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New way of K-12 learning transforming classrooms in some schools across Dakotas

HARRISBURG--Personalized or customized learning remains in its infancy in the Dakotas, but a school district in southeast South Dakota is taking it to a new level and is becoming recognized as one of the regional leaders in the effort.

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Classrooms aren't typical in the personalized learning program at the Freedom Elementary School in Harrisburg, S.D. Here, district innovation program director Travis Lape and Freedom principal Tonja Pederson sit in a booth at the school that a person might find in a restaurant, rather than in a classroom. Barry Amundson / Forum News Service

HARRISBURG-Personalized or customized learning remains in its infancy in the Dakotas, but a school district in southeast South Dakota is taking it to a new level and is becoming recognized as one of the regional leaders in the effort.

Harrisburg is a district that includes about 4,500 students from the southern part of the city of Sioux Falls, the community of Harrisburg and area rural residents.

Visitors by the hundreds, including North Dakota's governor and superintendent of public instruction, have been checking out the innovative efforts of the Harrisburg with the hope of taking them back to their home states and school districts and changing the traditional way of classroom teaching.

At most elementary schools, students sit in their desks most of the day in classes led by one teacher. It's not that way in personalized learning.

In this new way of learning at Freedom Elementary School in Harrisburg, innovation program director Travis Lape and Principal Tanja Pederson are seeing test scores climb and discipline problems fall dramatically as students learn at their own pace, help each other, and meet in small groups or individually in "coaching sessions" with teachers all day long except for a large group meeting to start each day where teachers pitch activities or lessons for the day. Students get a say in what they learn, as well, and this gives students much more of a "voice and choice in their educational journey," said Pederson.
"It's not competition anymore between the students as they grow on their own."

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Students basically no longer call themselves second-graders or fifth-graders, but rather some of the students call themselves or are referred to by labels put on by the district called "little and middles" in the younger grades and "molders and olders" in the higher grades.

Students will have the same four teachers for four years from second through fifth grade, providing continuity and allowing teachers to get to know their students on a much more personal and in-depth level.

Pederson said they asked parents about personalized learning in a survey and 94 percent said they wanted their children in the program; thus they are in the process of making the transition.

Students still get the basics of reading, math, science and social studies, but once they master certain standards, they move along at their own pace.

Sometimes, a student who has mastered a skill will even work with another student who needs some helping catching up.

"Students really seem to become more engaged," Lape said. "They like it."

Some misconceptions

A criticism Lape has heard is that the students get to "do whatever they want."

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However, that's not true, he said. "We like to call it the invisible structure because at the end of the day, the students do have to prove they are learning and mastering skills."

"It's just that they are on their own educational journey. They have that voice and choice day in and day out," Pederson said.

"I think sometimes they don't feel so rushed and that's what they like, too," she said.

Some parents with students in the program also wonder why most days they don't have any homework to bring home.

"Well, if they are hitting the zone and spend six to seven hours learning each day, by the end of that time - and if they are using their time the best they can - they shouldn't have any homework," Lape said.

"We still want kids to be kids," he said, and have time to be outdoors and do the things on the outside that they want to do, although they do recommend students read at least a half-hour after school or at night.

Burgum impressed

When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum visited Harrisburg in March with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler and the governor's 18-member education innovation task force he formed last fall, they came away impressed and excited.

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"I went down there and got completely blown away," Burgum said in an interview in Fargo recently. "It was really, really remarkable."

He said teachers were enthusiastically behind the initiative and that's critical to its success.

"It's all got to come from the front-line teachers," he said. Burgum credited the teachers in Harrisburg with taking a risk and reinventing the way students learn.

Once they started the personalized learning, the teachers said they would never go back, Burgum said.

Pederson and Lape agree, as does Harrisburg teacher Tyler Muth.

Not only does Muth think students are doing better academically and behavior-wise, but he also thinks he's become a better overall teacher working closely each day with the other three instructors in his "pod."

As an example, he said one of the other instructors is very organized and that it's "rubbing off on me."

In some instances, the transformation in the classrooms has been kind of "messy," Lape said.

When Harrisburg High School first started planning the program seven years ago and put it in place five years ago, "there were a lot of mistakes made," he said.

"But this is really a grassroots effort," he said.

Pederson agrees. "They (the teachers) are the ones on the ground that have done the hard work and provided the energy," she said. "Despite all of that, they find it so rewarding in the way the students are doing that they wouldn't do it any other way now."

Harrisburg is believed to be the first school district in South Dakota to start the personalized learning program.

The South Dakota Department of Education doesn't keep track of all of the schools that are offering the program, and many have different forms of the personalized learning, said Becky Nelson, director of learning and instruction for the department.

However, the latest count of schools that are using grant funds from the Minnesota-based Bush Foundation, with help from the Technology & Innovation in Education organization to help develop their programs, number 17 in the state.

"There could be more. For some, the delivery method could be on a much smaller level," said Nelson. "There are getting to be more and more transitioning to personalized learning to support students. It's not only in South Dakota, but other states, too."

Nelson wanted to emphasize that this type of learning "doesn't look the same at every single school."

For example, she was in California to view some of the programs and one involved youth internships at off-school locations where students, for example, learned more about math.

Nelson does believe, however, that personalized learning could pick up more and more learners nationwide in the coming years.

In the Daily Republic coverage area, the three schools receiving grant aids through TIE are Mitchell, Chamberlain and McCook Central in Salem.

Getting attention

In the last five years, Harrisburg has had more than 1,000 visitors study the high school's customized learning program. In just the past year, more than 300 have visited the elementary school, where they call it personalized learning, and more than 200 have visited the middle school.

Lape and Pederson, however, emphasize that when they meet with all of the visitors they hope they consider developing their own personalized programs at their schools and what will work for them.

"We hope they don't replicate what we have, but that they can use the pieces that they like," Lape said. "We think it would be a disservice to their school and community, as we believe each community has their own different needs."

What Lape and Pederson think may be unique in their school's personalized learning is the heavy use of technology, as each student has their own iPad, and also how they have started "interest sessions to explore student passions" with expert speakers brought in to the "pods."

As for technology, students might decide they want to make a video or an online poster to explain how they have mastered a skill or they can use a variety of educational apps.

In the "interest sessions," students even at their young age can start to explore their areas of "passion." Some of the expert speakers brought in have been a meteorologist, a South Dakota wildlife professional, a cake decorator that helped students with math and measurements and sessions about activities with figure skating, curling and snowboarding instructors.

Ongoing effort

Pederson and Lape realize this effort is one that will be ongoing, ever-changing and challenging.

They are excited about how the elementary students will be moving through their educational journey as they reach the middle school and high school levels where they will be used to and comfortable with the new way of learning.

In their "pods" at the school of 260 students in grades two through five, about half still take traditional classes while the other half are in personalized learning.

Last year, in the first year of the program on the elementary level at Freedom, there were 94 students in one "pod" with four teachers. This school year, the program has expanded to include 177 students in two pods.

Next school year, the entire second- through fifth-grade-age students, those 260 or more, will be in personalized learning. Students in kindergarten and first grade will remain in traditional classrooms.

This year's graduating class is the first to have gone through the personalized learning or, as they call it on the high school level, customized learning, for all four years.

Lape said many of the students could have graduated early, having met their credits needed, but they would miss out on some of the school activities such as sports, prom and graduation by leaving early.

Instead, the high school has been working on offering college credit courses that students can take in their senior year, including speech, career exploration, college orientation and a certified nursing assistant program.

Professors come to the school for the classes, with the district paying the tuition for the credits that the colleges offer.

Now, when the Harrisburg elementary students move into middle school and high school, this new way of learning will be second-hand. If statistics hold out, they could be much better students and be better prepared for the world, Lape and Pederson said.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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