Students work in small groups at Hollister Prep, a K-8 charter school in central California.

“Flexibility is key [here],” said a seasoned teacher at Hollister Prep, a public charter school that is part of the Navigator Schools network in Central California’s San Benito County.

As part of my research into schools that are successfully closing learning gaps, I visited the school for a day-long observation of their practices on the recommendation of one of my colleagues. I expected to see excellence, but I was surprised and impressed by the level of flexibility I saw in classrooms.

Hollister Prep’s commitment to closing students’ learning gaps — by meeting them where they are academically and supporting them to reach rigorous, grade-level expectations — requires a kind of creative flexibility that breaks the mold of a traditional classroom.

Lauren Schwartze

From the way classrooms buzzed with a variety of activities, to the individualized plans carefully tailored to each student’s learning goals, I saw over and over again how the school’s educators flexed to meet individual student needs.

It’s an approach that offers a refreshing response to a key debate in the education sector, one which pits academic rigor against personalized learning.

Some in the education field argue that students need constant access to grade-level assignments, such as those featured in whole-course curricula; others argue that students need to be met where they are (even if far behind grade-level) via approaches that are often — but not always — facilitated via technology programs.

But recent research on the science of learning indicates that these two approaches (grade-level rigor and tailoring education for individual student needs) aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re both necessary and reinforcing qualities of effective learning experiences.

My visit to Hollister Prep gave me a glimpse of what such learning environments can look like — and why other schools should pay attention. Using four key features, the school successfully blends academic rigor and personalization:

Creative use of time and space.

No two classrooms look the same at Hollister Prep, and even within the same classroom, there might be kids on computers, in small groups, working independently or working with teachers — all at the same moment. While no two kids were doing the same thing, they were all on task and focused.

The school combines whole-group instruction, blended learning and station rotation models to ensure every student has access to grade-level knowledge and skills — while also offering additional targeted support in one-on-one or group settings.

A whole new level of data-driven instruction.

Many schools collect and track data, but too often, there’s a lag between data collection and reporting — or teachers simply don’t know how to use data. At Hollister Prep, data collection and analysis are constant, ongoing and used to drive near-term instructional decisions.

I watched students complete personalized math lessons via fun online curriculum that included a cute jumping frog. But this rigorous program also provided teachers robust, real-time data (versus the quarterly benchmark reports or laborious exit tickets other teachers might rely on).

The data told teachers what types of problems a student encountered in the session and what scaffolds and supports he needed. Another teacher tracked students’ mastery of the multiplication lesson of the day to know who needed re-teaching during the intervention block.

Deep emphasis on knowing students — academically and beyond.

Despite the intentionality and organization of time, space and data at Hollister, it’s not a place that feels robotic or factory-like. In classroom after classroom, students raved about their teachers and classes and were excited about learning. One student, while logging into a standards-aligned math program, said under her breath: “I love this game.”

Later, another student described the culture as a community: “Here, collaboration is important and so is asking for help. It’s better to get questions wrong and learn from it than to not ask the question,” he said.

Hollister teachers knew their students’ interests, passions and goals, and integrated those into the classroom to support learning. After one student talked about his fascination with ancient Chinese dynasties, his teacher created a project where he could explore this topic in depth.

Supports to help teachers facilitate rigorous, personalized instruction.

Affording students rigorous learning while tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of 30 students is not a simple task.

So Hollister takes educator development very seriously. During a quarterly, day-long planning session, six teachers and an instructional coach closely reviewed data and exemplary work aligned to second-grade math standards; drafted an assessment to anchor the next quarter; and reviewed instructional materials such as PowerPoint slides, student projects and activities and online tools for graphing.

Not satisfied with off-the-shelf materials, teachers made tweaks tailored to their students’ interests and needs — without diluting the rigor of the content. To make this possible, the school invested in substitute teachers to fill in that day.

My visit to Hollister provided valuable insight to inform my research into what it takes to help students close learning gaps. The work at Hollister shows that there doesn’t have to be a debate between “rigor versus personalization.” Instead, it’s necessary — and possible — to facilitate both.

•••

Lauren Schwartze is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners in the Strategic Advising practice area and co-author of a new report on what it takes to help students close learning gaps.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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