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Wichita Public Schools Accelerates Shift to Personalized Learning During COVID-19

It takes a village to educate a child, especially during a global pandemic. Fortunately, “we have a very large village in Wichita,” says Rob Dickson, chief information officer for Wichita [Kansas] Public Schools. Through teamwork and a collective commitment to meeting every student’s needs, school and district leaders are working with the local Wichita community to reimagine and reconfigure the learning environment for the district’s 49,851 students.

In September, all Wichita middle and high school students began the new school year with remote learning while families of elementary school students chose either full-time in-person instruction or remote learning. Students engaged in remote learning receive a full school day of instruction and daily online interactions with teachers from their base or magnet school. Additionally, the district created the new Education Imagine Academy to offer interested students in kindergarten through twelfth grade a completely virtual self-paced education experience. 

As a member of the Future Ready Schools® (FRS) network, Wichita had been moving toward a personalized learning environment for every student prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dyane Smokorowski, Wichita’s digital literacy and citizenship coordinator. But when the spread of the novel coronavirus forced schools in Kansas—and across the nation—to close abruptly last spring, Wichita’s school and district leaders accelerated their efforts. Focusing on the Future Ready Framework and its seven “gears” allowed the district to address the various aspects of the shift to personalized learning holistically, Dickson says.  

Implementing extensive personalized professional learning for teachers and school-based staff has been central to the district’s transition. In August, teachers districtwide participated in 160 different professional learning sessions to learn how to integrate instructional technology into engaging lessons and how best to collaborate with their colleagues in a remote environment. Teachers also accessed on-demand professional learning resources based on their personal needs and interests that they explored independently.  

That high-quality professional learning has supported teachers in thinking differently about curriculum, instruction, and assessment, particularly in the elementary grades. Across the district, 60 percent of elementary students selected in-person instruction, while 40 percent selected remote learning. Consequently, some schools had to create grade-banded classes that combine two grades—kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, or fourth and fifth grade—into a single cohort to have enough students for a full in-person class or a full remote class.  

“Now that we have these combination classes, we can look at the delivery of content differently and shift toward a competency-based model for education,” Dickson explains. “We are exploring activities we wouldn’t have explored before because it felt like too high a level of risk but now we are taking that risk because it feels necessary for this environment and the success of our students.”

Having a robust infrastructure with plenty of high-quality devices also has been critical. Supply chain issues have delayed the delivery of 16,000 laptops and 3,000 tablets for students, Dickson says, but the district drew from its existing supply to distribute more than 32,000 computers to students who needed them. Additionally, through a partnership with T-Mobile, the district distributed MiFi internet hotspots to about 8,000 families who previously did not have home internet access.

“Providing internet access when needed is so important,” says Dickson. “If we didn’t do that, the gap of where those children would be [without internet access] would be so much higher. We have to make sure we aren’t expanding the gap between the haves and the have nots.” More than three-quarters of Wichita’s students live in low-income families.

In addition to partnering with businesses to provide home internet access, the district has built community partnerships to support parents and teachers in other ways. The district established a new help desk to respond to student’s technology questions so that the school-based technology specialists can continue to support teachers. Additionally, the district created three support centers where families can receive in-person assistance with devices, network access, and academic counseling from bilingual staff members, which is particularly important given Wichita’s diverse student population. (Wichita’s students come from ninety-seven different countries and speak 105 different languages at home.) The district also reached out to local museums and zoos to find ways they can support student learning and provide real-world connections, regardless of where students are located physically, says Smokorowski. For instance, the Wichita Museum of Art has allowed teachers to broadcast their online classes from the museum’s exhibit halls.

Most importantly, Wichita maintains strong connections with other members of the FRS network and reaches out to other districts for advice and support.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached out to my counterpart in other districts,” says Dickson. “There’s a huge benefit to reaching out to someone who goes through the same [FRS] framework and thought process in a district and being able to get a thoughtful answer. … We all need those relationships because we are all in this together.”

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Photos provided by Wichita Public Schools.