About 40 miles west of Boise, Idaho, sits Wilder, a small farming community with under 2,000 people, 25 percent of whom live in poverty. The Wilder School District—with one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school—makes up the town’s public school offering.
Despite the district’s small size, it had developed some large issues. By 2007, the elementary school had cycled through seven principals in 14 years and was one of the worst performing schools in the state. While the middle and high schools also struggled, they had the benefit of sharing a newly renovated building. The elementary school, on the other hand, was in disrepair.
The Courage to Innovate
When Jeff Dillon was named principal of the elementary school in 2007, he was met by rightfully frustrated educators, certain that he—like the others—would fail to make improvements and leave within a couple of years. Thankfully for the school’s educators, students, families, and larger community, Jeff Dillon was different. The first thing he did was win board approval to build a new elementary school. He also made instructional and staffing decisions to improve math, reading, and language tests in three years. Yet as a district, they were still struggling to meet the needs of a student body so diverse in those needs. In 2012, the elementary school principal also assumed the superintendent role, serving a dual post in the district. Mr. Dillon’s vision for Wilder School District went far beyond test scores. He was determined to transition the entire school district to one that focuses on the needs of the kids, a full competency-based and truly personalized model.
This transition was a necessity, not an option, to Mr. Dillon. In a migrant farming community, a large portion of Wilder’s students leave and return to school throughout the year. Mr. Dillon saw it as a failure of the district if they could not find a way for these students to pick up where they left off. A personalized, competency-based approach, where students are expected to master content, was implemented through technology integration, flexible scheduling, and mentoring.
The use of flexible learning apps and iPad devices provided great hope to students who might spend half the year away because of migrant farming patterns, or move in and out of the community because of the challenges of poverty and low-income rental homes. These students now feel much more motivated and welcomed to re-enroll in Wilder when they return—again and again. Instead of being expected to somehow catch up, they pick up exactly where they left off.
Can you imagine having no bell schedules or set grade levels? Mr. Dillon can. He shifted the mindset of not only staff but also the kids, allowing them to set their own schedules so they can take ownership of their coursework. If they want to take two classes at a time in order to reach competence, fine. If it takes longer to “finish” the curriculum for one student compared with another, no problem. They make it work. Student stress levels have decreased as they work with their mentors to develop their learning goals.
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