students were thriving, and the Distinctive Schools challenge became a matter of how to best begin scaling the model to its other existing and future schools. Because each school has varied and unique attributes, the personalized learning model could not be replicated in cookie-cutter fashion. Approaching the scaling work in this manner would have run counter to the core principle of the model: personalization. As Distinctive Schools began to tackle the challenge of scale, it became apparent that no one recipe would be just right for all schools. Instead, to push the evolution of its schools, Distinctive Schools identified three key attributes:

Cultivate a Builder Mindset

People need to feel like they are builders, not renters. In other words, people need to be engaged in the process so they are part of the change rather than experience the change being done to them. For example, I had previously run small pilots at schools we were working with to implement a personalized learning model. However, this meant I was the owner. The school leaders, teachers, and school communities were not driving the work, and the pilots felt disjointed from the schools' overall mission.

We changed the approach this year, and school leaders, teachers, students, and families play a role in designing any new teaching or learning approach within Distinctive Schools. This cascading autonomy helps the entire school community feel invested in the project, provides different ideas and perspective, and promotes collaboration. As a result, we are building the design with them, not for them.

Find Ways to Say Yes

We want our school teams to be the builders but also make sure innovations are aligned to a greater purpose and not just happening for innovation's sake. There are plenty of opportunities and initiatives that a school could undertake, and many of them could improve a school if implemented well.

To provide alignment, the Distinctive Schools Network, in partnership with school team members, created a strategic plan and seminal frameworks that guide teaching, personalized learning, and social-emotional learning. These tools serve as clear visions but not prescriptions on how to get to the "distinctive" goal. Additionally, it is important when innovating to complete each part of the process one step at a time. This allows for each piece of the innovation to be well-understood by the school team and prevent unintended challenges or consequences if an implementation is rushed.

The result leads to engaged school leaders and teachers, as well as provides the schools' teams a space for creativity. It also develops a stronger culture. Culture isn't just about high-fives and shout-outs. It is also about treating people as professionals and having them serve as co-creators in building the best learning experiences for students. Lastly, it puts teachers and staff members in a better position to adopt a new approach, as well as refine and retain it post-implementation.

Ultimately, all of our schools have the same foundational principles and structures; however, the way that these are implemented varies from campus to campus. We compare it to Starbucks. Each Starbucks location may have slight variations on the environment, its exterior, and the seating arrangement, but each location serves the same coffee or a similar menu. Each of our campuses is unique and special, has diverse student demographics, and even has extremely different building structures. But all Distinctive Schools campuses provide a student-centered, holistic education.

Embrace Iteration in Order to Refine and Reflect

An innovative network has to embrace life in beta. School and network teams should demonstrate a growth mindset and constantly ask what they can do better. Iterating is really hard work. If you are going to embrace iteration, you have to celebrate it and show that you are noticing it. Distinctive Schools does this through a variety of celebrations including designating teachers with "trailblazer" status and sharing it via newsletters and social media.

As we iterate, we make sure that teachers always have a seat at the table. For example in key areas like personalized learning and social-emotional learning, a small design team that includes members of the network office and school team members identifies problems and builds systems using a design process. A diverse expanded design team is then assembled which includes teachers from each of our schools representing every subject, grade band, and experience level. This large group refines the systems by providing critical feedback with their expertise. They then serve as ambassadors to their peers to help share the message.

The work of scaling an innovative model is not an easy undertaking. However, by providing north stars and involving stakeholders in the process, the model will continue to spread and evolve.

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