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Personal Learning Takes Hold Of Student Strengths
Posted 5/7/18

By Ray Huard


When fifth graders at THE Leadership Academy (formerly known as Temple Heights Elementary School) learned earlier this year that one of their teachers had been affected by Hurricane Harvey, they sprang into action.


Using the iPads each THE Leadership Academy student is assigned to use in class and take home for homework and after-school research, they created a video showing the devastation the hurricane caused.


In the video, the students appeal to their schoolmates to help raise money for students and teachers at Houston’s Herod Elementary School.


They raised $1,800.29.


The connection between THE Leadership Academy and Herod is through THE Leadership Academy fifth grade teacher Claudia Diaz, whose sister-in-law, Khiabett Alvarez, teaches kindergarten at Herod.


“Within her school, there were so many students who lost everything, so many teachers who lost everything,” Diaz said. “They lost their home, they lost everything they owned.”

THE Leadership Academy is on a fast-track in making the transition from traditional classroom lessons to personalized learning, where lessons are tailored to meet the needs and strengths of each student individually.


Instead of lecturing to students who sit in row-after-row of desks, teachers roam the classrooms, guiding and encouraging students who do much of their work on computer tablets – Chrome books and iPads in the Vista Unified School District. Students stand at desks, or sit in bouncy chairs, or do some of their work outside.


A key part of personalized learning is teaching students to think for themselves, to be creative, to collaborate with each other and to take risks.


That’s how the Hurricane Harvey video came about. “It came from the kids,” Diaz said.


Assistant Superintendent of Innovation Matt Doyle said that the shift to personalized learning is at the heart of everything Vista Unified is doing.


“As a district, we believe every student has value and every student brings to the classroom a tremendous amount of strengths and interests,” Doyle said. “If we can tap into what they’re already good at, and what their interests are, and combine that in an environment where it’s safe to learn freely, they’re going to be more engaged in their learning and enjoy school.”


Not only does a personalized learning classroom look different, but it sounds different.


Instead of telling students to be quiet, teachers encourage them to talk to each other about what they’re studying or projects on which they’re working.


“A good classroom is a noisy classroom. A good classroom is a classroom where students are talking, sharing ideas,” Doyle said. “We don’t want to go into classrooms with neat little rows of desks and everyone does the same work sheet.”


Just as personal learning looks different from one student to the next, it also varies from school to school.


“We have the flexibility to look at our kids, at our programs, and see what works best for them,” said Mission Vista High School Principal Nicole Miller. “It’s exciting.”


Mission Vista is in the process of developing what Miller said are pathways, where students can choose to focus on a series of courses that focus on their interests, starting in their freshman or sophomore year and continuing through their high school year.


The pathways culminate in their senior year, where students demonstrate their mastery of what they’ve been studying by designing and completing a project, under the guidance of their teacher.


“We know that when people graduate high school, they’re going to go into the job they think they’re strong in,” Doyle said. “Why wouldn’t we start capitalizing on this at the earliest stages?”


The school district’s move to personalized learning is already paying off at THE Leadership Academy and Mission Vista. Test scores are better than ever, and students see school as fun instead of something to be endured.


At THE Leadership Academy, parents who previously thought of sending their children elsewhere are flocking to the school.

Enrollment jumped so high this year that the school had to open two new classrooms, Principal Kim Morton said.


“This campus can provide them more than these alternative schools that they were looking at,” Morton said.