How to Survive the First Year of Learner-Centered Transformation (Hint: It’s All About the People)

This article was published in Education Reimagined’s Voyager Weekly online publication on September 24, 2019. You can access it here.

There isn’t a tool or protocol out there that can magically transform an environment from school-centered to learner-centered. Only people can do that.

Dr. Suzanne Freeman—a school superintendent for over 15 years in four different public school districts in Alabama and finalist for National Superintendent of the Year in 2009—was one of the learner-centered leaders who helped establish Pike Road Schools in 2014. In this two-part series, she is sharing her community’s story on how to build a learner-centered district from the ground up. Read part one here.

Pike Road Schools has been community-owned from the very beginning. Thirteen neighborhood meetings led to the shared mission, vision, and beliefs that have guided the district’s work since it officially opened its doors in the fall of 2015. All the hard work the community put into opening the learning environment led to a first day of school that was like a Norman Rockwell painting coming to life. 

Board members, town officials, and community volunteers were on campus greeting learners as they arrived in cars and school buses. Lead learners (what we called our educators), parents, and young learners were visibly excited—smiles, hugs, and fist bumps abounded. There was a sea of red, white, and blue as everyone was dressed in Patriot t-shirts. It was the perfect first day, but the hard work was just beginning.

There were so many learning moments in the first year alone that I could write an entire book about it. From submitting waiver requests to the Department of Education to exit interviews with parents who opted to send their children back to conventional college preparatory environments, I could tell stories for days. However, when looking at the highest impact learning moments, I’ve chosen to focus on one big one—transformation at the human level. 

In the end, there isn’t a tool or protocol out there that can magically transform an environment from school-centered to learner-centered. Only people can do that. So, let’s talk about what we learned as people. Lead learners, young learners, and parents all had to manage expected and unexpected hurdles as we embarked on this journey.

So Many Learners, So Little Space (and Operational Funds)

In the first weeks, there was a mixture of excitement, fear, anxiety, hope, and unity. We had what we referred to as “mountain top moments” where we were celebrating learning and “valley moments” where things seemed bleak and overwhelming. Sometimes, we experienced these two extremes multiple times in the same day. We knew the work we were embarking on wasn’t going to be easy, but we were determined to create a thriving learner-centered environment.

The first valley moment came on the same day we opened. Our new pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school was constructed for 800 learners. On day one, our enrollment numbers were already at 1,105 learners—an unavoidable consequence as a public district that welcomes all children who were city residents.

Adding fuel to the fire, many of our young learners came from private schools and were unaccounted for when the state assessed our per student funding—only providing funds for 653 learners and 39 educators (rather than the 1,105 learners we had and the 66 educators we needed). Without the funds to hire more staff, our class sizes ballooned to as many as 31 learners per educator.

We were stretched beyond our space and staffing capacity, but rather than wave a white flag on day one, our lead learners got creative—using conventional spaces in unconventional ways. The cafeteria and library/media center served as collaborative learning spaces; the stairwells functioned as film studios; hallways accommodated learners collaborating in small groups; and even outdoor spaces like gardens, animal habitats, and nature trails functioned as places for learning. Watching this real-time adaptation take place was inspiring, but we weren’t out of the valley yet.

Taking on a collaborative lesson design process, several lead learners felt incompetent. They were stepping outside their comfort zones and began doubting themselves as professionals. 

Even though many lead learners creatively used any space they could find, the tremendous pressure of learning how to educate in a learner-centered way with so many young learners in their care was overwhelming. Opportunities for lead learners to design and collaborate were incredibly limited as before and after school times were dedicated to watching our young learners due to the double bus routes we had to run. The first batch of learners would arrive an hour before school was set to begin and the final batch of learners left 55 minutes after school had ended.

In retrospect, we wish we had started with just elementary (K-6, instead of K-8), adding a grade level each subsequent year like we had already planned on doing with our high schoolers. This would have alleviated some space issues and allowed us to provide more dedicated support to lead learners. 

Learning and Designing Together

With little opportunity for lead learners to collaborate before or after school, we allocated time during the school day by inviting community volunteers to share their expertise with our young learners—effectively taking over for an hour while lead learners worked to improve their learner-centered strategies. 

Our lead learners were accustomed to a conventional design and planning approach. In other words, they were accustomed to the textbook guiding their lessons and then supplementing those with activities that may or may not appeal to learners’ interests or passions. Taking on a collaborative lesson design process, which included the integration of project-based learning principles, several lead learners felt incompetent. They were stepping outside their comfort zones—moving from direct instruction teachers to facilitators of learning—and began doubting themselves as professionals.

This resulted in honest, tearful conversations that were felt and understood by the leadership team. Ensuring there was space to have these conversations was critical in building even stronger bonds as a team and relating to the challenges our young learners were experiencing right alongside us adults. And, most importantly, it prevented us from falling for the very real temptation of going back to what we knew best—a conventional, school-centered practice.

I think we’d sum it up with “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For us, “stronger” meant a more robust and enriching learner-centered experience for the young people in Pike Road, Alabama.

It was (and is) mentally taxing to shift from a culture of compliance to a culture of learning. However, all we needed to do was re-presence ourselves to our mission, vision, and core beliefs, and we were ready to keep pushing forward. Instead of being led by textbooks and prescribed curriculum, we wanted lead learners to design around the needs and interests of their young people. Our goal was to make learning meaningful and authentic, enabling learners to take ownership of their learning. Some lead learners would affectionately joke with me saying, “I am cursed now because I have to think about the ‘why’ behind everything I do in my classroom.”

Yet, in the early going, the valleys seemed to only get deeper until we finally had a mountain top moment to celebrate. Our community five (fifth grade) team started thinking and talking like designers—they were starting with the unique needs and interests of their learners and building from there. I witnessed this firsthand, and it was truly a magical moment. This team began sharing and modeling for other teams. Over time, we saw all teams shifting from planning exactly what their learners would do to designing from a point of inquiry about who the young people were and letting that guide them. 

Over time, all teams had breakthrough moments and began collaboratively designing with one another. We used the protocols and collective successes of each community (grade level) team to continuously improve our collaborative lesson design process. 

As the breakthroughs continued to build, some lead learners started emerging as leaders. We empowered these internal experts to model and provide the necessary support to others, so everyone could continue moving forward on their lead learner journey. We also used faculty meetings as a time of learning and sharing among each community. As a result of everyone’s commitment, our culture started evolving into a culture of continuous learning and improvement. 

As the first year wound down, we knew we needed more professional learning in lesson design, PBL, and collaboration (including the use of more protocols). We also needed a highly skilled instructional coach to facilitate lesson design. For our second year, we added instructional partners who deeply understood lesson design and what we were trying to accomplish, which had a major positive impact on our young learners—particularly our oldest young learners.

Difficult Transition for Older Learners

The transition for older learners (roughly communities 6-8) was hard because most had attended conventional schools for the first seven or eight years of their academic lives. Most of the “high flyers” just wanted to “jump through the hoops” and do school work solely for the grade (not for the learning). On the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the children who struggled at their conventional schools were used to being passed from grade to grade and lacked confidence in their ability to learn. Two completely different experiences created the same result—an initial resistance to our (developing) learner-centered model of learning. And, the children’s natural resistance paired with the challenges lead learners were experiencing caused some older learners to struggle in taking ownership of their own behavior. 

It takes time, especially for older learners who have come to expect something specific from their “school” experience, to transition to a new way of learning. First, they must know how much the adults in their lives genuinely care for them. Second, they must develop a certain level of self-confidence and self-belief that they have what it takes to take advantage of opportunities never provided to them before and to co-design learning experiences that are personally relevant and meaningful to them. 

The only “trick” here was patience. The more the adults got to know our learners and co-designed authentic projects, the more our learners were engaged and took ownership of their learning. Several young learners started seeing the benefits of Pike Road School’s learner-centered approach and became leaders among their peers. Because we valued the voices of our young learners, we formed Trailblazers, a group of older learners who gave us honest feedback and helped us design the next phases of our learner-centered practice. They became true leaders in our school and community—creating school clubs; responsibly lobbying to change the dress code; researching and writing grants for furniture that would be more conducive for collaboration and for additional funding to help us further our mission; designing and executing school-wide programs; mentoring younger learners (Big Patriot/Little Patriot); and more. 

Their leadership led to confidence and approval from their parents. However, during the moments of resistance and friction, parents came to us (rightfully so) with many questions.

Parent Expectations

Some parents expected us to get it “right” on day one. What parent wouldn’t? Understandably,  they didn’t want their child to lose a year of growth and development while we were “figuring it out.” 

The first few weeks of school, considering our emphasis on project-based learning, many parents were concerned their children were “playing” all day and not learning anything of importance. This was a particularly high concern within our youngest communities (grades). Several parents began asking for worksheets and traditional instruction. 

The leadership team and lead learners had many internal conversations about these requests, which led to the realization that the children were going home and talking about what they had built or created and were unable to articulate their learning. To address this, each community started creating weekly newsletters highlighting student learning (complete with movies, artifacts, pictures, etc.) to help parents see the connection to learning. Because lead learners in the younger communities had a profound understanding of developmental learning and thus could explain how “play” translated to learning, this immediately eased most parents’ concerns. 

“Play” is more difficult to translate with older children. The concern for some parents in the older communities was ongoing. Several asked for textbooks, lectures with note taking, and conventional grades. Within these communities, we had to address three issues: showing the evidence of learning, solving behavior issues that were becoming a cultural norm, and supporting our lead learners in designing high quality and meaningful work for learners. 

Over time, however, our older children learned how to talk about their learning within the context of their projects, which once again eased the minds of many parents. The ongoing challenge was to partner with parents while staying true to our mission. We knew if we turned back to a standardized approach, we would never see our vision become a reality. 

This desire for partnership resulted in the creation of a parental advisory group—a group of parents who supported our learning approach. The Pike Road staff were able to have a genuine dialogue about our internal challenges and what parents needed from us (and vice versa). This enabled Pike Road staff and parents to better see the overall landscape of what we were doing as a community and to work together to make Pike Road Schools the best learner-centered environment it could be. 

Becoming an Inspiration for Others

As we cultivated trust and confidence within our lead learners, young learners, and parents, we began to see our transformation accelerate. Over time, we became empowered to blaze a trail for others. No matter how many valleys we had to walk through, we kept learning how to climb back to the mountain top. This resilience enabled us to honestly share our story with others and provide tours of our learning community. 

Gathering feedback from other educators who visited Pike Road Schools (we averaged one group each week) and from those we met at regional and state professional learning experiences only affirmed our work. It gave us the confidence to keep moving forward. If we could share our story in cliche form, I think we’d sum it up with “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For us, “stronger” meant a more robust and enriching learner-centered experience for the young people in Pike Road, Alabama.

Every learner-centered journey requires constant attention and nurturing. Focusing on what is wrong or unknown and settling for a conventional school-centered system is definitely the easier path to follow. However, our children deserve more. 

It is our moral responsibility to prepare them for an ever-changing world. They must become lifelong learners—willing to embrace their mistakes; take on opportunities they know will be messy, challenging, frustrating, and exhilarating all at once; and take responsibility for the health of their communities. This is the promise of learner-centered education, and one I will continue sharing regardless of how my role in the movement changes. Will you join me?

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