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GREENFIELD - Whitnall is planning to take major steps toward personalizing learning, hoping to make changes at the elementary, middle, and high school level in the 2017-18 school year.

After months of intensive work interviewing students, parents and others about their view of learning, then compiling the data and brainstorming new approaches, teachers at Whitnall have come up with several ideas for how to rework education.

"They looked at what can we implement in '17-'18 for personalizing learning K-12, and what might be some things that we look at in '18-'19," explained Superintendent Lisa Olson.

Personalizing learning

At the high school level, this means rolling out seminarlike courses that combine different areas of study. Teachers at the high school submitted 32 ideas for new classes, which will be analyzed to see what new courses could be offered next year.

“We’re going to put those out there and vet those through and have kids say, ‘What are you interested in? What’s going to do it for you? Where’s the enthusiasm?'” said Olson. “So, yes, for next year, not all 32, but we’re going through a process to figure out which ones will be ready or could be ready, and what things might require a bit more time.”

One example of a possible course, presented by social studies teacher Andrew Baumann at the school board meeting Feb. 13, is an archaeology class that would examine the Whitnall School Forest.

At the middle school, personalizing learning may take shape in a reformed schedule, with possible cross-curricular classes, more integrated elective times, and a day of the week set aside as "connection day" that would focus on connecting with other students, staff, community and even other buildings within the district.

In the elementary schools, teachers suggested expanding the Personalized Learning Experience (PLEx) program.

After a successful first couple years with the PLEx program at the elementary schools, teachers suggested that each grade be combined into one large PLEx class, similar to how fourth grade currently functions.

Although these plans are not set in stone, they will be considered as potential changes in the next two school years.

Involving parents in the process 

With plans to be finalized in the coming months for these possible personalized learning changes, the district is also hoping to continue working and communicating with parents and community members, aiming to involve them in the discovery process as much as possible.

“As we define what that (personalized learning changes) looks like, we don’t want to just tell parents what it is; we want to engage them in the process, saying, ‘How can we define what that is and what that looks like?’” said Olson.

Part of the outreach will include a community outreach day in March, where parents can learn more about personalized learning and the process the district is going through.

Building changes may be needed 

The district also hopes to continue this engagement as it looks toward making building changes.

In 2016, the district hired Bray Architects to begin examining the schools' facilities and see what changes are necessary, or will be necessary after personalized learning changes.

"The natural leap out of the curriculum dialogue is: What does that mean for facilities? How are our buildings? Are they ready for this?" said Mike Hacker of Bray Architects.

The firm has started answering those questions and has been touring buildings and talking to teachers, parents and administrators to get an idea of what the district will need going forward.

Looking into a referendum 

To make these building changes, whatever they may be, the district will likely go to referendum, though the school board is not sure when.

Before heading to referendum, Bray will have to finish its work, the district will likely send out a survey to residents, and other details need to be in place.

Going to referendum in November has its pros, as Director of Business Services Mike Williamson pointed out that there is an anticipated drop in the tax rate next year. However, it would require a lot of work to thoroughly communicate and develop a good referendum proposal.

The large amount of work ahead makes a November date a difficult goal, though not impossible.

"We think it’s do-able. We do think it’s aggressive," Hacker said of a November referendum. "And so to do that we really will be looking for a green light to start looking at potential solutions. ... And amidst doing that, getting some community feedback and engagement."

While no conclusion was reached at the Feb. 13 meeting, the district did decide to move forward with concrete steps in engaging the community, such as sending a mailer to update residents on what the district is doing. And, for right now, it will keep November open as an option.

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