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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

Personalizing Schools

Educators can build better schools by knowing, trusting, empowering, connecting, and honoring all their students.

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At the Ohio Center for Essential School Reform, our vision of good schooling calls for attention to both academic challenge and the personalization of the school environment for each student. During the past decade, as we have worked with schools across the state that adhere to the Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (Sizer, 1984), we have learned that both of these forces are essential to improve student achievement.
In recent years, the education pendulum has swung so far in the direction of academic challenge—as defined by success on state-mandated, high-stakes tests—that educators may be blinding themselves to issues of personalization. This inattention to personalizing education for students has contributed to devastating dropout rates, mounting special education designations, and growing student alienation.
  • Knowing our students better.
  • Trusting our students more.
  • Empowering our students in authentic ways.
  • Connecting our students in meaningful ways.
  • Honoring all students in varied systems of recognition and reward.
We can examine how personalized a school is by determining the extent to which all students are known, trusted, empowered, connected, and honored.

Knowing Our Students

To create schools that function as personalized communities of learning rather than anonymous institutions where some students feel they belong and others feel ignored, we must know our students—how they think, what they need, and what they want. As Sizer states,We cannot teach students well if we do not know them well. At its heart, personalized learning requires profound shifts in our thinking about education and schooling. (1999, p. 6)
Knowing students obviously has instructional implications, but it also has safety implications. When we consider well-publicized cases in which students became so alienated and desperate that they believed that their only solution lay in violence, we must ask, How could no adults have known? How could these students have believed that they did not have a single adult to whom they could turn?
  • Several large high schools have created daily, 10–20-minute student advisory periods. The advisory groups may include different grade levels so that older and younger students get to know one another.
  • A few large high schools have developed interdisciplinary teaching teams, especially for 9th and 10th graders. This approach, often with the goal of a lower student–teacher ratio, allows teachers to get to know students better. Teachers begin to see patterns of behavior and academic achievement or difficulty and can intervene at an early stage.
  • Several elementary and middle schools have instituted interactive journaling. Teachers may give students a daily prompt or allow them to write on any topic. Either way, the students and teachers come to know one another in a safe format.

Trusting Our Students

To create personalized schools, we must trust our students. More surveillance cameras, rules, and other external measures will not create the kind of school culture that we want and need. Despite the new surveillance technology, the adults in schools cannot be everywhere or see everything. A cutting racial remark or an insult of any kind does not register on the video camera. To prevent such behaviors, we must get to their roots. But honest communication and open confrontation of prejudice cannot occur without trust.
The adults in schools set the tone for trusting relationships. When they model trust in their relationships with one another and with students, decency and trust begin to permeate the school. Tschannen-Moran writes,Trust is a critical factor as we consider school improvement and effectiveness. At all levels of the organization, trust facilitates productivity, and its absence impedes progress. Without trust, students' energy is diverted toward self-protection and away from learning. (2000, p. 4)
  • One rural high school has eliminated study halls in favor of one common, hour-long lunch period in which students choose their activities: going to the gym to shoot baskets; doing additional work in a classroom; finding a quiet corner to do homework; or finding a place to socialize. Although teachers remain on duty throughout the school, this free period sends a clear message that the school trusts students to make good choices.
  • Service-learning projects and internship programs convey the important message that the school trusts students to do meaningful work with adults, often during unsupervised periods of time off campus.

Empowering Our Students

  • One high school principal determined that he wanted to hear the voices of all students on his advisory committee, not just the elected leaders of traditional student organizations. He watched the natural selection of student groups in the cafeteria for several weeks and then asked each table to choose one representative to serve on the committee.
  • Several high schools have student representation on teacher and principal interview committees.
  • One urban elementary school holds regular grade-level meetings with students to elicit their thinking about matters related to their grade or to the building.

Connecting Our Students

Students crave connections not only with ideas and information but also with their families, with their histories, with one another socially, with institutions and organizations, and with their own spirituality (Thompson & Hallowell, 1993). Schools should play an explicit role in building all these important student connections, rather than relegating this task to the unwritten curriculum.
Personalized schools focus on the importance of student–student and student–adult relationships. These schools also deal directly with issues of prejudice and inequity. Although schools inevitably reflect the social values, norms, and idiosyncrasies of the larger society, they also have the opportunity to influence those values, norms, and idiosyncrasies. Ignored values and norms fester and often deteriorate; addressed values and norms can bring clarity and new insights.
  • One suburban junior high school began a tradition of parent-organized student activity evenings one Friday a month. Students connect not only to adults but also with one another.
  • One teacher in an urban elementary school has instituted “Comments and Compliments,” an end-of-the-day period during which students gather at the rug area and voluntarily comment on the day's activities or compliment a peer.

Honoring Our Students

A quick scan of high school rites and rituals tells us that the top three qualities honored in most U.S. high schools are good looks, athletic prowess, and money. Whom do we honor in the homecoming court? In our pep assemblies? In the touchdown club? Perhaps the better question is, Which students do our rites and rituals ignore?
Our inability to diversify our system of honoring students has sent subgroups of our school population in search of their own ways to honor one another. Unfortunately, those ways are often disconnected from the norms of traditional society. A letter jacket for one student becomes a trench coat for another, but the message is the same: All students need and want to be recognized as valuable and unique individuals.
  • One urban high school has changed its method of identifying students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Every student shows a coded cafeteria pass that identifies those students who qualify for assistance while respecting their privacy.
  • One suburban middle school has instituted “Random Acts of Character,” a program that honors students for doing something good. The principal publicly recognizes these students on the school's closed-circuit television broadcast.

A Process to Raise Staff and Student Awareness

We often present our model for building personalized schools through a three-hour workshop for school staffs throughout Ohio. At one large, urban school about 50 miles south of Columbus, the principal requested that we have both teachers and students work through the main concepts. Like many urban schools, this one faces challenging problems of poverty, student apathy, and teacher frustration.

The Process

In the morning, we met with 50 students who were selected to represent the diverse voices of the 1,200-student population. As we gave an overview of the day and explained the purpose of our visit, some students appeared eager to participate; others appeared skeptical about whether their opinions would count.
To permit both whole-group and small-group discussions, we randomly divided the students into 10 groups. We began by sharing with the whole group our definition of and beliefs about the first topic—knowing—and providing examples from other workshops.
We then asked each student to reflect individually on the following prompt and to write his or her response on a separate sticky note: What policies, practices, and procedures do your teachers or your school use to know all students? The students wrote furiously. Each student selected one or two methods that he or she deemed most effective for knowing students and shared it with the smaller group. The 10 groups then chose another one or two ideas to share with the entire group. This sharing generated a great deal of involvement and revealed that although some students felt known in the school, other students felt merely tolerated or totally ignored.
All participants placed their sticky notes on large pieces of chart paper marked Knowing. They then created affinity diagrams of their work, grouping and labeling similar ideas. Finally, each student was asked to rate the degree to which all students were known by at least one adult in the building on a continuum of 0 (not at all known) to 10 (well-known).
Participants repeated this process for each of the other four topics on the framework. As they publicly posted their ideas, we noted that few ideas could be generated for some of the areas. The concept of knowing generated the most sticky notes; trusting had the fewest. Only certain segments of the student population felt empowered, generally only those students who held leadership roles in the school.
Although most students reported some degree of feeling connected, this connection was often limited to their own social group. During conversation, all students admitted that many cliques existed in the school and often treated other groups with ridicule, put-downs, and even bullying. Only a small proportion of the students felt connected to the school as a whole; these students were generally the same ones who felt trusted and empowered.
Similarly, and not surprisingly, the same groups of students who felt trusted, empowered, and connected also felt honored and could point to specific events through which the school publicly recognized and celebrated their achievements. Students who felt mistrusted, disempowered, and disconnected also did not feel that the school honored or valued them. They believed that only “some people” mattered to the adults in the school.
Later that afternoon, we facilitated the same work with the staff. Overall, they believed that they had a large repertoire of policies, practices, and procedures to know, trust, empower, connect, and honor all students. But they, too, struggled to generate ideas for some of the topics. Like students, staff members had the fewest ideas for trusting, and their beliefs about what constituted trust varied widely from those of most students. Students believed that trust meant that they were given the responsibility to act appropriately in the school without constant adult supervision, whereas teachers viewed trust more in terms of guided and limited responsibility in the classroom—for example, allowing students to select a research topic of their own choosing.
The same discrepancy held true for empowering, connecting, and honoring. Staff members and students frequently had different interpretations of the meanings of these concepts and the degree to which the school had policies, procedures, and practices in place for all students.

Implications and Next Steps

Following the workshops, a researcher from Ohio State University tabulated and compared student and teacher results. Armed with the results of the affinity diagrams and continuums from both students and staff, the researcher returned a few weeks later to present the information, first to the principal and then to the staff.
This analysis confirmed our initial impression that the perceptions of students and staff differed considerably. The implications of this disparity became the next step for the school leaders.
By addressing the question, How can we close the gap between student and teacher perceptions?, the school can create a more personalized environment for students, teachers, and the community.
Our work to personalize our schools is a complex quest, certainly, but one that we must undertake. As Barbara Kingsolver challenges, “Be careful what you give children, for sooner or later, you are sure to get it back” (1995, p. 107).

Kingsolver, B. (1995). High tide in Tucson: Essays from now or never. New York: HarperPerennial.

Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace's compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sizer, T. R. (1999). No two are quite alike. Educational Leadership, 57, 6–11.

Thompson, M., & Hallowell, E. M. (1993). Finding the heart of a child: Essays on children, families, and schools. Washington, DC: National Association of Independent Schools.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2000, Spring). The ties that bind: The importance of trust in schools. Essentially Yours, 4, 1–5.

Zukav, G. (1989). The seat of the soul. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Barbara A. Levak has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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