Big Plans in Personalized Learning at Harrisburg’s Freedom Elementary

Think about this familiar situation, for a second: Student A is in 2nd grade and struggles with reading. Students are not finding their passions, and instead sitting in classes consuming information. The end of the year comes, and the student is ready for 3rd grade in math—but not 3rd grade reading.

See where frustration starts to kick in?

To combat this issue, Harrisburg School District took concrete steps to go from teacher-driven to student driven learning. How? They eliminated grade levels and implemented a flexible collection of learning environments for students.

“At Harrisburg Freedom Elementary, we have big plans for our personalized learning model,” Assistant Principal Travis Lape said. “Essentially, our personalized learning program moved from teacher-centered to learner-centered classrooms.”

Freedom Elementary was able to make the transition by utilizing:

  1. More active learning, so that learners are not merely more active through creating, deciding, and so on, but are also more actively learning through the positive review of their experience and the meaning-making this involves.
  2. More collaborative learning, so that learners come to see themselves and others as resources in meaning-making, rather than the teacher being the sole fount of knowledge
  3. More learner-driven learning, so that learners come to drive the agenda as they generate questions, organize inquiry and evaluate their products and progress.

“The big kicker: we have decided to eliminate grades for our learners,” Lape said.

The personalized-learning track utilized by Freedom Elementary is designed for 94 students in the second through fifth grades and is moving away from the grade specific classrooms.

Instead of being confined to grade-level classes, students moved in “studios.” Studios are aligned to grade level standards determined by four teachers – identified as “studio coaches” – but the students won’t know if they are moving up or down. In fact, there are no numbers involved; each studio will be a letter of our program, called EPIC (Empowering, Personalizing, Innovating, Creating).

Each school day started with a morning meeting to explain the offerings for the day, followed by a healthy dose of student choice. Students selected which studio activity they’d like to use – each and every single day.

“This will give the learners voice and choice in what area do they need to be in to work on the different assignments, without confining them to grade level-specific activities,” Lape said.

A group of learners tackling “reading and writing” have the following experience:

  • Students arrive to school and head to their “studio” for the Daily Dish. This will be where they get any announcements for the day;
  • After the Daily Dish, when students head into Reading and Writing, they can select a studio activity from the chart above. Learners will have “must do’s” to complete, but once they are ready to show mastery, they will be able to show it however they choose;
  • At the end of Reading and Writing time, learners reflect on what they did well and what they need support on tomorrow. This feedback to the teacher is vital to provide what the learners need the next day.

The school sets standard operating procedures with their learners from the start in order to manage the system.

“It is important that we have a system that will not only show growth, but communicate that growth with the parents on a weekly basis,” Lape said, adding the school’s assembled a list of three non-negotiables that will always be in place:

  1. SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures)
  2. Use of a communication tool to alert parents on their learners’ progress. An LMS is critical for our learners to have access to.
  3. Time—specifically for teachers to collaborate and review learner needs from the day before

“There are few other non-negotiables we need: trust and hard work, with teachers combining their philosophies to reach all the learners,” Lape said. “This won’t be easy, but at the end of the day, we know it’s worth it.”

“Instead of students being bored in school, we hope to have them running to the teacher because they are so excited for what’s next.”