New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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Distinctive Schools understands that a commitment to personalized learning is a collective mindset that translates into structures and practices that evolve over time.

Distinctive Schools embarked on its journey into personalized learning in the 2013-2014 school year. That was the year we joined the LEAP Innovations Pilot Network which led to two of our schools, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden and CICS Irving Park, both Distinctive Schools campuses, to become Next Generation Learning Challenges Breakthrough schools in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Prior to this journey, our schools were successful based on test scores but we weren't confident that we were preparing the whole student for the world that they would be entering as adults.

We thought we were aiming to end up as a personalized learning network, only to realize personalized learning is not a destination, it is a journey and mindset.

Being a network of schools committed to personalized learning means that we are constantly evolving and managing change. It is part of our culture. To be clear, change doesn't mean that we are just riding the proverbial pendulum back and forth. Change can also be measured by refinement and depth of understanding. Personalized learning cannot be distilled down to a specific online program we are using or a specific part of the day. It is a mindset that translates into structures and practices that aims to provide a tailored learning experience for each learner based on their strengths, areas of need, and interests.

Our schools have transformed to provide students more choice and more tailored instruction. The first few years were a period of innovation where we were constantly iterating. We realized we needed time to stop, reflect, and make sure everyone was on the same page, marking a new period of evolution. The first stage in this new period was for the leadership team to develop a crystal clear vision that we could constantly check against as we navigated this new stage.

With the vision set, we then assembled an extended design team that had representatives from each campus representing different grade level bands, content areas, and roles. Over time, more research had come out that needed to inform our model and we had also matured in our thinking and implementation of personalized learning. The team was charged with revamping our personalized learning framework which would in turn inform systems like coaching look fors.

This experience instilled in staff members this idea that personalized learning is a process. One member of the team noted, "I thought we were doing great things within personalized learning--which we are! However, I paused to think about how much growth there still is to make around this work. It is constantly evolving, but that is what makes this work so exciting."

The team also left having a clear understanding of what personalized learning meant for Distinctive Schools and the rationale that explains why we embrace it. They now are able to serve as ambassadors of this vision for their fellow staff members, students, and community members. A team member said, "I am much more confident after today—I feel like after diving deep with each section [of our framework], I am able to truly talk about personalized learning and why we're doing what we're doing at Distinctive Schools."

Moreover, having stakeholders involved in the process made sure that this was not a top down initiative but one that had authentic input. This builds in investment for the tools that spring directly from the framework such as classroom look fors and self evaluation forms.

As we embark on this new phase with renewed energy, we are recreating pilot mode. It is not going to be exactly like five years ago when we were starting from scratch, but we still need to have that innovative spirit and maintain that designer identity. It would be great to stick to a model and stick to it permanently, but that is not what we signed up for: personalized learning has evolved from where we started and it will look different again in 2022.

The good news is that there is now a cadre of thought partners and resources like the MyWays Success Framework that we can lean on to push our thinking. We are excited to enter this next stage of our journey in personalized learning and know that this will be a continual, evolutionary process.

Guest Blogger graphic

Jennifer Ferrari and Jin-Soo Huh

Distinctive Schools

Jennifer Ferrari serves as Chief Schools Officer at Distinctive Schools. Jin-Soo Huh is Executive Director of Personalized Learning at Distinctive Schools.