In 2013, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools received a Next Generation Innovation grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that enabled them to explore different paths toward personalized learning in their schools. Recognizing that ownership and context were critical aspects of the work, CMS determined that the best avenue for success across diverse schools was in implementing a grassroots approach, grown organically and organized from the bottom-up. Each of the district’s 168 schools was invited to demonstrate interest in personalized learning, and an inaugural cohort of 15 schools began implementing personalized learning in 2014. Thirty-three schools joined the initiative in the following two years, with 14 more having been added for the 2017-2018 school year.
Case Study Schools
Grand Oak Elementary School, Ridge Road Middle School, and Newell Elementary School are three designated Personalized Learning Schools from the initial cohort. Each school is following its own path in their personalized learning (PL) journey—creating their own vision for their school and finding successes and challenges along the way. While each school is unique, they share common goals in personalizing learning for their students. All three seek to meet students where they are, guide them towards fulfilling their potential, and impart a sense of ownership of learning and efficacy in the process.
During the site visits, it became readily apparent that each school had a structure that aligned with the CMS vision for personalized learning: “Personalized Learning in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools aims to develop the whole child and empower them to take ownership of their learning by providing them with multiple pathways to demonstrate mastery learning in order to be successful and productive 21st century citizens in an ever-changing world.” This vision is grounded in the district’s four cornerstones of its personalized learning initiative: 1) whole child, 2) student ownership, 3) mastery learning, and 4) paces, playlists, and pathways. While the importance of district leadership and support was mentioned repeatedly in each school and was evident throughout the visits, it was obvious that CMS had fostered an environment in which the structure and approach in each school resulted from a bottom-up, distributed process of leadership that was guided and supported by the district.
The case study schools and CMS agree that the transition to personalized learning is a work in progress even after three years of implementation. Each school is at a different place in its transition, but each has also made significant progress toward their goals. While each of these schools has unique contexts, students, communities, administrators, and teachers, several themes emerged across the schools through the voices of the administrators, teachers, and students that relate closely to the CMS Cornerstones for personalized learning. These themes speak a bit more broadly to the essential conditions and supporting factors in all three of the schools that have served as catalysts for, enabled, or accelerated the transition to personalized learning.
- Developing a shared culture focused on learning for all students in which what might be seen as a failure elsewhere is seen as part of the growth process.
- Professional learning is embedded, protected, valued, and seen as ongoing.
- Teaching and learning are student-centered and student-driven.
- Focus on the whole child and social and emotional learning (SEL) in which achievement is one of several data points.
Based upon the experiences of CMS and specifically the three schools in this case study, the following recommendations emerged for schools transitioning or wanting to transition to personalized learning:
- Provide purposeful leadership and support from the district level.
- Consider and respect the complexity of PL.
- Invest in human capacity.
- Lead with culture, trust, and agency.
- Ensure learning is at the core.
The case study includes specific examples from each of the schools and perspectives and lessons learned directly from administrators, teachers, and students. The context, challenges, and opportunities are also presented for each theme and recommendation.