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Highline Public Schools: Personalized Learning as a Pathway to Equity

Highline Public Schools is a richly diverse school district located just south of Seattle that serves over 20,000 students. The district’s promise to families, students, and the community is that every student is known by name, strength and need, and graduates prepared for college, career and citizenship. To deliver on this promise, in 2013 the district adopted a bold, four-year strategic plan that commits to at least 19 out of 20 students being proficient in core subjects by third grade, passing Algebra by ninth grade, and graduating from high school bilingual, biliterate, tech-savvy, and tech-literate.

A core instructional component of the strategic plan is personalized learning enabled by shifts in instructional methods and technology, including a 1:1 device-to-student ratio achieved over time and blended learning. In the Highline personalized learning implementation plan, every student has shared access to a device in school in the early grades and by high school, every student has 1:1 access both at school and at home. Blended learning combines teacher facilitated instruction, small group work, and technology-enabled individual learning to provide personalization and flexibility of time, place, pace for each learner.

For Highline, however, personalized learning is as much about providing students with equitable opportunities as it is an approach to learning that is student-driven and technology-enabled and that allows students to pursue their passions at their own pace while working to achieve specific learning outcomes. Susan Enfield, who became superintendent of the Highline district in 2012, explains it this way: “We have a lot of kids in our district living in poverty, and when I arrived here, expectations for them were pretty low. But I’m a believer in leading with assets, not with what’s wrong. So my top priority is ensuring that our kids have the same opportunities that kids living in more affluent areas have. That’s the driver behind personalized learning in the Highline district.”

In the Highline vision of personalized learning, students are agents of their own learning. They have voice and choice in how they access information, make sense of new ideas, elicit feedback on their learning, and demonstrate their understanding. Their technology-supported learning environments are responsive, adaptive, and extend outside of school to the home and the community.

The overarching objective of personalized learning in the Highline district is clear: radically improve each learner’s achievement and success.

To realize its vision of personalized learning as a pathway to equitable opportunities for all learners, the district decided that both teachers and students must do the following:

  • Cultivate strong relationships through valuing and amplifying the voices and experiences of all learners
  • Develop personalized, standards-based goals based on learner’s strengths, needs, language, culture, and aspirations
  • Collaborate in authentic and rigorous problem-solving experiences
  • Strengthen student-driven academic discourse with peers, experts, and community members for learners to build skills, develop understanding, and make connections between ideas
  • Select tools purposefully for learners to explore ideas, to develop skills and knowledge, to design solutions to problems, and to create artifacts that demonstrate their learning
  • Cultivate personalized learning paths, where learners use self-assessment and formative feedback to monitor growth, reflect on their learning, and challenge themselves to reach more rigorous goals

In addition to guidance for teachers and students, Highline realized that one of the central challenges of implementing personalized learning across an entire district is creating a shared vision and engaging stakeholders at all levels. To ensure buy in, the district created a taskforce that works in collaboration with school leadership teams. Over time, the structure and activities of the taskforce were refined and strengthened, and the model was extended to the other six school districts in the Puget Sound Region of the state of Washington.

As a consortium, the seven districts were awarded Race to the Top District (RTT-D) grants to aid in the implementation of their shared personalized learning vision. One of the founding members of the Highline taskforce is now the director of personalized learning for the consortium.

Within the Highline district, according to Enfield, Chinook Middle School is one of the best examples of the consortium’s shared vision of personalized learning in action. At Chinook, where 40 languages are spoken and nearly 80% of students rely on school for breakfast and lunch, every student has access to a laptop computer, thanks to a generous donation from Boeing. Beyond that, however, Enfield says, “the school is not flush with resources,” which leads administrators and teachers to look for ways to do more with less.

To illustrate what that means in reality, Enfield points to teacher-librarian Kim Meschter, an entrepreneurial educator who has embraced the Maker movement. In the early phase of bringing the Maker movement to Chinook, Meschter used whatever tools she had available to transform the school’s traditional library into a digital learning studio where students and their peers and teachers could explore and make. Meschter sought support by raising money through crowdsourcing sites and even appealed to staff members across the district for support and resources.

A major breakthrough occurred when Highline, a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, was selected by the nonprofit to be an advanced Learning Studio as part of HP and Microsoft’s Reinvent the Classroom initiative. With support in the form of equipment—a 3-D printer, digitizer, green-screen videography, Raspberry Pi computers, diode circuitry, and much more—Chinook’s library is now nothing less than a “cybrary”, fully equipped with advanced technology to empower students to take their ideas and turn them into projects tied to their own interests.

In addition to the powerful capabilities of the technology available to Chinook, Enfield notes that there is a very meaningful message that is sent to a child when a school provides each learner with a device and access to a fully outfitted cybrary. “The message is ‘we have confidence in you,’” says Enfield. “’We believe in you, and you deserve this.’”

Additional Resources

From the U.S. Department of Education:

Point of Contact

Susan Enfield, Superintendent