RTI to the Rescue: Developing a Personalized Learning Initiative in an Academy Environment

Westside High School is a traditional high school that employs non-traditional approaches. Because our school is designed the way it is and takes on educating kids the way it does, you have to be a special person to work here. You need that mission heart, that ministry heart, that heart that knows what challenges kids face and wants to help them. 

When I got here in 2012, the school was in a rough place—in the lowest 5 percent of the state in Georgia and with a graduation rate of only 45 percent. Due in part to rezoning changes, it had become a Title I school. The school had always had strong athletics and a lot of school pride, but athletics had become the focus at the expense of other things. No one was looking at the data needles. School improvement was not talked about. We had to hire 46 staff members that first year.

For a long time, the school had a magnet focus that allowed students to apply here for an engineering or research pathway. But when I got here, I didn’t see a lot of magnet going on. We needed to build that program, so we wrote a grant that first year and began developing these programs. We had two cycles of the Governor’s Office Student Achievement Innovation Fund Grant that awarded us $750,000 to implement our program the first year and $700,000 to scale it the second year. We’ve been scaling it for four years, and we’re reaching the final phases of implementation.

Evolving Toward a Full Academy Model

The largest of our academies, the Blended Academy, pairs two teachers together, with the most effectual one doing the face-to-face teaching and the partner doing the online component. The two of them work hand in hand, collaborating on grades, lessons, evaluations, and course structure. The Rigor and Relevance concept is embedded in instructional framework.

In the Twilight Academy, students come to school Mondays through Thursdays from 3–7 p.m. They use a blended learning model in which a certified teacher guides them through use of online platforms such as Edgenuity, Odysseyware, USATestprep, StudyOwl, and the Georgia Virtual School. The Twilight Academy serves all students who may need to work during the day or stay at home caring for someone until 3 p.m. Homeschooled students are also included in this. Students in this academy take part in many aspects of school life. They play sports, go to the prom, and graduate with everyone else.

Because blended learning involves a lot of tech, we’re in a position of needing to increase our bandwidth. Our district has funded a good portion of the Twilight Academy. 

Our Challenge Academy is for any daytime students who are off-cohort or not on track for graduation. Instead of continuously taking the same courses with the same teacher over and over, students receive targeted instruction that allows them to progress and get the credits they need.

The College and Career Academy provides a simulated college schedule on campus. This is for students who are ready for independent, advanced study. 

Some teachers may cross over from one academy to another, which can make scheduling hard. The ideal situation is to have a coordinator and a staff member committed to each academy.

Personalized Learning

We have flexible schedules and an evening school because we know how students’ lives are individual and complex, and how they affect who they are and how they learn best. We’ve really emphasized student preference, parent input, teacher recommendations, and data prioritization to fit students where they will best learn. If a student will do better in blended learning, I’ll put them there. I try not to send my students to alt schools. They would have had to done something criminal for that. There is one graduation, and it serves everyone who’s learned in their way to get to that point.

I’m now going into my seventh year. I’m the only female high school principal in the district, and I have the highest gang, homeless, and foster populations at my school, but we’ve made progress in graduation rates, CCR rates, and the level of commitment in our faculty. I’ve needed faculty who were willing to buy into rigor for all students, not ones who look at the Lexile and claim that students cannot handle rigorous work on that basis.

We’re working toward the development phase of a Maker Space and full STEM certification. We’ve received the governor’s grant for these things. Our goal is to become a full academy program with four master programs. We’ve done a lot of research and relied on Bill Daggett’s work to pull us forward.

The Influence of ICLE and the Model Schools Conference

The biggest thing for us has been Bill Daggett’s work with the Rigor/Relevance Framework. When you’re personalizing learning, you’re making it relevant, and the rigor is embedded because students believe they’re getting college and career ready. 

Every time we come to the Model Schools Conference, we return with something we can add to our work. Our RTI personalized learning model came from Model Schools. One of the main things we’ve learned is that literacy has to be schoolwide. For this we’ve drawn on the literacy work done at Brockton High School. Now we’re at a stable place, having learned that literacy is not just reading and writing and driven by the English teacher. It actually has several components. It has to happen throughout the school, in every department, and it has to go beyond the building; it has to be with parents, too. Literacy is not just reading and writing but also communicating and being digitally literate.

I’ve been attending the Model Schools Conference since I came here. I probably bring the largest school contingent. I bring two or three teachers from every department; anybody new that’s coming in, I take them to Model Schools. I want them to know my expectations.

How My Personal History Played a Role

I was a non-traditional student myself, and that experience informs who I am as an educator. My teachers couldn’t pick up on me not being to read or write, and I had a lot of issues going on as a teen and young adult. I have a child who needed something she wasn’t getting in education, too. If you put all that together, I wanted to create a place where no child was left unturned. So when I think about RTI, I think about responding uniquely to each child. We have school in the way that students need us to have school. When we get new students, we ask them, “How do you want to get your diploma?” They’ve never heard that before.

When I was coming along, I wasn’t even trying to be in education. I wasn’t successful in school, except for math and science, but my parents had high expectations. I was the youngest of 13 children. I worked at a grocery store and developed an aspiration to become the first female manager of the Piglee Wiggly grocery school. Throughout my time there, I always took classes. It took me seven years to finish my college degree.

One day, a professor—Dr. Weaver—came into the store. I was working over in the produce section helping a young boy who wanted to use the produce weighing machine to build a soap box for a soap-box derby. I helped him set up a proportion and figure out the right amount of wood. Little did I know that Dr. Weaver was watching me. When she came around to the checkout, she asked me if I could come to a meeting. I didn’t know until I got there that it was all about being a teacher. Without Dr. Weaver having the insight that I could help kids learn, I don’t know if I’d have pursued this path.

Dr. Weaver worked to get me enrolled in the Georgia College & State University, a non-traditional pilot program where you worked in the school. I finished my four-year degree in middle grade certification and became a middle school math teacher. After the first year the principal made me the leader of the cluster. They always gave me the most difficult children, and they would come out squeaky clean. 

After 12 years, I became an assistant principal at the high school I graduated from. I had to open and close the school twice by myself because of the loss of principals. I went on from that to become an principal and then a Race to the Top (RT3) coordinator overseeing a $13 million grant throughout the district. When I first became principal of Westside, I had to do both jobs until we found a replacement for the Race to the Top coordinator. I live in the neighborhood, and I’m a neighborhood educator and evangelist. My children see me as what I am: a community educator.

Join the team from Westside High School along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24-27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for strengthening your teaching and leadership practices and develop an action plan for positive change. Come be inspired by our success story and many others!