A school with a difference

Vermont LogoIn the autumn of 2015 the State of Vermont in the US introduced a law requiring all schools to implement Personalised Learning Plans for every student in the state. Each PLP would have to identify goals, learning styles, abilities and align these with the schools academic ethos to ensure each student continues to successfully progress through the education system.
While researching further into the concept of Personalised Learning Plans I came across an interview with Jon Hanover, the Principal of Roots Elementary, a new school in Denver, Colorado. School logoJon Hanover’s background is in business management and his career progression saw him moving to management roles in Charter School Growth Funds before making a career change and becoming a Kindergarten teacher.
Before continuing with the main blog I think it might be a good idea to elaborate on a few terms. Formal education for a child in the United States normally begins at age five; children enter an “Elementary School” more or less equivalent with our own Primary School system here in Ireland. The first year of this is referred to as “Kindergarten”, our own “Junior Infants”. Pupils progress through Elementary School in “grades” – “first to fifth grade or sometimes sixth grade”.
Charter schools” are special Public Schools that have a greater scope of freedom to be more innovative while still requiring to be open to all children; they are not allowed to charge tuition fees and also they are not allowed to have special entry requirements.
Charter schools have the freedom to adjust the curriculum to meet student needs, to create a unique school culture and to develop new learning models.
Jon Hanover used his work experience to open a brand new school, Roots Elementary, in Denver.School building 2015-2016 is its first school year and the school currently has pupils in Kindergarten and First Grade. Not only has the school embraced the concept of Personalised Learning Plans, it has also abandoned the recognised concept of a physical classroom with the traditional one teacher and x number of pupils. The PLP’s allow the school to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of each pupil and to place them in appropriate learning spaces where subject specific teachers provided guided self-directed work. The school operates around centres, such as a Library, a Writing Centre, an iPad Centre and a Group Work Centre. Currently there are 100 pupils in the school and six front line teachers; four of these teachers are subject teachers while the other two teachers act as coaches with the responsibility for building “life” skills – non-academic skills.
The school spent about $3000 on the creation of a web app that integrates with Google’s API so that the school can use Google Calendar to schedule lessons.

Pupil with tablet

Copyright Ross Elementary

The app is totally pictorial and image based so that these young pupils, as they use their iPad, can navigate to where they are supposed to be at any given time.
image showing tablet  image showing tablet  image showing tablet
Pupils use QR codes to register their presence at learning centres throughout the day.
Tablet interrogating a QR code
The personal learning plans are dynamic and can change on a daily basis as teachers assess how pupils are progressing. Core STEM skills are at the heart of the curriculum and the school includes a “Maker Space” to encourage the pupils to be creators, fostering a culture of innovation.
Within the school there is also a wide open space called “The Grove” where pupils work on a wide range of personal projects.
I really like many of the ideas and concepts being promoted by this school. I think the personalised learning plan offers pupils greater scope to become comfortable both in their own learning space and in their own learning pace. I also recognise how this concept can add hugely to the workload of each teacher and how greater reliance on tablet /iPad use can lead to “fail points” and “down time”.
All things considered I think that the concept of freeing pupils from the normal regime of grouping by age into a specific classroom is something very positive. Would something like this work in Ireland? Maybe it could! The funding and resources needed for a project like this would be substantial. However I think that Ross Elementary school is an ideal candidate for a research project and academic study to see how pupils progress during their years at the school.

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