Henry County Schools: A Conversation with Karen Perry

Q&A   22 June 2017
By Karen Perry

 

Kids actually want to have the independence to show their learning in a way that fits their interests.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

Q. Before Henry County Schools began shifting to learner-centered learning, how did the district operate?

A. In the early 2000’s, our community was experiencing significant population growth, so the district was almost entirely focused on getting more schools open, kids in chairs, and simply keeping up with the demand. It’s difficult to create a sense of community during a wave of growth like that. To make this process efficient, we basically had the same exact footprint in every school—meaning every school looked the exact same way. We were standardizing everything and just looking to hold on as the wave of growth continued.

Finally, about seven to eight years ago, we got to take a breather from that tremendous period of growth and we took the opportunity to evaluate the school experience. We assessed what instruction looked like and how effective it was in the different communities our district serves. A simple realization cropped up. Schools are standardized, but communities and kids are not. And, every school serves a unique community.

In recognition of this reality, we wanted to provide more autonomy to our schools. Our central office is thin, and we pour the bulk of our resources into the schools themselves. By doing so, we allow schools, rather than the district, to be the decision makers. We have a loose-tight balance between all of our stakeholders where the idea of learner agency, teacher agency, and school agency is the common thread running through the whole organization.

We no longer have a cookie cutter model, which definitely makes things less efficient. But, I think it makes it more authentic and true to who all those school communities are. They’re putting their own blood, sweat, and tears into the work and their own stamp on personalized learning such that it best fits their community and kids.

 

We’ve been really clear from the beginning that personalized learning is about creating deep, interpersonal connections between teachers and students, as well as between students and their peers.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

Q. How do you see your current work preparing the district for another wave of growth down the road?

A. We’ll be clear about the instructional approach and the philosophy behind what’s guiding each school’s transition. We’ll have the expectation that every school we open will be a personalized learning school. This means the staff we look to hire will need to exhibit particular competencies that reflect the district’s guiding vision. We’ll also have district support aligned to a personalized approach for educators. Instead of everyone receiving the same exact professional development, we’re personalizing it for individual educators and leaders.

It’s a different challenge starting a new environment with personalized learning at the forefront. I’m looking forward to opening up new schools and starting with this philosophy.

Q. For Henry County, what does personalized learning really mean?

A. Personalized learning is a commitment to student agency. We believe students should be able to make substantive decisions about what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate that learning at high levels. For us, personalized learning never meant kids solely learning from a website and adaptive software. And, one of the challenges we’ve had is getting that perception back from the tech industry at large.

We’ve been really clear from the beginning that personalized learning is about creating deep, interpersonal connections between teachers and students, as well as between students and their peers, so kids are learning in authentic ways and at high levels of expectation. We want kids to be college, career, and life ready. When we say life ready, we mean kids who can collaborate and communicate effectively, and think critically and creatively. We want to cultivate the kind of kids you want to live next door to. That’s really important to us as a community.

We believe learning should include five tenets (shown above). With the Learner Profile, kids should know themselves well and be known well to the team around them. The profile answers the pivotal question: Who are you as a learner?

Next, we’re shifting to competency-based learning. We’ve clarified what every student should know and be able to do for every content area, as well as what should be integrated cross-curricularly. Within that cross-curricular focus is our commitment to 4C’s—communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking—which we borrowed from the P21 Framework. We also think learning should be authentic in nature. And, at the back sits technology, which enables and enhances the other four tenets, but doesn’t drive instructional decision-making. That’s our broad district vision.

The challenge for each school is to take that broad district vision, with the student agency focus, and figure out what it’s going to look like every day, on the ground, for the community being served.

Q. Throughout each planning phase, what instructional ideas have spread across learning environments and which have remained specific to individual communities?

A. The first item that needed to be addressed was this idea of whole group instruction. While there is a place for whole group instruction, you can’t be personalized if that’s the only type of learning going on in school. Some models and approaches began emerging gradually through practices like “choice boards.” If you look at a continuum where teacher-centered is on the left and student-centered is on the right, “choice boards” are still mostly teacher-centered because teachers are deciding what’s on the “choice board” and what the student’s available options are.

The next iteration of this idea was playlists. While it’s possible to be loose or tight with any one of the methods of organizing student work, what became clear was the need to evolve from voice and choice to a more intentional focus on student agency at deeper levels. How good were kids at accessing their own resources, making decisions, setting goals and reflecting, and adjusting their own course of action? Were kids getting more clear about high levels of learning expectations and taking various paths to showing what they know in different ways?

At one of our elementary schools, kids are rotating through multiple stations during their K-2 years, then in grades 3-5, they begin moving around the classroom more freely based on their learning needs. You can see how these learning environments lead to agency because kids are having to make decisions about where they’re learning, who they’re learning with, and how they’re going to accomplish their learning.

At one of our high schools, they’ve created an “Enter, Engage, and Express” model. “Enter” is whole group instruction where teachers introduce content to kids, then kids break out and “engage” with materials in myriad ways (hands-on, collaborative, online, project-based, independent study, etc.). This allows for multiple pathways to learning, while accomplishing the same content goals. Finally, kids “express” what they’ve learned through different means.

In both examples, learners are making substantive decisions about what and how they learn. And, these are just from two schools and not a model everyone follows. In fact, we are model agnostic as long as students are being served well and you are moving in a direction that allows for student agency and learning at high levels.

 

Kids have grabbed onto this and accepted the challenge we have given them of owning their learning.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

Q. Throughout this process, how have learners and parents been involved?

A. We require that each school’s design team include parents and learners. We don’t want these schools simply communicating out: “This is the plan, and you’re going to love it.” They must engage students and parents in the decision-making process all along the way. So, we are ensuring parents and kids are at the table from the start. Parents and students participate in the presentations during the design phase. And, throughout the implementation process, there is a lot of focus-grouping, surveying, and collection of perception data on how parents and students view what’s being created.

Through this, we have seen that kids love it. They have grabbed onto this and accepted the challenge we have given them of owning their learning.

Once parents understand it and hear their kids articulating why they’re learning what they’re learning, parents are really excited by the spark of learning that happens in these environments. We’ve seen that parents and kids are the best storytellers when it comes to sharing the power and potential of a personalized learning environment.

We also have each school implement a pay-it-forward plan where they open their school for tours to show parents and community members what this learning looks like in action. Almost without exception, everyone leaves those tours really impressed with the kind of learning that is happening because it really is a different way of learning than what us adults remember from when we were growing up. When we talk about radically changing the learning experience, it helps people to actually see it.

 

We want to invite schools to stop their work for a second and think about what this could be if you allowed yourself to dream big and started making intentional decisions in a bold student-centered direction.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

Q. What does the initial rollout look like for learning environments, and how do new cohorts learn from more experienced ones?

A.   During the planning phase, which takes about 18 months of strategic research, design, and thinking, one of the initial momentum builders we discovered came through pilot classes. Every school pilots particular practices and learns from those experiences. After the pilots, these lessons are assessed and schools explore what they want to implement first and how they want to roll it out in their building.

Year one then focuses on the handful of practices, with each additional year adding more things on. Every school has a four-year rollout plan embedded in their initial strategic plan. As more plans get put into action, we’re able to give warning and encouragement to different ideas being proposed. For example, we might see an idea moving forward that was attempted two years ago at another environment but ultimately failed. We can provide that example and bring new considerations to the conversation. With these lessons learned, schools can move forward with their plan with the knowledge of what to look out for along the way.

We expect each set of schools to pay-it-forward to the next cohort. There is great collaboration between cohorts. When we first started this project, we went all across the country visiting innovative schools. Now, our strategy is to send new cohorts to visit other Henry County cohorts of schools already further along in their transition so they can learn from what’s happening across the district.

We want to invite schools to stop their work for a second and think about what this could be if you allowed yourself to dream big and started making intentional decisions in a bold student-centered direction. Going to visit other schools is a big opportunity to notice how different schools can look, even in your own county. It’s really cool for us to say you can go right down the road to learn new things, rather than flying out to California or up to Maine.

 

I love sending high school teachers down to elementary schools to watch these young kids leading their own learning. Because if you can do it with seven-year-olds, we can do it with 17-year-olds.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

Q. What have been some of the biggest surprises from learners during this transition?

A. We are constantly reminding ourselves that even little kids can be agents in their own learning. Kindergartners are fully capable of leading student-led conferences. Little kids are able to take on project-based learning and make independent decisions about how they learn and the resources they use. I think a lot of times elementary teachers are surprised at that. But, even more significant is how surprised high school teachers are by the capabilities of elementary students. I love hearing about high school teachers visiting elementary classrooms to watch these young kids leading their own learning. Because if you can do it with seven-year-olds, we can do it with 17-year-olds.

Teachers have also been surprised to see that kids actually want to have the independence to show their learning in a way that fits their interests. Even when we initially had “choice boards” and teachers presented options to each kid, some would immediately try to negotiate their own method. They would point to the five options available to them, and say “I don’t want to do any of those; I’d rather do this thing over here. I want to write a book or build a website to show my learning.”

I love when kids surpass teacher’s expectations. Those are some of my favorite stories.

Q. What would you say to a leader curious about exploring learner-centered transformation in their community but worried about the risks involved?

A. I firmly believe the place to start is in spending time reflecting on the student experience from the student’s point of view and then getting clear on the reasons why schools need to change. It’s really tempting for people to move right to the actual implementation changes for schools, but we have seen better success when schools, leaders, and teachers get clear about the why before moving to the how and what. Leaders, teachers, and parents need to be clear on why school needs to change before embarking on the logistics conversation.

 

If leaders are clear on why school needs to change, and they can clearly articulate that to their community, state, and district, then there’s actually a lot of latitude in how you do school.

Karen Perry
Special Projects Coordinator, Henry County Schools

If you’re really committed to a cycle of innovation over time, the how is going to constantly change. It’s less important up front to have conversations about models and bell schedules and technology platforms. Those are “how” topics. If leaders are clear on why school needs to change, and they can clearly articulate that to their community, state, and district, then there’s actually a lot of latitude in how you do school.

We have a lot of self-imposed constraints on how we do business and a lot of that is held in place only by tradition. If you begin to challenge your core beliefs about how to do school, I think that everyone would see they have more flexibility than is currently perceived.

Additionally, when you start changing the student experience, parents want to know what their kid is experiencing. If you’re changing things, you need to show up with a clear rationale for why you’re making those changes. Most people understand that the nature of information is dramatically different than how it used to be; and most people see that technology is allowing more collaboration and globalization of information. Leaders in schools are the ones to create the connection between how the world is changing and why school needs to change with it.

I would encourage anyone at the beginning stages of this to take the time to do the soul searching and the research to get clear on their why. The what and how are going to change over time. There’s no silver bullet to this. Personalized learning is a philosophy, not a program. If you’re going to do things in a dramatically different way, you need a rationale that is clear, compelling, and pervasive throughout the organization.

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