September 29, 2017 Blog, Fund Program

A Personal Touch: Personalized Learning at Lee Elementary

Amidst the fresh herbs and leafy greens of Richard Henry Lee Elementary School’s learning garden is a big white sign that reads, “Lee is the place to be!” Principal Lisa Epstein has worked tirelessly over the last six years to make that statement a reality. When Lisa first came to Lee, she noticed that both teachers and students were feeling uninspired in the classroom. Today, Lisa says Lee has “a great culture, collaborative students and a collective growth environment.” How did she get students and teachers motivated? Lisa transformed Lee’s traditional learning models of the past to a personalized learning curricula of the future.

Lisa was first inspired to try personalized learning when she applied for the Summer Design Program’s Personalized Learning track through LEAP Innovations three years ago. “I saw that students were not motivated in class and teachers were anchored to traditional teaching models,” Lisa said. After realizing that changing the classroom environment might revitalize both student and teacher, Lisa began researching ways to update instructional models.

Two years ago, Lee partnered with LEAP Innovations to begin a pilot program for the eighth grade. Students were paired with a teacher mentor to set goals and guide their learning though “playlists.” Learning “playlists” included must-do topics but incorporated a lot of student choice based on individual needs and interests. “Once you really understand the students, listen to their needs and bring learning to life, they became super motivated and started taking ownership over their own learning,” Lisa said. After the first pilot year, one student shared his experience with Lisa saying, “I never believed in school, and I always thought I was a failure, but after getting to work at my own pace on something I like, now I know school is for me.”

This year Lee is partnering with Summit Learning in California and the Institute for Personalized Learning in Wisconsin, to expand this program to fifth, sixth and seventh grade classrooms. In the next few years, Lisa hopes to transition the whole school into a personalized learning school. “This really requires a lot of professional development to change teaching styles and practice. People really need to understand the benefits of personalized learning,” Lisa said. Though this change is daunting for some, Lisa knows that it is ultimately what is best for students.

Lisa is also replicating this personalized learning model at the teacher level. “When I first got here, my number one objective was to build relationships with the teachers, understand their needs and understand their vision for the school,” Lisa said. She noticed that teachers wanted differentiated professional development and opportunities for self-guided growth. Lisa created several teacher teams that functioned like professional learning communities, and over the years they have grown to incorporate more teacher voice and interest.

Lisa is a 2017-18 Fellow in the Cahn Fellowship Program. During the 2017-18 school year, she will be expanding on her goal to turn Lee into a fully personalized learning school. She is excited to fine-tune structures for teachers to build personal relationships with their students and to watch her student flourish in the classroom.