Norris Academy: Changing Lives Through the Power of Learning

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Norris Academy in Mukwonago, Wisconsin as part of Education Reimagined’s Immersive Learning Exchange (ILX).  

What does an Immersive Learning Exchange (ILX) look like?

The purpose of our visits is to develop a set of tools and protocols for visiting teams to support schools/environments who are committed to furthering learner-centered education. Our group consists of educators from across the country who are focused on learner-centered education for all young people. Each learning environment is unique and inspirational in its own way; however, working toward being a learner-centered school is the one commonality among all the schools/environments we visit.

We spend the first day totally immersed in the learning environment — observing, conducting focus groups, and collecting data. We spend the second day in deep discussions about what we saw and heard, which includes dialoguing with the host team (school leaders, staff, and learners) about the five learner-centered elements. The visiting team also offers some considerations for advancing the school’s learner-centered environment.

These visits are very powerful because the learning is mutual. In other words, all those in attendance (including me) go deeper in our understanding of learner-centered education. Hence, when schools are clearly learner-centered, the conversation naturally evolves into affirming the school’s work and commitment, which also leads to conversations about how this school’s experiences can contribute to the learner-centered movement.

About Norris Academy

Norris Academy is the smallest public-school system in Wisconsin. They primarily serve student from Norris Adolescent Center. They also accept students who choose to attend, including a virtual school option. Because most of their learners temporarily live at Norris Adolescent Center, many of their learners (currently all boys) have experienced past trauma and/or legal issues. Due to the short-term nature of an adolescent center, many of the students only attend Norris for a short time, which creates a sense of urgency among the staff to have a lasting impact on each learner.

Norris Academy’s motto is “Changing Lives Through the Power of Learning” and they live up to this. This school clearly exemplifies all the learner-centered elements and their journey will inform and inspire many others in the learner-centered movement. I cannot begin to fully describe all Norris Academy is accomplishing in partnership with its learners, so I will focus on the what was personally meaningful to me during my visit to Norris Academy.

Clearly Articulated Processes and Protocols:

Norris Academy has well designed processes and protocols, which guide their work and they are constantly refining these processes to improve their effectiveness. Below are just a few:

  • 6 Core Principles: Plans and Pathways, Operating Structures, Learning Profile, Competency Based Framework, Learner Network, and Learner Centered Supports.
  • The Four Dimensions of Learning: Academic, Employability, Citizenship, and Self Wellness
  • The Design Process: Define and Document, Communicate and Internalize, Visible Change in Practice and Responsive Enduring Practice.

They have designed processes, which enable them to constantly talk as a team about each learner’s progress and needs. Optimism permeates the culture as each staff member gives their best thinking to be responsive to each learner’s needs.

Although other schools would  benefit from exploring some of their protocols and tools, I am not suggesting other schools adopt these exact processes. I see value in schools designing their own structures, protocols, and tools – – the design process is just as beneficial as the end result. I think the take away is schools should have well designed processes to further a learner-centered environment and continuously redesign these tools to better serve learners.

A Fully Dedicated and Committed Team:

We talked with the hosting team extensively. Johnna Noll is the Superintendent/Executive Director and Paula Kaiser is the Director of Development. Although the structures, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, the point I want to make is about the relationships among the staff members. Their interactions with each other and their commitment to the vision and the children they serve truly inspired me.

Johnna and Paula’s leadership styles fully complement each other and the entire team. Johnna tends to be the visionary who sees what can be; Paula and the rest of the team are experts in designing processes and protocols to make their vision a reality. They have recruited the right people – team members with a heart for all learners and fully committed to this work. All staff members have an essential role to play (again, not talking about titles). The team leverages everyone’s talent to improve and further their work. Some team members generate ideas; some are doers; some are reflective. Their team dynamics include learning together, thinking together, solving problems together, constantly refining their practices together, and celebrating together.

Paula shared about a professional learning conversation in which they candidly talked about choosing to be positive. In other words, how everyday experiences can cause us to react positively or negatively. They choose to reframe what could be negatives as positives. This level of thinking and sharing as a team causes them to grow closer as a team and be even more united in modeling this positivity to their learners.

I was inspired by who they are and what they do. I saw their hearts for all learners, which fuels their commitment to this noble work.

How their Commitment Translates into Meaningful Relations with their Learners:

Every human being has the basic need to be loved and to know they are valued. Hence, having strong relationships with teachers is essential for learning. I saw this firsthand at Norris Academy.

The staff has worked hard to establish a safe environment for learners to be themselves. They genuinely respect and love each learner for who they are. They meet the learners where they are and celebrate their unique talents, personality traits, interests, and learning styles. Valuing each learner permeates their culture.

They start with a  four-week (more if needed) orientation, which helps learners discover and share Who Am I? as a human being and as a learner. They help these young people to understand they are not defined by their past decisions, but help them to become the person they are destined to be.

Learning is a true partnership between staff and learners. Each learner’s needs come first and as a result, each has a learner network to support and personalize their learning. The staff helps them identify their strengths, weaknesses, interests, how they learn, and their aspirations. Each learner then becomes a member of a Learning Community; this model is fluid based on learners’ interests and thus they can experience other learning communities if their interests change. Each learner experiences the real joy of learning by pursuing areas of interest and expressing who they are in a variety of ways.

The staff do not force, but invite sincere and caring relationships with each young person. Most learners, however, connect with at least one or more adults at the school. This is why they allow learners to move about and seek out different adults to support them. They are well supervised in this process, but the freedom of seeking out an adult to help or support them is part of their culture.

Because many of these learners are there for only a short amount of time, they work hard to help each child see their value, learn who they are, and develop the disposition of advocating for themselves as evidenced by the role of the learner. They know this skill will serve them well — long after they leave Norris Academy.

Final thoughts . . .

I always appreciate these school visits. I learn about the school and go deeper in my own understanding of learner-centered education. Furthermore, I am always inspired by the dedicated and compassionate educators who see the potential in all learners and are creating environments for joyous learning. My strong belief that all children have a capacity to thrive as learners was reinforced by my visit to Norris Academy. I applaud their bravery, perseverance, knowledge, and love for all children.

Questions for reflection:

  • Do you think relationships influence learning?
  • How do we let all children in schools know they are valued?
  • What are some ways teachers can build relationships with students (i.e. they know you sincerely care about them)?
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5 thoughts on “Norris Academy: Changing Lives Through the Power of Learning”

  1. I teach third grade and begin each year building community by having my students complete a survey about themselves and conferencing with them about what they said. They share this with the other students during circle time. I also talk with them all the time and go to their little league games when I can to let them know how much I care about them. I am also working hard to encourage my students to show how much they care about their classmates.

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