Essential Questions for Personalizing the Environment

1. What does personalization look like?

A personalized school is a community of fully engaged students in an environment of collaboration between students, faculty, staff, family, and the larger community where students are recognized and known as individuals, and where staff work together to encourage student ownership of learning.

2. What are the personalization needs of the school community? "A strong relationship between the educator and student, between the student and the subject, contributes to and creates a strong relationship between the student and the school, between the student and the idea of education" (Angert, B., Policy? Pupils Passionately Pursuing Personal Growth).

The inherent need of the school community is for students to feel more connected. The structures, routines and impersonal relationships of large schools make students feel unengaged and alienated (Wasley and Lear). At Huntington Beach High School, faculty and staff identified a 'hot list' of students (students who were failing classes and/ or getting into trouble consistently) and set those students up with an adult mentor. Within a couple of years, they saw a decrease in suspensions and the list of these students was shorter (Shore).

Students need to be involved in the reform and changes that are taking place at Auburn High School. Theodore Sizer states, “Student voices are the missing link in school reform” (Cushman, Horace , volume 11, #1. Sept 1994) Students should have a role in the curriculum—to the extent possible, but also in schedule changes and school governance. Student involvement in school reform gives students the opportunity to see that they are in control of all aspects of their learning (Cushman, 1994).

Committee members sought to gather input from the AHS faculty regarding their impressions of our personalization needs. The results of a survey ranking said needs of Auburn High School garnered 18 total responses. The faculty indicated the strongest interest in advisory groups, smaller class sizes, and increased student involvement in school governance. However, it should be noted that the opinions of the Auburn High School faculty were at different ends of the spectrum concerning longer instructional periods; some faculty feel that this was a top need, while others ranked it as a low priority.

3. What are the structures that lead to a more personalized environment?

One of the structures that may lead to a more personalized school environment is the small learning community. This may also be called a school-within-a-school, a learning academy, or a themes program, among other names. Whatever they may be called, research shows that small learning communities help to create a more personalized environment for teachers and students alike. SLCs help to alleviate teacher isolation since

they require more collaboration between teachers than the traditional, departmental, comprehensive model. SLCs can also bolster student commitment and ownership of learning (Raywid). Students learn better in context and with a clear reason for learning (Anne Arundel County). Students may choose their school, academy, or theme, and the model may lend itself to greater opportunity for real-world learning; thus students are given both reason and context for learning.

Advisory Groups are another structure that leads to a more personalized school environment. "Teachers who have been a part of an effective advisory system describe it as the single most important design element for making possible a high level of personalization". (Wasley and Lear). All faculty and staff are trained to advise and support a small group of students (usually 10 - 15). The advisor monitors, guides, and nurtures students' personal and academic growth. It allows for all students to belong to a group and have at least one adult that knows them well.

In order for teachers to more effectively meet students' needs, it is imperative that teaching loads are reduced. Much of the research available states that teacher loads are excessive and that the negative effects of stress are having a considerable impact on teachers. Forty percent of teachers in England and Wales report feeling stress due to excessive workloads. The consequences include declining job satisfaction, reduced ability to meet students’ needs, significant incidences of psychological disorders leading to an increased absence from work, and a high proportion of claims for disability caused by stress. Stress also leads to teachers leaving the profession in large numbers, and impacts

recruitment internationally. There are also financial consequences, as stress leads to short term absentees and teachers going on long term disability leaves. There is some evidence that the impact of teaching load and stress are more serious for women. Two thirds of all teachers are female; therefore these data might lead to a sharper focus on gender issues by teaching unions, employers and governments in addressing workload issues. Factors that contribute to teaching load are not limited to classroom interactions and lesson preparations. Teachers must juggle diverse, intense types of interactions and respond to requests by colleagues, administrators, parents, and community members. Teachers report experiencing very high stress related to reporting practices and issues. International studies show that teachers' work intensification mirrors societal trends toward overwork. Site-based management has led to increased teacher workload. Imposed and centralized system accountability, lack of professional autonomy, relentlessly imposed change, constant media criticism, reduced resources, and moderate pay all relate to teachers’ stress.

While a large body of research suggest serious problems relating to teaching load, a large number of government reports and media publication imply that teachers “have it easy” and can be expected to do more. Most of the media fail to do even the most basic research to back up their claims. Governments have consistently ignored a wide range of data and research that shows that teacher stress caused by workload is a crisis requiring action. Governments are not likely to act until the crisis in retention and recruitment becomes clear even to them. Effective union action is the most obvious way to deal with issues relating to teaching

load and stress. The research suggests however that there is a big need for collaboration between unions, employers and governments to address teachers’ workload and stress. A pragmatic approach to deal with this problem should lead to a decrease in short term absences, long term leaves, and teachers leaving the profession all together.

A more radical change to personalize the school environment would be the implementation of an alternative to the “traditional” school schedule. Within the past decade, many public schools have made a transition to one of the many forms of a block schedule. While the research has yielded both positive and negative results concerning the overall efficacy of the block schedule, several sources have quoted positive reactions from teachers who were surveyed in their study

According to a study done in 1997 (Staunton, Jim, and Adams, Teresa) “teachers enjoyed having less up-front lecturing, more one-on-one interactions with students, and a less hectic schedule.”

Another study by Staunton claimed that “teachers at four block-scheduled high schools….. indicated that block scheduling allows teachers to vary their instructional practice, experiment with new assessments, reduce their hectic pace, and cover less material in greater detail.”

However, it is necessary to assess how various forms of block scheduling affect learners at different levels. For example, while the above research yielded positive results, a

comprehensive study done by the College Board professed that block scheduling negatively impacted students taking Advanced Placement courses. (

The important question here is not whether or not block scheduling is necessary for our personalization needs, but which form of block scheduling would meet the needs of ALL learners at Auburn High School.

Personalizing the school environment through service learning Another way for students to feel “connected” or to get involved is through service learning. What is service learning? According to Learn and Serve America and the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), service learning is a philosophy, pedagogy, and model for community development that connects the academic curriculum with the inherent caring and concern that young people have for their world. Service learning can be a catalyst for students to make connections with each other, with the community, and most importantly, between what they are learning and the larger world.

The school-based practice of service-learning offers a promising approach to the challenge of civic engagement since it capitalizes both on students’ willingness to volunteer and on the options presented in community settings for students to become

civically engaged. Service learning is broadly defined as a teaching strategy wherein students learn important curricular objectives by providing service that meets authentic community needs. Typically the service learning cycle includes student planning, action, reflection, and celebration. In high quality service-learning projects, students have considerable voice in determining activities, and teachers facilitate knowledge and skill acquisition. According to Skinner and Chapman (1999), service learning is practiced in half of all public high schools (Billig, Root, and Jesse, 2005).

Some of the structures that will lead students to a more personalized environment are learning contracts and a student-faculty legislature. A learning contract, sometimes referred to as a personal learning plan, should be made by each student and each group of students, then reviewed by an advisor or teacher. The teacher/advisor would have to guide a student or group of students through the process of creating learning goals and devising a way to meet those goals. The student is forced to take responsibility for his or her learning in order to abide by the contract. A group learning contract reduces isolation, builds community, and teaches the importance of working with peers (Boyer, 2004).

In some schools a student and faculty committee is established to create school policies on academics, discipline, and general school requirements; “When students have the chance to practice making responsible decisions as a group, they take another major step toward adulthood in a democratic society” (Cushman, 1994). The governance system should help students take responsibility for their own actions and the actions of their peers (Cushman, 1994). Francis W. Parker Essential Charter School has established a

constitution that establishes comities of students and faculty to establish the policies of the school. The constitution clearly defines branches of the government and the roles of each branch. The constitution of the Francis W. Parker Essential Charter Scool can be found at

4. What practices are necessary to personalize the school environment?

To implement and maintain a successful small learning community format, a reconfiguring of faculty interaction must occur. Whether the SLCs be based on themes, questions, or vocations, SLCs require collaboration beyond the traditional departmental level. As such, a reordering of both faculty and student schedules may be necessay. Common planning time for SLC "teams" to devise and discuss instruction and assessment practices is necessary, as is professional development for all members of the SLC. Research has shown that professional development and common planning time are crucial to letting the SLC function as something more than an administrative body (Supovitz).

As the SLC evolves, other practices--governing boards or flexible scheduling, for example—may demand consideration.

To create an Advisory Group, professional development for the teachers/staff who are to become mentors is a must. Many teachers would be uncomfortable in this role without the proper training and it is important that the advisory period does not become a

glorified study hall. The relationships formed must be ongoing so students feel a sense of belonging and that someone cares about what they do. There should also be guidelines for what is to be accomplished during the advisory period. Advisory periods could involve college plans, topics about safety (bullying, internet use, etc), discussions about grades, and many others. Prior to instituting an advisory period, a plan for each period (even if somewhat open-ended) should be drafted.

Through service learning teachers and students can explore topics in a real world way. Service learning is woven into the fabric of the curriculum, not as an add-on or “extra” thing that has to be done. According to the National Youth Leadership Council, the following are critical elements to a successful program.

Youth Ownership- Young people are active partners in a service-learning project which empowers them to take control of their learning and builds leadership skills.

Genuine Community Needs- The youth and practitioners (teachers) engage the community as a partner to identify needs and strengthen relationships between the youth and the community.

Connections to Learning Objectives- Teachers tie projects to specific learning objectives, where learning becomes experimental and applied, deepening student understanding.

Reflection- Reflection is used to help students internalize the learning, provide opportunities to voice concerns, and assess where they are in the learning process.

Partnerships- The partnerships built between the youth and the larger community can bridge intergenerational, racial, and cultural gaps.

Making it Happen- Each project begins with careful collaborative planning, followed by implementation, and ends with evaluation of the success and failures of the project. This process insures that the students have a complete knowledge and appreciation of their experience.

5. What role do members of the school community play in personalizing the environment?

To truly personalize a school environment, all members of the school community should take part in the process of personalization. Faculty and school administration, who directly and indirectly make up the leadership of the SLCs, play key roles in personalization. Given full autonomy, a faculty team may determine the focus, questions, class offerings, instruction and assessment practices, disciplinary actions, even the schedule within a given SLC. Depending on the chosen model, students may have a say in any of the areas above. At the least, students and advisors play a role in personalizing the school environment in the choice of school, theme, or academy. Parents and guardians also play a role in helping their student choose a path. If the model encourages or requires student involvement beyond the building (work study, internships community service), community government and businesses lend to the personalization process as well. The school committee plays a determining role in approving substantive changes and funding.

6. How can we assess the level of personalization of the school environment?