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Understanding Student Uniqueness: A Course Correction Perspective

Last month, I wrote about why competing in the new education marketplace requires district leaders to take a hard look within their own school systems.

But, what does that look like?

Building trust with students, parents, and community members doesn’t happen overnight–especially when that trust has already been broken because students are disengaged or bored or hate going to school. No parent wants to see the their child’s dreams suffer when they walk through the schoolhouse door. That’s the opposite effect of what we’re going for.

To change a district’s internal culture–and it’s outward reputation–school leaders need to ensure that their focus is on every child, to understand every student’s unique needs and dreams, and to give each one of them a voice that matters.

Instead of worrying about what’s happening outside their district, school leaders needs to focus on what’s happening within it.

Do students trust their teachers to help them? Do parents feel welcome? Do community members and others trust their schools to make decisions that will help their children grow? Is every adult in school prepared to listen for, and meet the needs of, students and parents?

School customer service is at its best when core beliefs about the needs of children are understood, and when that understanding informs the work that teachers, staff, and others do every day.

Recently, I visited Sand Creek Elementary School in Colorado Springs as part of a joint effort by AASA and the Successful Practices Network (SPN) to document innovative practices across the country.* Sand Creek’s work is centered on its development of a “true” learner-centered environment, one where every decision and action by the adults in the school is intended to meet the unique learning needs of its students.

When we launched the Course Correction blog last year, I wrote about the importance of learner-centric environments in schools, and how these environments prepare students for success beyond test scores. This is precisely the kind of innovative work taking place at Sand Creek!

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A diverse school with significant economic disadvantages not only improved student performance, but activated learning for every child in unique ways. During my short visit, I saw students who were totally and fully engaged–both individually and collectively.

Faculty at Sand Creek, with the support of the school’s leadership team, are at the core of this transformation. I observed a learning environment that was in no way teacher-centered and in every way student-centered.

At Sand Creek, teachers want more for their students than good test scores. The aim is to empower students to successfully navigate their lives with a strong sense of self and citizenship. The school created new processes designed to instill these values and to help students learn from each other.

Using Katie Varatta’s synthesis of the work by the The National Capital Language Resource Center on the transition from a teachered-centered environment to a student-centered environment, Sand Creek has made the following fundamental shifts, from:

  • A focus on the teacher to a focus on students and the teacher
  • Teacher talks; students listen to students interact with each other and the teacher
  • Students work alone to students work with each other
  • Teacher monitors and corrects students to teachers provide feedback when needed
  • Teacher answers questions to students answer each other’s questions
  • Teacher evaluates learning to students evaluate each other’s learning
  • Teacher chooses topics to students have input into topic choices
  • Classroom is quiet to classroom is noisy and busy

In conversations with Sand Creek students, learners told me they felt empowered, valued for who they are, and supported to challenge themselves in everything that they do.

The work has also affected how parents engage with and support the school.

Education thinker and writer Carri Schneider came to the conclusion that parents know a school is student-centered when they understand three key concepts:

  • Students are in the driver’s seat. They have choice about their work, both in and out of school, and teachers help them design unique learning paths.
  • Teachers help plan the route. Teachers develop assessments to help students know their strengths and grow. Teachers design lessons collaboratively, providing authentic ways for students to share with them and each other.
  • Everyone understands the landscape and road blocks. Students can articulate their progress and parents understand their child’s strengths and challenges in the classroom.

Since adopting many of these strategies, Sand Creek has seen a double-digit decrease in student mobility.  

Specifically, parents have expressed a desire to keep their students enrolled in Sand Creek, even amid economic and social pressures that might encourage them to seek out new schools. Administrators say this support evolved organically. But I have little doubt that a strong leader with a clear vision played a role in the transformation.

I asked Rachel Laufer, Sand Creek’s principal, for her thoughts on (a) developing a learner-centered learning environment, (b) the impact on students, and (c) the level of trust and confidence parents expressed after these changes.

Here’s what she said:

Several years ago, we started conversations around student ownership to find ways for students to take the reins of their own learning. In revising our school’s mission and vision, we shifted to a focus on long-term learning goals and benefits, not just short-term academic gains. Ultimately, we want to use the relatively short time students spend with us helping to develop real-life skills they can take with them the rest of their lives.

We discovered that when students became involved in decision-making, self-assessment, and reflection, the focus moved from the teacher to the student taking more responsibility for their academic goals. It also required teacher training around how to integrate student interests and questions into standards based instruction. We obviously know what we need to teach, but how we teach it can incorporate student-generated components. Even those teachers that were initially wary, saw increased student motivation and quality work when they took the risk, which built teacher trust into the model.

This carried over to student-led conferences, choice homework models, inviting students to PLCs to reflect on learning experiences and a Student Action Gazette, all of which made parents realize something different was occurring at their child’s school. With increased involvement at family nights, school events, and feedback from parents on surveys, it is increasingly evident that parents realize that our school values their child for their unique strengths, needs, and interests.  

Pretty insightful stuff.

What steps is your school or district taking to empower students-centric learners? How do your decisions generate more parent loyalty and community support? Tell us in the comments.

*Sand Creek Elementary School was selected by the Successful Practices Network (SPN) and AASA for the Innovative Practices Project.