One size fits all? Not in Douglas County
Personalized learning efforts aim to meet the unique needs of learners, regardless of where they are in the educational spectrum
CASTLE ROCK – Every student is unique, bringing his or her own strengths and challenges to the classroom. The Douglas County School District (DCSD) believes that educators must work to customize learning so that it is ‘one-size-fits-one.’
As you can imagine, it takes an entire team of educational professionals to provide this level of support—daily-- to the children of Douglas County. It all starts with the classroom teacher. Additionally, an entire network of specialists including those from the Personalized Learning Department are standing by, ready to help students with every imaginable need—from supporting those with disabilities, to challenging those who are gifted, to providing medical care and counseling, to organizing afterschool fitness classes and school supplies for homeless students.
“Our main goal is to meet the unique needs of all learners and we do so by always having that student-focused lens for the decisions that we make,” said DCSD Chief Student Advocacy Officer Dr. Jason Germain, who oversees the Personalized Learning department.
DCSD making strides towards personalized learning
As mentioned earlier in the Big Picture series, by employing sustainable learning strategies, many DCSD teachers are providing a more and more personalized learning environment for their students. Through voice and choice students are now able to advocate for themselves and have a hand in crafting a learning space that best meets their needs. Meanwhile the District’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum and focus on higher-level thinking provide teachers with the flexibility needed to truly personalize learning for each child.
These efforts not only benefit typical students, but also those who have special needs, including those on an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
“Every time a teacher has an opportunity to increase student engagement it brings the students one step closer to being able to not just attend to their learning and become active participants in it, but also to mitigate the downside risk or influence of some of the other things they might be experiencing,” explained Germain.
As illustrated in the article Seeing is believing, students—including those with disabilities—are far more likely to succeed when they are empowered to take control of their learning.
“The closer we approximate best practice in educating students in our classrooms, the more blurred the lines become between regular education, special education, gifted education, English language development—you name it,” Germain said. “For example, if we have a teacher that deploys an incredibly warm culture and climate in their classroom, a student who may be experiencing diabetes and has a concerning blood sugar issue is more likely to seek that teacher’s assistance and get the help they need, which might be delivered by one of our school nurse consultants.”
It wasn’t always this way
America’s century-old educational system was modeled after the assembly line. Students were expected to fit into the regimented routine. If they were unable to conform, the focus was finding ways to shoehorn them into the system.
As DCSD teachers discussed in the article What Six Teachers Are Saying About DCSD’s Curriculum, in the traditional model of education, students who are able to keep in step with the lessons generally do pretty well. The students who require additional support become disengaged because their needs are not being met.
“Historically when classrooms were desks in rows, teacher directed and the student was there to receive the information that the teacher was imparting to them, what we saw in verbiage and all the plans in the district were all these different accommodations and modifications designed to adapt the student to the classroom, versus really identifying and targeting the specific learning needs of the student,” Germain explained.
Multi-Tiered System of Supports: A tiered system to meet students where they are
Since every child needs a different level of support, a system was created to assess students and ensure they get the help they need.
“The Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) employed by DCSD is a whole-school, data-driven prevention-based framework, designed to improve the learning outcomes of all children,” explained Germain.
“Every kid is met where they are, when they need that support,” added DCSD Child Find coordinator Annika Barton.
Multi-Tiered System of Supports
Universal: Supports afforded to all students
Targeted: Supports provided to a targeted population of students who require a higher level of assistance than those who benefit from universal supports alone
Intensive: Supports afforded to a population of students who require a higher level of assistance than those who benefit from universal and targeted supports alone.
It begins by providing all students with universal supports. In the classroom, this might look like direct instruction from the teacher to either the entire class or more differentiated lessons when students are having a difficult time with a concept.
“Differentiation often happens at the Universal level because students are experiencing something similar in concept or process or in product,” explained English Language Development Coordinator Remy Rummel. “They’re experiencing a similar idea. Differentiation is how do each of those groups get there and what might they need that is not to the degree of personalization—but to make sure that every single student has the opportunity to get to the world class outcome.”
From time-to-time, however, a subset of students may need some additional support. This targeted assistance may be educational, emotional or medical in nature, or take some other form.
A very small portion of the student population requires more intensive support. In many cases, these interventions are a higher level of support than can be provided through universal or targeted means and therefore in many cases cannot be done in the typical school environment.
In every instance, the goal is always to return a student, as soon as possible, to the universal level.
“I think one of the beauties of MTSS is that it is not one size fits all or forever. A student may be experiencing something and need intensive support and they can get that. They can ebb and flow right in and right back out to that universal level,” explained Barton. “For instance, if there is a temporary family crisis that is going on, they can get the support that they need, but as soon as they develop the coping skills or whatever they need and they are in a good place, the support abates.”
System focuses on a student’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses
Just because a student might need some help with a challenge or a disability, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel in other ways.
“Our students who are on an IEP have brilliance that we have to uncover and we have to find what that student’s passion and their interests and their voice and what would they really be great at so that we can help fill their needs that they have in a way that honors the student,” Rummel said.
Each student is different and requires a different package of supports.
“We do have kids who are English learners, who have mental health issues and who are gifted,” Rummel said.
It is important to help people understand that there is a lot more to the student than whether they speak the same language as you do,” Germain added. “We have come to the table to meet both their English language learning needs as well as their academic prowess and cognitive ability on the gifted education side.”
It takes a team
Meeting the unique needs of every student in the District, including those with multiple challenges has required some realignment. To build the capacity needed, the Personalized Learning Department is providing professional development to DCSD teachers so they can differentiate and personalize learning for their students, including those that require targeted support.
“The language of personalized learning has become part of what schools use now,” said Rummel. “Teachers know how to talk about it. They now have a structure in place to meet kids’ needs and can reach out for resources from a group of specialists, if needed.”
“Every teacher has the capacity to serve at some level,” Rummel added. “We are training teachers on how to not only co-teach, but how to provide targeted support, so they can meet the needs of every student in their class – without doing a lot of the pull outs. It is best that kids not miss the experiences and opportunities that are afforded to every student.”
Additionally, the six sub departments within Personalized Learning meet weekly to discuss ways of streamlining their services, so that students in need can be identified quickly and get help quickly.
“That turnaround time between a kid needing something and then actually receiving that support has greatly been decreased because there is more communication amongst all of the adults,” Barton said. “They are only sliding down the negative ski slope a little bit before they are brought back up to positive, because of the network.”
“It has opened the lines of communication amongst the different departments,” Germain said. “Now not only are they speaking and communicating, but they’re tacking the problems together. That leads to the best outcomes for kids.”
The end goal is to ensure every student’s needs are met, so they can be successful after they finish their education in Douglas County.
“We have to be unrelenting advocates for kids in everything we do,” Germain added.
WATCH: In this episode of Let's Talk, Jason Germain, DCSD's Chief Student Advocacy Officer, leads a discussion on personalized learning for all students. This includes those with special learning needs. Includes interviews with Mary Page, principal of Plum Creek Academy, and Personalized Learning Directors Zac Hess, Natasha Straayer, and Nancy Burdic.