Finding Freedom in a Learner-Centered Paradigm
Voices from the Field 10 August 2022
By Sarah Bishop-Root, Education Reimagined
We had many dark moments triggered by a learning experience and system that were not able to meet her where she was — rather, forcing her to mold to it.
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According to a 2019 state-specific study by the Education Research and Data Center, “16% of detained students graduated from high school, compared to 72% of non-detained students. Among those who cumulatively spent more than a month in juvenile detention, 8% graduated.” As a parent of a high-performing student who got tragically sucked into the juvenile justice system at the beginning of her ninth-grade year following a traumatic event, this was the stark reality I was facing for her future.
Suddenly, the educational opportunities she was immersed in that fostered her creativity and academic growth dissipated into another reality. Once a week, I would drive 45 minutes to sit across from her in a detention center, in which minimal interaction was allowed. My focus was on doing everything I could as her parent to prevent her from becoming lost in the system. She went from experiencing a rigorous education, to what felt like the leftover crumbs of an education experience that was only made worse by high mobility from being moved from facility to facility.
My daughter remained in the juvenile justice system for almost two and a half years. As time passed, the hope I held so dear that she would have a bright future, filled with opportunities, slowly began to shrink away. It was replaced with the one singular hope — that she would simply survive the experience. As her mother, the grief over the loss of her future began to consume every part of my being.
My daughter recently reflected on this in an essay:
“I spent most of high school in and out of detention and different facilities. I feel like I missed out on a good portion of my childhood. Before being involved in the system, I was a devoted student. Unfortunately, the juvenile system did not value education. I almost felt like people had lost hope for the girls that were detained, including myself. I received an education in detention, but we were only given packets that seemed like an elementary school curriculum. Being in detention, I felt isolated and had to consistently be in survival mode. Due to the isolation, I spent a lot of time thinking. It is difficult in detention to remain in a positive headspace because of how deep you can get in your thoughts. Throughout this experience, I continued to write.”
As high school graduation season came around this past spring, my daughter represented a student who, against all odds, was able to pull herself from the abyss of adversity to successfully graduate. She not only graduated but received a merit scholarship to attend college.
Along the way, there were important people and milestones that supported her on this journey, but it was not an easy one. From an education perspective, she transitioned home just as the pandemic began. We were suddenly cut off from critical supports to ease the magnitude of this transition. Her learning loss and more importantly, her loss of skills to learn were devastating.
As she tried to attend online school, this reality only amplified her anxiety and frustration. We had many dark moments triggered by a learning experience and system that were not able to meet her where she was — rather, forcing her to mold to it. At the time, she was ready to drop out of high school, as a deep depression began to overshadow her hope that she would find again the normalcy she had craved for so long. Once again, although she was home, hopelessness had a seat at our table.
Learner-centered education is able to address the unique needs and challenges of all learners and transcend the limitations the current system inevitably creates for youth who need guidance, opportunities, and skill-building to illuminate a path forward, despite their circumstances.
Partner for Policy Leadership
My daughter’s story is just one example of why we must move away from our one-size-fits-all education system and move towards a system that is designed with learners at the center and offers expanded opportunities to make personalization possible.
Education Reimagined outlines the key components of a learner-centered paradigm in their vision, which encompasses personalization, skill building, diverse learning environments, and self-direction with the guidance of adults. Learner-centered education is able to address the unique needs and challenges of all learners and transcend the limitations the current system inevitably creates for youth who need guidance, opportunities, and skill-building to illuminate a path forward, despite their circumstances. So, what does this mean exactly?
Although the current learner-centered opportunities in our state and local district were not presented to students and families in a way that made them transparent and easily accessible, there was flexibility and opportunities that existed that — with some research and advocacy — could be woven together to resemble a learner-centered experience.
For my daughter, it meant being empowered to design half of her junior and senior years to meet her needs. She was not comfortable returning to high school, even when the transition back to in-person schooling was possible. I asked her what it would look like if she could envision a way to regain the skills she had lost and finish her graduation requirements.
She identified a plan that combined working, building relationships within the community based on her interests, attending community college as a concurrent enrollment student, and taking classes through a virtual learning opportunity offered to students within the district. This virtual learning offering was a key component. She was able to attend part-time and the director served as a learning coach to support my daughter in figuring out how to create an experience that met her needs. She was even able to obtain a credit that had not transferred, as a result of her high mobility, by demonstrating mastery. Her ability to shape her education experience in a way that worked for her gave her a voice and renewed energy in her experience.
A learner-centered approach helped my daughter to graduate high school and not become another statistic — another example of the many detained students who the education and justice systems have failed. As a mother, I deeply understand the importance of advocating for education system transformation that results in giving a voice to all learners and ensuring there is access to the opportunities and support needed to meet them where they are on their journey, despite their circumstances and the statistics stacked against them.
A learner-centered education has the ability to empower every unique community, learner, and family so learners are not limited or defined by their circumstances. This impactful experience should not be one of privilege or one that requires endless advocacy from a parent or guardian who also has to develop an in-depth understanding of the available opportunities. Learner-centered should be ingrained into threads of the education system and accessible to all learners and families.
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