Riverside Unified School District: Harnessing the Power of Learner Profiles
In School Year (SY) 2015–16, three middle schools and two elementary schools in California’s Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) became part of a pilot program focused on providing personalized learning for a cohort of 120–150 students within each school. During SY 2016–17, RUSD will add two high schools and another elementary school to the personalized learning pilot program with the goal of reaching all 42,000+ students in the district’s forty-six schools within five years. “The power behind personalized learning is that it moves us, it ignites us, it inspires us,” explains Lynn Carmen Day, RUSD chief academic officer.
Building on A Desire to Innovate
Riverside is known as the “city of arts and innovation,” so it is not surprising that the community strongly supports the transition to personalized learning. This openness to new ideas also allows the district to leverage the city’s forward-leaning approach to technology and the desire to innovate to better serve students. Early teacher surveys, highlighted in the district’s personalized learning strategic plan, showed enthusiasm for personalized learning, but also exposed a lack of a shared definition and understanding. “This makes sense that we’re finally going to be doing something that is going to be engaging kids individually and reaching them in a way that interests them,” says Kathy Allavie, member of the RUSD Board of Education.
In order to harness that enthusiasm, the district held a series of personalized learning summits to engage postsecondary school leaders, city officials, school leaders from neighboring districts, local business leaders, parents, and teachers in the development of the personalized learning initiative. The summits introduced the community to personalized learning, outlined RUSD’s vision for personalized learning, and explained the district’s approach for supporting teachers as they developed and implemented personalized learning plans, explains Kristian Sorensen, program manager for Custom Schools of Riverside.
Focusing on Students’ Needs
RUSD’s vision for personalized learning focuses on students’ learning needs and aspirations. Students and teachers come together to decide the best learning strategies for individual students based on a set of common challenging academic standards. Teachers then use a variety of tools to determine whether a student has mastered one concept and may move on to a new one. This allows each student to progress based on his or her individual ability. Five core structural elements are integral to achieving this vision for personalized learning: (1) learner profiles, (2) personalized learning plans, (3) competency-based advancement, (4) flexible environments, and (5) socially-engaged contributors.
To track both academic and nonacademic data, teachers and students continuously update digital learner profiles that move with students as they progress through grades within the school system. “The learner profile is everything that makes that student who they are—strengths, areas of improvement, desires, achievements, needs, goals, and some historical academic information,” Sorensen explains. “It is the DNA of each student.” Students, parents, and teachers can view and edit the learner profiles, allowing the profiles to serve as a communication tool among those involved in a student’s education. Teachers use the profiles to match students with appropriate educational resources and social groups for instruction based on their strengths, gaps, developmental needs, interests, aspirations, capabilities, and learning styles.
To complement these learner profiles, students and teachers collaboratively create personalized learning plans that provide a set of learning tasks structured around the interests and learning needs identified in the student’s learner profile. This “gives kids the choice, not to not do math or not do history, but to choose how they are going to do math or history,” says RUSD Superintendent David Hansen.
Competency-based advancement is the key to supporting all students and making personalized learning successful. The learner profiles and personalized learning plans support this type of advancement by focusing on students’ individual mastery of content. RUSD established a working group to create “Portrait of a Graduate,” a document that articulates the knowledge, skills, and habits district high school graduates must have for college, a career, and/or world readiness, Sorensen says. This group, along with the district leadership, is working with the nonprofit organization Great Schools Partnership to evaluate and develop a set of competencies that will mold the foundation for competency-based advancement across the entire district, focusing on what every RUSD student needs for college, a career, and life success. Over time, teachers will develop a selection of performance indicators to evaluate students’ understanding of content rather than the quantity of their work, Sorensen adds.
To support this new approach to learning, flexible environments allow students to attend a mix of in-person and online classes while also increasing time for electives and providing more access to courses and programs at other schools. Teachers also focus on developing more flexible uses of time, instructional methods, and ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of course material. This offers students the opportunity to create their own unique mix of learning environments in which they can thrive. In this way, personalized learning creates a community where teachers can support their students and students can support each other in developing the skills and understanding necessary to meet critical learning needs.
RUSD’s model of personalized learning also encourages students to “give back to a community, whether it be a local (school), city, state, national, or world community,” Sorensen adds. For instance, some schools have partnered with local senior citizen facilities to organize a “senior citizens’ prom” to allow students to meet and interview elderly community members. This community of socially-engaged contributors, both teachers and students, allows students to gradually take responsibility for their own learning in accordance with their individual needs and abilities.
The district supports the implementation of personalized learning in a variety of ways. The district improved its digital infrastructure and implemented a digital learning management system where teachers can upload academic material and content that students can access. The district also provides teachers with targeted professional development because district leaders believe that personalized learning should be “less of a thing and more how school happens,” Sorensen adds. This professional development includes training on developing effective personalized learning environments, supporting students in a personalized learning setting, and provides teachers access to coaches, mentors, and personalized learning plans. Finally, the district will embark on a communication campaign to educate parents and community members on personalized learning, build support for this new approach to teaching and learning, and receive feedback on the implementation process. District leaders also are working with outside partners such as colleges and potential employers to ensure that schools have the external networks necessary to ensure post-graduation success for their students.
Leaders in RUSD believe personalized learning represents a connection to students that directly changes their relationship with learning and eventually will change academic perspectives and performance. Personalized learning is a “way to engage all of these kids so we can move them all forward and have a better, richer community because of it,” Allavie adds.
Kristian Sorensen, program manager, Custom Schools of Riverside
The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship. www.all4ed.org
© Alliance for Excellent Education, August 2016.