Bridging the gap in a rural school district through personalized learning
by Sam Brooks
In Putnam County, Tenn., with 23 schools spread across 400 square miles, we share many of the challenges faced by our fellow rural school districts nationwide, including inconsistent attendance, long commutes, and a high "mobility rate" - the rate at which students are moving in and out of the district.
Previously, Putnam County teachers had been using more traditional, often low-tech teaching methodologies. But starting eight years ago, we began to make a significant shift toward personalized and virtual learning with the goal of preparing students to be "future-ready," a term we use in Putnam County to encompass both college-and career-ready as a more flexible concept as students often work toward both at once.
In addition, we needed to find ways to offer hard-to-staff classes, such as Advanced Placement and foreign-language courses, improve our ACT prep, and provide options for course recovery and acceleration. To accomplish these goals and shift our district toward a more nimble personalized-learning model, we began to focus on three important objectives.
Objective 1: Rethink the traditional school model
The first step was to evaluate how we were serving students and consider alternative learning models. We also needed to find new and better ways to serve a more diverse group of students: Approximately one-third of children in Putnam County live in poverty, more than half are economically disadvantaged, and one-third have a single head of household.
Well aware that rural school districts are prime candidates for blended learning environments, we decided to launch the Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) Program in 2008 as an alternative to our traditional schools. Over the past nine years, VITAL has evolved to offer a virtual home-school component and allows classroom teachers to leverage online learning programs to differentiate instruction—all of which aligns with our district's shift toward a 1-to-1 digital learning environment by the end of 2018.
Objective 2: Prioritize flexibility
We were fortunate that in 2014, Tennessee was one of the first states to relax the "seat time" requirement - the amount of time students must be physically present in a class in order to receive academic credit. This change provides rural students with the flexibility needed to complete their coursework, whether at home or in the classroom, and stay on track to graduate. The VITAL program offers a pathway for remote learning to students who are completing coursework outside the classroom due to any number of factors, such as weather, travel, health, or personal reasons. At the same time, we have worked to improve greater connectivity through initiatives such as adding Wi-Fi to school buses, a project we are still working on today.
Objective 3: Train teachers
One of the most important goals from the start was to give teachers the tools and training they needed to offer students a personalized learning experience in a 1-to-1 digital district. We began planning very focused professional learning (PL) to help our teachers fully understand what digital resources were available and how to use them. We continue to provide PL throughout every school year, while at the same time leveraging the expertise of our master teachers as mentors to our newer teachers.
Choose the right tools to begin
When we launched VITAL and later began to shift all our district's schools toward a personalized-learning model, we carefully evaluated and selected resources to support the transition. Here are several tools that provide greater flexibility for students, put learning in their hands, and support them whether they are working in traditional classrooms or accruing credits remotely.
One of our primary goals was to find innovative ways to help struggling high school students complete the courses they need to graduate. We began working with Edgenuity in 2012 for its array of "credit recovery" options and soon realized the same resource would benefit middle and high school students who were ready to accelerate, as well as those who are interested in taking career and technical education (CTE) courses.
In 2012, we also partnered with Shmoop to provide more comprehensive ACT prep for our high school students. In the first five years of using Shmoop, Putnam County's average ACT score increased 1.3 points, outpacing the state's 1 point increase over that same time period. We also use Shmoop for AP course test preparation and as a support for differentiation and acceleration within our school buildings. Teachers can easily pull in Shmoop resources to provide extra practice for students who need reinforcement with specific math and writing skills, while also providing accelerated students with higher-level materials across subject areas.
Another key component of our VITAL program is Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which offers a full suite of core academic courses. Students in grades 6-12 who are ready for more challenging material or simply can't fit courses into their regular schedule can take a variety of FLVS courses online such as English, math, economics, government, U.S. and world history, Spanish, various science classes, and our state-required personal-finance course that we developed as part of a three-way partnership with FLVS and the Dave Ramsey Group. While we use the FLVS platform, these courses are taught by our own master teachers to students from across the district.
We have filled some gaps in our program with resources provided by ASU Prep Digital for subjects such as sociology and physical science, with plans of adding the Cambridge course options in the 2019-20 school year. Developed by Arizona State University, these courses are offered virtually, and like our Edgenuity and Florida Virtual School options, they are integrated directly into our Canvas learning management system (LMS).
Last school year, we began our district-wide rollout of personalized learning in our middle schools with training and support from Education Elements. First, we determined what our needs were and where we wanted to focus our energies in order to inform the development of an instructional model tailored to the needs of students. This year, we are following a similar process as we introduce personalized learning at our elementary schools, and our high schools will follow the year after. We've compiled a list of strategies we recommend to districts embarking on a similar journey:
1. Provide structure
It's important that resources are provided in a structured and supportive manner. To that end, we have VITAL employees at each school level push out a unified message about each digital resource and oversee implementation. As a result, every offering our VITAL team has implemented operates at a 97 percent success rate each year because we provide a high level of structure and support, starting with our director of schools to our principals and teachers.
2. Seek out versatile resources
As we continue to expand our personalized-learning model across Putnam County, versatile resources such as Shmoop and Edgenuity have proven far more useful than those with a narrower focus. In fact, we no longer spend money on expensive single-purpose resources. Our goal is to be able to choose and maximize multipurpose resources that allow for differentiation and acceleration and support personalized learning in school, after school, and at home.
3. Build a strong state network
We get together with educators from other districts across Tennessee as part of our statewide personalized-learning task force to compare notes, agree upon goals, and create both formal and informal opportunities to learn from each other. A few districts and entities across the state hold in-state conferences that cover a variety of relevant topics. In addition, we spend a lot of time visiting each other's districts. In fact, the VITAL program in Putnam County has hosted visitors from 37 districts in the past year alone.
4. Don't be afraid to fail
When we started our journey in 2008, it was pretty messy, and we had to learn a lot along the way. Nonetheless, we persevered and continued to innovate and iterate upon our learning design and implementation. While it is true that each school district has its own unique set of student needs, we continuously learn from districts that are ahead of us in this process, including rural districts in other states. Through these opportunities, we explore what successes they are having with personalized learning, as well as what challenges they face so we can make more informed decisions for Putnam County.
Rural districts like ours, as well as those that contend with an entirely different set of challenges, are increasingly adopting a personalized-learning approach. Those that will set themselves up for success are making this transition thoughtfully and deliberately, keeping students at the center of every decision, while seeking out the help they need and providing support for everyone involved—from administrators to principals, teachers, and students. It's also important to communicate every step of the way in order to garner widespread buy-in and help drive outcomes that extend across learning environments to the greater community.
About the author:
Sam Brooks is the personalized-learning supervisor for the Putnam County schools in Tennessee, leading all student/teacher personalized-learning opportunities in the district, which includes online, dual enrollment, dual credit, and industry-certification options. Sam led the launch of the VITAL program in Putnam County. Sam is a Google-certified trainer and was recognized by the Center for Digital Education as a national Top 30 Technologists-Transformers-Trailblazers in 2014. Connect with Sam on Twitter @VITALK12 and at email@example.com.