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Menlo Park City School District creates a 'zone of innovation'

 
Teachers who will be part of the Menlo Park City School District's i3 project this year practice some of the individualized learning activities they will be using in their classroom during an early August training. (Photo by Robert Most)

What if students could pick and choose topics to explore in class, receive constant feedback on their progress and learn academic fundamentals while pursuing projects they find meaningful?

The Menlo Park City School District plans to find out. A group of 20 teachers in the district will work together this year on a wide-ranging project that aims to personalize student learning with the hope of boosting achievement while making schoolwork more meaningful.

District Superintendent Erik Burmeister describes the project -- which the 20 teachers involved have named i3 for imagine, inspire and innovate -- as a "zone of innovation."

Theresa Fox, the district's technology and innovation coordinator, has another description: "a collaboration to create a more learner-centered classroom."

Fox said teachers will work with AltSchool software and incorporate project-based learning, in which students learn multiple academic subjects by completing broad-based projects. AltSchool can personalize lessons for students while giving them choices in what they do by offering "playlists" of possible topics, she said.

The technology allows students to self-direct some lessons, freeing up teachers to work more with small groups or one-on-one. Fox said it "helps all students to do their very best."

Two Hillview Middle School teachers, sixth-grade science teacher Julie Hilborn and sixth-grade math teacher Yogi Sullivan, piloted the AltSchool program last year and found their students loved to be in charge of their own assignments and learning, Fox said.

In a report announcing the project, Burmeister said the district "believes that until all students are achieving and meaningfully engaged in their learning, we have not accomplished our purpose." He said the traditional public education model "which at one time may have been an efficient means to an end, might now in fact be a barrier to achievement and engagement for all students."

Fox said 20 teachers signed up for i3 this year: seven fourth-grade teachers, five fifth-grade instructors, two elementary school music teachers, an elementary school art teacher, a school psychologist, and a team of four sixth-grade teachers.

Burmeister's report said the district hopes to "become a model of how a public school district can ensure achievement for all by eighth grade and meaningfully engage students in their learning."

The program is paid for with one-time state funding and grants. Participating teachers spent extra paid time this summer working on pilot projects to test different ways of using the software and also took part in training and developing program goals.

Teachers will also get extra prep time during the school year to collaborate with other i3 teachers and work on program design and development.

Parents will get information about student progress and how the program works.

Fox said that most new programs show an initial dip in student achievement, but "my goal is that there is no dip."

In his report, Burmeister said he sees three possible outcomes for the program:

• The project lasts a limited period of time, serving as a testing ground for new ways of teaching and learning.

• The program becomes one of the district's "choice programs," such as the existing Spanish immersion and multi-age classrooms.

• The program "succeeds to such a degree that it ... becomes the direction all learning heads within MPCSD."

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