How One Learner-Centered District Was Built From the Ground Up

Voices from the Field | Practice | Insights   22 August 2019
By Dr. Suzanne Freeman


The most important challenge and opportunity was to ensure the cultivation of a learner-centered culture. It was a winding road of ups and downs; but the aim and goals made it all worth it.

Dr. Suzanne Freeman
Former Superintendent

Dr. Suzanne Freeman—a school superintendent for over 15 years in four different public school districts in Alabama and finalist for National Superintendent of the Year in 2009—was one of the learner-centered leaders who helped establish Pike Road Schools in 2014. In this two-part series, she is sharing her community’s story on how to build a learner-centered district from the ground up. Read part two here.

I had the privilege as superintendent of establishing three public school districts in Alabama and a fourth as an education consultant. Three of the districts were created by the city taking over the schools within the city limits formerly under the leadership of the county school district and in turn, educating the students who attended these schools. Before retiring in 2018, the last district I helped establish was created from the ground up in Pike Road, Alabama. Pike Road was first incorporated in 1997 and ballooned from a population of 310 in 2000 to over 5,400 by 2010—igniting a desire within the community to establish a district they could call their own.

There were many tactical tasks before us such as building a school, ordering furniture, hiring teachers and staff, writing policy, creating bus schedules, and much more. However, the most important challenge and opportunity was to ensure the cultivation of a learner-centered culture. It was a winding road of ups and downs; but the aim and goals made it all worth it. Now, looking back in my retirement, I want to share the steps we took, the pain points we worked through, and lessons we learned as we launched Pike Road Schools—a learner-centered district focused on “creat[ing] a culture of intellectual curiosity where all students have ownership over their learning and are inspired to think, innovate, and create.”

Neighborhood Meetings

As we prepared to launch Pike Road in 2015, our community wanted a district they could call their own, so it only made sense to create the district with as much community input as we could gather. They had to collectively develop a shared purpose for what school could be and how it could fulfill the hopes and dreams we all have for our children.

We began by devising a plan to conduct 13 neighborhood meetings throughout our community—providing parents and community members the opportunity to think beyond the conventional notions of “learning.” Within conventional schools, we talk a lot about test scores, compliance issues, data, and teaching strategies, but very seldom do these topics ever get to the heart of learning—a process where young people are genuinely engaged in authentic and meaningful experiences that advance their own discovery of themselves, the world around them, and their place and contribution in it. So, in these neighborhood meetings, we wanted to have meaningful conversations about why schools in general need to change (from school-centered to learner-centered) and what we wanted Pike Road Schools to accomplish for and with our children.

We knew almost everyone experienced school-centered education growing up—memorizing, taking tests, and retaining superficial knowledge were at the core of how we “did” school. Hence, we started our meetings by asking the following questions to invite parents to think about their learning experiences as children:

  • What were some things you “learned” but later forgot?
  • What was something you learned (in or outside of school) in which you profoundly understood and retained the knowledge or skill?
  • When is a time you were deeply engaged in your learning (in or outside of school)?
  • What made this engaging for you?

Once people started thinking about their own learning, we posed even more questions, which caused people to think about what “could be” for their children:

  • Is there a difference between children “doing school” well versus becoming lifelong learners?
  • What does lifelong learning look like, and how do we know we are preparing children to be lifelong learners?
  • Do standardized tests actually measure profound learning and all types of knowledge, skills, or dispositions?
  • Is learning about memorizing and taking tests or about being actively engaged in your learning?
  • What do we want our children to learn? How do children learn best?
  • How will we know if our students are learning? How will we measure learning?
  • How does genuine engagement impact learning? How will we know students are genuinely engaged in their learning?
  • How do we view failure in the learning process?
  • Do we want our students to love learning?
  • Do we want our students to own their learning and if so, what does ownership look like?
  • Can learning happen at any place and at any time? Is learning outside of school just as important as learning in school?

We were excited by how these questions could open up a brand new conversation about education, but given the desire to launch as quickly as possible, parents were more concerned about logistical questions such as the length of the school day, drop-off and pick-up times, the cost of lunch, and if there would be an after-school program. It was apparent we needed to answer these logistical questions first, so parents could plan their life schedules accordingly and be free to engage in meaningful conversations about learning.

Discovering this need was an interesting learning exercise for us—we were so present to our own excitement about discovering new opportunities for reimagining learning that these logistical pieces felt like a second or third step, rather than a first. Yet, for parents dealing with the realities of their own and their kids’ day-to-day lives, these issues had to be front and center.

And, once we provided clarity on the logistics, our conversations about learning took off—conjuring up a wide-range of emotions from parents and community members as they reflected on their own learning experiences, as well as their hopes and dreams for their children. Some parents shared fond memories of their school experiences—a favorite teacher, being in a school play or scoring the winning touchdown at a football game, while others shared painful memories of school—feeling isolated, embarrassed, or bored.

Providing the space for all of these experiences to be heard allowed everyone to collectively imagine new ways for learning—eliciting excitement and support for the new district. Of course, with so much “newness” on the horizon, there was an anxiety among parents about what this new way of teaching and learning would look like and how it would benefit their children in the long run. But, what many saw as a common-sense approach to learning outweighed their anxiety.

Creating Our Mission, Vision, and Beliefs

These community conversations led to creating a clear and compelling mission, vision, and set of beliefs, which incorporated the very language we heard from our parents and community members. Of course, most districts across the country have similar statements and belief systems written down and highlighted on their websites. However, few are community-owned and enable a board, the community, and school staff to have a shared set of beliefs that guide all of our actions.


To create a culture of intellectual curiosity where all students have ownership over their learning and are inspired to think, innovate, and create.

Pike Road Schools' Mission

Pike Road School’s mission clearly communicates what the community is trying to accomplish for and with its children. And, the vision captures what we aspire for our students to become. The end result was important, but it would have mattered far less if we had skipped that essential first step of sharing and discussing learning with the entire community.

So, as pleased as we were with what had been accomplished at our neighborhood meetings, we knew the most difficult work was ahead of us—implementation.

Recruiting the Right People

Once there was broad support and ownership of the mission, vision, and beliefs within our community, it was essential to recruit and employ people who held similar philosophical beliefs and felt inspired by our mission. Of course, they also needed the knowledge, skills and capacity to help us accomplish our mission; but if their beliefs didn’t align, their abilities were a moot point.

Our job postings were very specific about who we were and the types of educators we were seeking; we used words such as lifelong learner, trailblazer, innovator, collaborator, relationship builder, designer, facilitator, and leader. We wanted people who were not afraid of taking risks and valued failure as part of the learning process.

The challenge, however, was that Pike Road is in a region where test scores are the pinnacle of success, and learning—as defined by our community—is rarely discussed. Therefore, any local educators who applied for a position would be coming from conventional schools—private, public, magnet or otherwise—and we knew a traditional application process would not provide enough information for us to tap into their belief systems.

Instead, we needed to develop a comprehensive recruitment and application process that would 1) clearly communicate the learner-centered culture we were going to create; and 2) help us attract and select people who had the willingness and capacity to advance us toward our mission.


We spoke from the heart and appealed to those who, like us, believed students should be engaged in and have ownership of their learning.

Dr. Suzanne Freeman
Former Superintendent

We began our recruitment process by hosting a Teacher Recruitment Day. Just as we did with our neighborhood conversations, we wanted to tap into people’s hearts and heads—to challenge those in attendance to think about school in a different way. Over 500 teachers attended.

We shared our mission, vision, and beliefs. We spoke from the heart and appealed to those who, like us, believed students should be engaged in and have ownership of their learning. We also emphasized the professional challenges that lay ahead, as well as the satisfaction that would be felt knowing we are transforming public education and changing the lives of the students we served.

One of my fondest memories on this day was talking about early childhood education and the benefits of play. Early childhood teachers in attendance cheered in response to this comment. This, and the fact that several teachers left with tears in their eyes and were eager to submit their application packet, gave us hope there were many teachers whose beliefs were aligned with the district.

My former colleagues still jestingly refer to the application packet as “the dissertation.” It certainly wasn’t a perfect system, but it did a great job distinguishing between applicants who were committed to learner-centered transformation and those who simply wanted a new job. We spent the next three months interviewing our applicants, which led to the board officially employing 52 teachers and administrators at an April 2015 board meeting. The meeting was followed by a reception where we celebrated our new teachers, whom we would eventually call lead learners.

Summer Professional Learning

Each lead learner committed to approximately 10 days of professional learning during the spring and summer of 2015. Because we had limited funds, we asked them to do this without pay. We promised delicious lunches prepared by parent volunteers and high-quality professional learning with their new colleagues. Everyone was fully committed to this time of learning and bonding. One person even rode a bus all night from Arkansas to be present for our first Saturday professional learning session.

These days consisted of three main focus areas:

  1. Further embedding our mission, vision, and beliefs into the minds of our lead learners
  2. Understanding the helpful role technology can play in increasing student engagement
  3. Providing lead learners the opportunity to experience project-based learning (PBL) firsthand—a component we knew would be integral in our learning design

Lead learners self-selected to work on one of the following “Learning Groups”—each of which were specifically designed to engage them in PBL activities, so they could translate their personal experience to PBL experiences they would be providing to their learners:

  • Developing a common language—In this new common language, we started using “lead learner” instead of teacher, “learner” instead of student, “community” instead of grade level, and “family” instead of class.
  • Assessing learning—This is when we started talking about competency-based learning.
  • Patriot Project Rooms—This focused on the design of makerspaces.
  • Student induction—We ultimately designed Patriot Summer Camp as our way of introducing young people new to Pike Road School.
  • Club day—Eventually, this became POP: Pursue Our Passions, which were opportunities for learners to partner with community volunteers, while teachers participated in collaborative design time.
  • Digital tools to engage learners.
  • Libraries/Digital books.
  • Student projects—Just as the lead learners were being introduced to PBL, this was about how to introduce our students to it.
  • K-2 furniture/supplies—We were determined to build our new school with developmentally appropriate materials that communicated our mission, vision, and beliefs.
  • We also dedicated one week (facilitated by the Schlechty Center) learning how to use various technological tools to increase learner engagement.

We used various protocols to share and critique each team’s work. This gave us an opportunity to model how we wanted teachers to facilitate learning. It also enabled us to critique and refine our work, which built ownership and commitment to the final product or process.

Part of our discussion that summer was how essential parent communication would be. We talked about ending every school day by having conversations with young learners about their day so they, in turn, would be able to talk about their learning with their parents. We framed this by asking what learners would “tweet” about their learning at the end of each day.

We also modeled this at the end of every professional learning day by asking each person to share their “tweet,” which represented their learning for the day. Listening to each team member’s “tweet” each afternoon had a profound impact on every one present; each of us knew we were part of something very special.

Not only was learning and working together helping us prepare for the start of the school year, but it also enabled us to come together as a team. Now it was time to bring this camaraderie to the young learners.

Summer Patriot Camps

One of our Lead Learner Project Teams designed and facilitated Patriot Camps (Pike Road’s system mascot is a Patriot). These were one evening experiences for each grade level from 4th through 8th grade for all incoming students to learn about “The Pike Road Way.” We wanted learners to know their school experience would be different before their official first day.

Patriot Camp was 1) designed to allow learners to choose learning experiences based on their unique interests—giving them a taste of what learning at Pike Road Schools would be like; and 2) orient them around what it means to be a learner at Pike Road Schools. During the first half of Patriot Camp, learners went to learning stations that included taking computers apart, researching topics of interest, doing art projects, and brainstorming questions about various topics of interests. The second half of the evening was talking with the learners about our mission and their role as a learner.

Each night, hundreds of children showed up. Word quickly spread around our community, and each of the following nights, the attendees grew in number. Patriot Camps were intended for registered learners, however, we were surprised when several “undecided” learners from private schools also attended to check out “The Pike Road Way.” They immediately loved the experience and enrolled the next day. Parents and learners alike were excited about what learner-centered learning could provide.

The First Day of School Approaches

As we approached the start of school our staff experienced a mixture of excitement, anxiety, hope, and unity. We were never going to be perfectly prepared to face the unknown challenges ahead, but we would be ready to celebrate all of the learning that was ready to commence.

In retrospect, we would have benefited from more time with our lead learners prior to the start of school, as well as receiving more outside professional support in the area of lesson design, PBL, and competency-based assessment. However, what we accomplished together was a good start, and the work of making our vision a reality could only take place once our doors were open.

As you wait for part two in this series on launching a learner-centered district from scratch, I challenge you to reflect on what learning means to you and to ask your fellow colleagues, friends, family, and neighbors what they believe. See where the conversation leads and how it can be the spark for a brand new conversation about how we educate our children.

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