Talladega County Schools: Personalizing Student Learning Through Project-Based Instruction
Less than a decade ago, Alabama’s Talladega County Schools (Talladega), a small rural school district located approximately fifty miles outside of Birmingham, faced a collection of challenges. Test scores were dwindling and the high school graduation rate was “inconsistent and unacceptable,” according to district administrators. Winterboro High School, specifically, ranked near the bottom with a graduation rate of only 63 percent. Countywide, students were disconnected from their schools and their learning, as demonstrated by the lack of participation in extracurricular activities, as well as the high number of discipline referrals, out-of-school student suspensions, and referrals to the district’s alternative school. Teachers, meanwhile, were equally disengaged, with many leaving their schools each day promptly at dismissal time. Many teachers had become complacent with the delivery of instruction as well, says Craig Bates, coordinator of instructional technology for Talladega and former principal at Winterboro High School.
When Talladega’s school leaders contemplated the state of Winterboro High School and several other district schools, they realized the situation had to change. “We were using a method of instruction that had been around for fifty years and we really needed something that would address the needs of today’s students,” Bates explains.
Finding a Way to Personalize Learning
Between 2007 and 2008, a leadership team consisting of administrators, teachers, and students from Winterboro High School, community members, and county business leaders visited model schools nationwide. The team targeted schools that leveraged technology to engage students, increase the rigor of student course work, improve student attendance, and develop students’ deeper learning competencies, such as the ability to master core academic content, think critically, and solve complex problems.
After completing the site visits, Talladega’s school leaders developed a plan to personalize student learning by implementing a project-based learning (PBL) model using a digital learning framework in the county’s schools. PBL “is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge,” according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). Schools that operate with this instructional model personalize student learning by having students design projects that align with their interests and academic goals, creating genuine learning experiences that empower students to solve complex problems through deep research and rigorous analysis.
“[PBL] facilitates a personalized learning environment because it requires a commitment to research,” explains Suzanne Lacey, Talladega’s superintendent. “It enables students to work at their own pace and it allows students to work collaboratively. It puts ownership on the student and by doing so builds responsibility, interest, and initiative among students. That is something we were trying to do as an overarching goal.”
In addition to adopting a new instructional strategy, Talladega altered the district’s curriculum to implement new college- and career-readiness standards that emphasize student collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
Beginning the Transition: Winterboro High School
Talladega’s leaders started the district’s transformation with one school: Winterboro High School. Between 2007 and 2009, Winterboro’s graduation rate dropped from 82 percent to 63 percent. Students exhibited little school pride, and extracurricular participation was low. Winterboro clearly needed some kind of intervention. Talladega’s school leaders believed the school would benefit from the rigor, relevance, purposeful products, interdisciplinary teaching, state-of-the-art technology, and professional learning culture the PBL model offers.
Success depended largely on providing teachers with extensive professional development to build their support for the district’s vision for PBL. The district turned to BIE to conduct professional development initially for the teachers and the administrators at Winterboro in the summer of 2008. Then, recognizing that teachers needed ongoing support to shift their instruction and to reinforce the foundational work begun the previous school year, the district offered eight days of PBL training to teachers countywide during the summer of 2009. The training focused primarily on developing learning projects and using digital learning tools and exposed teachers to promising teaching practices they could incorporate into the new PBL approach, including active learning strategies, formative assessments, and other strategic teaching methods common in personalized learning classrooms.
In addition to the instructional changes, the district redesigned the facilities at Winterboro High School between March and August 2009 to support the school’s implementation of PBL that fall. The redesign created four learning suites with movable walls and added 192 computers, group work stations, and a laptop lab. The district also provided students with mobile devices, such as tablets and interactive pens, to enhance their learning.
Building Community Support
Throughout the transition, district and school administrators met with students to discover what changes students wanted at their school and involved them in the leadership team to ensure the reform efforts reflected students’ desires. Student input was vital and ultimately influenced district leaders to select the PBL model.
As Winterboro High School implemented the PBL model during School Year (SY) 2009–10, school leaders expanded and deepened their relationship with the community to provide students additional opportunities to build their college- and career-readiness skills and build critical community support for the PBL model. Winterboro invited parents; community members; representatives from educational institutions, businesses, and nonprofit organizations; and staff members from the Alabama State Department of Education and local and state work development offices to the school to observe the PBL model in action.
Winterboro High School’s administration also organized open houses specifically for parents to build their support for PBL, inform them about the curriculum changes, and provide an opportunity for parents to talk with teachers and students about the PBL strategy and the ways digital tools were permitting more ambitious and successful projects.
Personalized Learning’s Impact
For Winterboro High School, the effects of personalized learning on student engagement are notable. In a March 2010 survey, 76 percent of students said that PBL and the addition of technology made school more interesting. Additionally, Winterboro’s student attendance increased to 96 percent in SY 2010–11, from a low of 92 percent in SY 2006–07. Between 2009 and 2011, Winterboro’s graduation rate also increased 24 percentage points, going from 63 percent to 87 percent, and reached 95 percent in 2015. Winterboro’s college acceptance rate increased as well, going from 33 percent in 2008 to 84 percent in 2015. During that same period, the number of out-of-school suspensions, alternative school referrals, in-school suspensions, and the mid-year dropout rate at Winterboro decreased significantly.
The demanding interdisciplinary nature of the PBL model has produced several local and state award-winning projects at Winterboro High School as well. For one such project, juniors in the Classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012 created an elaborate 1920s museum complete with artifacts, content information, and interactive exhibits to illustrate this era in their history class. This project accompanied the students’ reading of The Great Gatsby in their English courses. For other projects, students designed and constructed scale models of environmentally sound housing units and built roller coasters designed to demonstrate mathematical principles visually. These kinds of collaborative interdisciplinary projects demonstrate how Talladega’s PBL model takes students beyond more traditional instructional methods.
Implementing Project-Based Learning at Scale
Motivated by Winterboro High School’s successes, the Talladega leadership team expanded personalized learning, and in 2009, it tapped Childersburg High School, a school that faced many of the same issues that plagued Winterboro, as the second site for reform. In 2012, Talladega school leaders implemented the PBL approach at three more schools and today all seventeen county schools incorporate the instructional model in some form. Since Talladega implemented the PBL approach eight years ago, student performance and engagement at the district’s schools have improved significantly. Talladega’s districtwide high school graduation rate is now 94 percent, a 15-percentage-point increase since 2008.
To support schools and teachers with their implementation of PBL, the county placed digital learning specialists in half of its schools in 2012, and today, thirteen of the district’s schools employ these expert staff members. The district plans to have these specialists in the four remaining schools within the next year, Lacey says. The district also offers planning and professional development sessions throughout the academic year to help teachers enhance their PBL instructional practices and bring teachers and instructional staff members together to refine existing projects and develop new ones. Additionally, since 2014, the school system has organized a free three-day summer professional development event called “iLearn,” which offers classes to all Talladega school staff members. The event includes classes taught by the district’s digital learning specialists to inform teachers about new technology tools to support their instruction and provide PBL training to new staff members.
Keys to Success
Much of Talladega’s school system has transformed from a traditional instructional model to a personalized learning model designed to prepare students for college and a career. Allowing teachers to guide this transition and providing them with sufficient training and support to adjust instruction have been critical to the district’s success, Lacey says. Including student voices throughout the implementation process was essential as well, she adds. Lacey encourages administrators who are considering a personalized learning approach to visit other school districts, like Talladega, to observe and learn from their successes and challenges. Talladega’s collaboration with local community groups also built support for the district’s transformation and enriched students’ learning by connecting lessons to real-world experiences. Building the necessary infrastructure to support digital learning was central to Talladega’s new PBL model as well and contributed significantly to the district’s successes.
To learn more about Talladega’s implementation of personalized learning, read the Alliance for Excellent Education publication Building a Foundation: How Technology-Rich Project-Based Learning Transformed Talladega County Schools.
Suzanne Lacey, superintendent, Talladega County Schools
Vicky Ozment, deputy superintendent, Talladega County Schools
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.