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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

Whole-School Personalization, One Student at a Time

With funding comparable to that of other public schools, the Met School in Rhode Island takes the philosophy of "one student at a time" to a new level.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
Tenth grader Roderick Jennings arrives at Brown University's computer center on Tuesday morning and spots his mentor, John. John greets him and they joke around, then Roderick goes right to work setting up a database. Roderick works through lunch, teaming with John on a computer upgrade for Brown's Spanish department. At 3:00 p.m., Roderick shares his work with his supervisors, lays out plans for Thursday, and heads home.
On Wednesday morning, Roderick arrives at the Met School, grabs a bagel, and sits down in the cafeteria. The Pick Me Up assembly begins with a junior singing the solo she's going to perform at an open-mike night hosted by the local arts cooperative. Then one of Roderick's classmates reads from his journal about a summer Outward Bound program he attended, urging others to apply. A teacher makes a few announcements, then it's off to advisory.
Sitting around a circle, the 13 students in Roderick's 10th grade advisory plan their exhibitions and talk about the different ways to get math into their projects. When the group members finish discussing the play that they are about to see, they all take out their calendars as their advisor walks around checking each student's daily schedule.
Roderick is on the computer all morning, then begins studying the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer test manual. "I really want to be the first high school student to make a passing score on the exam. I would be a certified Microsoft professional!" he says. After lunch, it's time to pick apart the last chapters of My Ishmael with his reading group. Then he returns to the computer to work on the paper that will accompany his performance exhibition next week.
At 2:30 p.m., the advisory reconvenes so that students can write in their journals, share about the day, and determine what they need to do at night. After the group is dismissed, Roderick is back at the computer, finishing a final draft of the paper before his Learning Plan meeting at 5:30 p.m.
His foster parents arrive at the same time that his mentor arrives from Brown. His parents, mentor, and advisor are all impressed that the computer project is on schedule. Roderick's college course in business administration is also going well. But his foster mom expresses some frustration over his reading: "You are behind the rest of your reading group on the novel. You need to set weekly reading goals until you finish it." His advisor, Sheila, says, "You know, your journal has not shown much depth lately. Do you think that you are making enough time for writing?" Roderick admits that he is struggling with organization and needs some help. One hour later, everyone hugs and makes a plan to check in by phone for the next three Wednesday evenings, then meet again in a month.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Why is Roderick having so much success this year—after he failed three classes at his last school? Why does he find himself so busy now, when he used to hang on the streets all afternoon and get into trouble? Is it because he is in a small school that has organized itself completely around meeting Roderick's needs and interests? Is it because the school is committed to meeting the individual needs of every single student?
Try as schools might, a one-size-fits-all approach to education will always be hit or miss. Schools that are serious about fulfilling every student's promise must develop structures and relationships that nurture the strengths and energies of each student. This means more than teaching the same material at varying speeds—the individualized instruction of the 1950s. It also means moving beyond presenting mandatory topics in different ways to accommodate each student.
Truly personalized learning requires reorganizing schools to start with the student, not the subject matter. There cannot be a uniform curriculum for every student in the country. Information is growing and changing too fast. It is too hard to respect the priorities of different cultures with one curriculum. A school that takes personalized education to its full potential is less concerned with what knowledge is acquired and more interested in how that knowledge is used. The priority at such a school is to know students and their families well enough to ensure that every learning experience excites the students to learn more. The school that looks at one student at a time truly prepares students for lifelong learning.
The majority of schools stray from "the" curriculum only in exceptional cases. Special education programs allow teachers to use individualized education programs to set goals and graduate kids accordingly. Programs for the gifted enable a math whiz to focus primarily on math, helping her get to MIT rather than to a liberal arts college. So what about the majority of kids in the middle? Why can't we set standards and curriculum for them one student at a time?

An Introduction to the Met

Roderick attends the first Met School, one of eight, small public high schools being developed in Providence, Rhode Island, with the philosophy "One student at a time." The Met is in every aspect focused on the individual student and his or her place in the school community.
Personalized learning allows students to develop their passions and interests and brings them back to the group instead of competing with one another on one set of goals. For the past three years, the school has worked to take personalized learning to its full potential, creating an environment where every Roderick, Juan, and Nikki has a team to support his or her learning goals and where there are as many educational programs as there are students.
Like many other urban schools, the Met has a diverse student body. Fifty-four percent qualify for free lunch; 58 percent are students of color; and 34 percent don't speak English at home. Met students are selected through a lottery process, supplemented by interviews with families to ensure that they understand the program. Per-pupil funding at the Met is comparable to that of other public schools in Rhode Island. But the Met's educational program is anything but typical. The state set up the Met to be a model for other schools, encouraging them to take on the challenge of translating educational theory on personalization into brand-new school structures and practices with the highest of standards.

Relationships Are Fundamental

Relationships are the foundation of a personalized school. Opening students' minds to lifelong learning requires cultivating their trust and respect. Without a positive student-teacher relationship, many students aren't even willing to try. But opening today's young minds to learning goes beyond striving to be caring teachers. In high schools, where kids are facing the tremendous physical, emotional, and intellectual upheaval of adolescence, teachers must know students' backgrounds, personalities, families, educational histories, and more in order to reach them.
The organization of most high schools makes it virtually impossible for students to get the teacher contact that they need. In a traditional high school day, teachers meet with at least 100 students, in short blocks of time, around limited subject matter. The Met School was organized to be differentto give teachers, in conjunction with families and internship mentors, the capacity to support, motivate, and guide a small group of students all day in all facets of their lives, on academic and personal levels.

Relationships at the Met

Advisors. The primary relationship that guides a Met student through school is the relationship with the teacher. Met teachers, who are called advisors, are responsible for the total educational experience of 13 students. The advisor manages each student's personal schedule and learning plan and acts as a direct link to family and internship mentors. Advisors form close relationships with each student, understanding his or her learning style, his or her family situation, and his or her academic strengths and weaknesses. Advisors know the whole student, not just his or her ability in one subject area.
Families. In partnership with the advisor, Met parents also play a key role in each student's learning. The Met doesn't enroll just students; it enrolls families. As the people who know the student best, Met parents are expected to play a crucial role in formulating and monitoring a personalized learning plan for the student. From giving input in at least four learning-team meetings a year, to attending and assessing the student's exhibition at the end of each quarter, parents are deeply involved in the substance of their child's education.
This activity is in addition to parent participation in more traditional forums, such as potluck dinners and whole-school celebrations. Most parents come to the school more than eight times a year. As one Met student said, "I can't fool around any more. My advisor and my mom talk every week. And I kinda like it."
Mentors. The third group of Met adults are internship mentors. The Met's Learning Through Internship program gives each student the opportunity to learn from an adult with similar interests in a real-world setting. Met students spend two school days a week with their mentors in hospitals, nonprofit organizations, banks, and performing arts theaters, connecting to adults, learning the nuances of the work world, and doing projects that have meaning outside of school. Like parents, mentors participate in learning-team meetings and exhibition panels, providing input on the student's educational needs and progress. After the first trimester of his internship, Roderick's mentor wrote the following evaluation: At first, Roderick seemed to be expecting to be treated like "some kid in the office." But Roderick's drive, intelligence, energy, curiosity, and level of experience were all quickly evaluated by people here, and he was accepted as a colleague and treated as an equal. Roderick immediately began responding to this and now appears to consider himself a valued, contributing member of a team—who just happens to be 15 years old.
Could this be the same young man who was failing high school only eight months ago?
Fellow students. The Met's culture of personalization would not be possible without relationships among students. From the hours spent with the close-knit 13-student advisory to the morning assemblies of the 150-member student body, students get to know one another both personally and intellectually. Classmates respect one another and are expected to share their unique talents with the group. At the Met, students learn from one another and take responsibility for the welfare of the group as they would a family.
The student/advisor/parent/mentor relationship creates a web of knowledge and support for each child at the Met. Just as the insight gained from the family and mentor allows the advisor to do a better job building a relationship with the student in school, the information gained from the advisor helps the parent reach the child at home and the mentor reach the student at the internship. The culture of sharing and respect in the student body frees students to learn from their classmates. Each Met student's education is one huge ongoing conversation, maintained through daily interaction, regular contact among home and school and internship, learning-plan meetings, and more.

Beyond the Advisory System

The best schools already know that relationships are the foundation of learning. For 20 years, many of these schools have used advisory systems to help staff build multifaceted relationships with students. The advisory system has been a vast improvement over the traditional high school arrangement, giving teachers a more complete picture of each student's learning and enabling them to give appropriate guidance.
The problem is that even in schools with advisory systems, personalized education is frustrated by the material that must be covered for all students. Teachers cultivate powerful, supportive relationships with students, but are unable to fully utilize these relationships to make students better learners. A teacher might understand that a student has unique talents and needs, but the required curricular content restricts what the advisor can do for that student.
Take Roderick, for example. In his former school, Roderick was drowning in most of his classes. Even though his teachers knew that he was exceptionally good at computers, the most they could offer him was a one-semester course in computer basics. Roderick was so discouraged by his failure in other areas that school did not seem worth the effort. At the Met, Roderick's advisor came to understand that she could rejuvenate Roderick's desire to learn if she tapped into his technical talent. She helped Roderick get excited about an internship that required him to develop his ailing writing and math skills—in the confidence-building context of a university computer center.
To effectively maximize learning, schools must restructure curriculum so that relationships can be used to connect learners to knowledge and application. Teachers should be given the freedom to move beyond racking their brains for ways to connect cell division to each student. A curriculum that is truly student-centered allows teachers to use what they know about their students to spark the natural learning process, starting with the student's interests then building in new information that is meaningful to each individual learner.

The Learning Plan

The Met uses individualized learning plans designed by the student's learning team (advisor, family, and internship mentor). Taking the place of a schoolwide, predetermined curriculum, the learning plan provides direction for the structure and activities that make up a student's school time. The learning plan guides projects and all other major student work, targeting weaker skills and taking advantage of strengths and interests.
Met students are encouraged to look to their personal experiences of the world to discover what knowledge really matters. The school's flexible schedule allows students to take advantage of resources found within and beyond school walls. Students pursue history on the Internet and astrophysics at the local college. Internships offer the student a one-on-one relationship with an adult mentor who has real-world expertise in the student's area of interest.
The power and pertinence of the learning plan are a direct result of the relationships the student shares with each member of his learning team. The people who know the student best are constantly developing tasks and opportunities that empower the student. The learning plan evolves over time, as the team maps out a personal course for the student's high school life.

Learning Goals

Because a student's curriculum is individualized, not guided by mandatory courses or Carnegie Units, the Met has a list of required learning goals that provide crucial direction for each learning plan and ensure that students are adequately prepared for college, career, and citizenship. Though students have significant freedom to pursue their interests, each student is required to use those interests to master the schoolwide learning goals.
  • Empirical reasoning, or "How do I prove it?"
  • Symbolic/quantitative reasoning, or "How do I measure or represent it?"
  • Communication, or "How do I take in and express information?"
  • Social reasoning, or "What do other people have to say about this?"
  • Personal qualities, or "What do I bring to this process?"
The goals are general; they can be learned, practiced, and demonstrated in a variety of ways, allowing students to achieve them through almost any project or work experience of interest. In addition to guiding students' work, the learning goals demonstrate to the Met community and to the public our priorities for our students' academic learning and personal development.

One Student at a Time

For three years, the Met has tried to reexamine what adults and kids really learn and to acknowledge that so much of what schools teach is forgotten. In designing the program, the Met staff thought long and hard about priorities. They asked, "Is it problem solving, continuous learning, and application of knowledge—or is it a list of 4,000 benchmarks?" In these early years of the Met, the staff has realized that teaching one student at a time is often more frustrating and overwhelming than teaching 150 students at once—but with much greater rewards!
The "one student at a time" philosophy improves reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills because students are motivated and excited to work. It does not necessarily build a full range of knowledge of U.S. history from 1790 to 1999, but when a student like Juanita chooses to study In the Time of the Butterflies in Spanish, she understands deeply the struggles of her Dominican people before they came to this country and how their history is connected to the social and political history of her own country, the United States.
In order to carry out the philosophy of "one student at a time," schools must reevaluate their program and priorities. It means organizing a school around the student, not the subject matter. It means doing more than taking a list of events in history and personalizing the material to each student. It means helping each student understand his or her place in the world, in history.
If educators care more about students than they do about schools, then the goals of schooling must change. Educators acknowledge that every student is different. Now we have an obligation to follow through and create schools accordingly.

Dennis Littky is director and cofounder of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”), in Providence, Rhode Island, and codirector and cofounder of The Big Picture Company, a non-profit education reform organization that creates and supports small, personalized, public high schools that work in tandem with their communities.

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