- Associated Press - Saturday, March 25, 2017

KINZERS, Pa. (AP) - Kate Stoltzfus wishes she could steal time. Anything to help in the Pequea Valley teacher’s dash to get 19 ninth-graders up to speed in basic algebra for a looming, high-stakes state test.

At the bell, with her fifth-period students filing into the bright, but windowless room, Stoltzfus took charge of this latest 52-minute chance to cram such concepts as linear equations and negative components into teenage craniums.

Energetic, with long brunette hair and a manner both brisk and approachable, Stoltzfus put the class through a brief paper-and-pencil review and then directed, “Laptops up.”

Each student opened a personal MacBook Air, a gateway to whiz-bang education software and a symbol of how tiny, off-the-beaten-path Pequea Valley School District has embraced a culture of reinventing school.

The way pupils are taught, take tests, even how long they spend in school - it’s all open to disruption under Pequea Valley’s version of personalized learning, one of the most talked about national trends in education today.

While the idea has defied a single, widely accepted definition, a key strategy is to tailor instruction according to each student’s interests, abilities and learning styles.

“Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning” is the inspiration for how Pequea Valley School District is reinventing school.

Within this movement, Pequea Valley is gaining recognition for its particularly zealous approach called mass customized learning.

“These last four or five years I get up with purpose because we’re trying to challenge the status quo,” said Erik Orndorff, who as Pequea Valley’s superintendent oversees four schools and 116 teachers serving 1,610 students drawn from 81 square miles of picturesque Amish heartland.

Under Orndorff’s direction - one the school board strongly backs - even the lingo is getting a makeover.

Teachers at Pequea Valley, for example, are now called “learning facilitators.”

They facilitate, not students, but “learners.”

“Learners” prepare for their “first choice” occupation.

The nine-month school year, grade levels and other vestiges of traditional school are considered “weight-bearing walls” interfering with learners progressing at their own pace.

Most importantly, facilitators aren’t all-knowing “sages on the stage” pontificating as kids scribble notes. Instead, they are “guides on the side” empowering learners to seek information on their own, collaborate in groups and figure out things for themselves - skills the district views as critical for success in evolving workplaces.

“We understand that education has to change,” said Tim Hess, who for 13 years has taught tech-ed at Pequea Valley and embraces the leadership’s new vision. “I think most of the staff does have a sense of pride that we’re doing something different.”

Not just different, they hope, but better. The district can point particularly to a jump in high school achievement test scores.

Work in progress

“Inevitable,” a folksy, self-published paperback that came out in 2010, has crystallized the district’s thinking.

The authors, education consultants Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey, slam the “assembly line learning” of the last century and advocate for technology-infused, individualized instruction they say creates self-directed, lifelong learners.

“Educational professionals have known what needs to be done for a long time,” they write, “but were stuck in a group-paced paradigm” without having the tools for escaping it.

“But now we do,” they say.

At Pequea Valley, mass customized learning is less a set of specific, all-purpose strategies than an over-arching vision.

“The world is a different place. Education has to change,” said Bryant Ferris, a Morgan Stanley branch manager and the school board president since 2008. “We challenge the administration, ‘What’s the next thing we need to do to stay in front of this?’”

While Pequea Valley doesn’t pretend to have everything figured out, other school districts are taking note of what it is already doing. About 180 educators from around the state, including 11 state Education Department bureaucrats, gathered at the Lancaster Host Resort one day last October for presentations and tours of Pequea Valley schools.

Lots of outside educators have also come in recent years to see what is happening.

The curiosity doesn’t surprise Nadine Larkin, assistant to the superintendent at Eastern Lancaster County School District. She considers Pequea Valley ahead of the curve in seeking to remake school to fit the needs of the 21st-century.

“We’re looking, too, but we’re two steps behind them,” she said.

“A better product”

Orndorff, Pequea Valley’s down-to-earth superintendent who once prowled the sidelines on fall Friday nights as head football coach, has a telling story about what got him headed down the path of reinventing school.

One sought a morning-only class schedule for a promising gymnast who spent four hours a day in training. The other wanted their homeschooled child to participate in the high school’s chorus and band.

Orndorff told both families he couldn’t accommodate their requests. The result: the gymnast enrolled in a cyber charter school that cost the district $9,500 a year.

“So that started the thinking,” Orndorff said. “What can we do to be a better product for our kids?”

A key prerequisite was already in place. The district in 2008 had started phasing in an initiative, known in education circles as one-to-one, that placed a mobile computer device in the hands of every student.

Leveling the playing field for the half of the district’s students who come from economically disadvantaged families was a big reason for buying devices for all students, Ashley Heagy, technology director, said.

By 2012, each elementary student had a personal iPad that stayed in the classroom. And students from fifth grade on up had a laptop for use in school and home.

Those tools opened the door to new thinking about how to personalize instruction. Doing so was the natural next step, and many teachers became enthused, Heagy said.

“For us to be able to move into changing culture and getting buy-in, we couldn’t have timed it any better,” she said. “It was like igniting a fire.”

Empowering faculty

One can enter almost any classroom at Pequea Valley to see some aspect of the district’s new approach in action.

Some facilitators create hybrid courses in which learners spend parts of each class listening to a lecture, working on a computer and collaborating with a group of classmates.

At least one facilitator favors a “flipped” classroom in which learners watch online lectures for homework and come to class prepared to practice the concepts under the facilitator’s guidance.

Even summertime has a businesslike feel with nearly 200 learners taking personal finance or other online courses to free up their schedule during the school year for electives or internships.

“A big part of why I was able to take (advanced placement statistics) my junior year is because I took honors geometry online during the summer before my sophomore year,” said Devin Zhang, 16, a junior. “That accelerated my learning.”

“They don’t just wake up, come to school, teach boring classes and leave. They really want the students to be engaged and constantly learn.” (tilde) Cole Nordhoff, student

Cole Nordhoff, 17, also a junior, likes the change. He said he thinks teachers - he’s still rusty on the lingo - are, for the most part, making school interesting and relevant.

“They don’t just wake up, come to school, teach boring classes and leave,” Nordhoff said. “They really want the students to be engaged and constantly learn.”

Facilitators say they don’t feel pressured to change their ways. Rather, they feel encouraged by tech staff, colleagues and administrators to try new ideas and adopt what works for them.

Administrators have set the vision and said, “‘You run with it,’” said Abbie Houck, math department chair, “which I think is empowering to the rest of us.”

“I’m not where I want to be,” said Bliss Strauss, who teaches geometry through ability groupings. She recognizes she lectures more than she would like.

“I’m working on it,” she said.

Ability-based groups

Ten-year-old Abby Tillman is a Salisbury Elementary School fifth-grader, but a chunk of her day is spent with sixth-graders because facilitators believe she’s capable of learning at their level.

The multi-age groupings for math and English instruction happened only because the school’s two fifth-grade and two sixth-grade facilitators decided to propose a change after becoming concerned that traditional class groupings weren’t effective enough. They recognized the need last year when they had two fifth-graders doing math at a seventh-grade level.

The facilitators brainstormed and came up with the idea of splitting Salisbury’s 92 fifth- and sixth-graders into six ability-based groups for math and English.

They pitched their idea, and administrators last summer gave the go-ahead even though the change required a major reshuffling of teachers’ schedules.

Abby’s mother, Becky Tillman, said she’s glad the change allows her daughter and other kids “the freedom to grow and learn at their own pace.”

Facilitator Rachel Lewis, who teaches the math group that Abby is in, thinks ability grouping is proving its worth.

“I feel like we get through so much more content than I would be able to if I was constantly worrying about going too fast,” Lewis said.

Abby’s group, in fact, is almost two units ahead of the pace Lewis was able to set last year.

As a result, Lewis said, she was planning to teach a more time-consuming, hands-on unit in which learners will wield hammers to build wooden planter boxes.

Even though each learner will calculate the perimeter, area and volume of his or her particular box as well as the cost of supplies and sales tax, math may almost seem beside the point to kids eager to sink nails.

“They’re so excited about it,” Lewis said, not the least because they get to take their handiwork home.

Math applications

Finding practical applications for abstract math concepts is what spacious, specially equipped Room 7 in the high school is all about.

The challenge on a Friday morning last month for partners Blake Spoo, 15, and Reuben Stoltzfus, 14, was to build the slowest battery-powered Lego car possible.

How slow?

“I think the record was an eighth-inch in a minute,” Stoltzfus said.

The boys relished the assignment, part of the STEM curriculum (short for science, technology, engineering and math) that Pequea Valley has crafted to engage all freshmen and advanced eighth-graders in the realm of real-world math.

STEM at Pequea Valley is not just a high school thing. Every elementary learner has STEM as a special weekly class, just like art and music.

But the freshman STEM course has a specific purpose.

Math, physics and tech-ed facilitators came together in the summer of 2012 to design a course that brought to life the abstractions of algebra and better prepare learners for the state’s Keystone algebra exam.

It appears to be working. In 2012-13, the year before Pequea Valley started freshman STEM, 71 percent of its students scored proficient or advanced in the algebra exam. Last year, the percentage was 81.7 percent.

“It’s almost as if we’re hiding the math in the project,” said Hess, STEM department chair.

Spoo and Stoltzfus, for instance, weren’t just joining Legos. Part of the assignment was calculating gear ratios, an algebra concept on the Keystone exam.

“We’ll look at last year’s (Keystone) scores and say, ‘You know what? We were a little bit low on inequalities. Where can we fit in inequalities in a STEM project?’” said Houck, math department chair.

Pequea Valley wants better test scores, of course. But district leaders and faculty know how stifling a teach-to-the-test regimen can be, especially for students who learn by doing. But who wouldn’t be intrigued by trying to arrange gears so a toy car creeps like the hour hand on a clock?

“You’re reaching a whole new set of learners that traditionally would be turned off from math,” Hess said. At the same time, “they’re leaving STEM being better problem solvers and better at collaborating with peers.”

Before STEM, 15-year-old Blake said, he had no idea what kind of career to pursue. Now his eyes have been opened to engineering.

“It’s confusing and also fun,” he said.

Cloning herself

In Kate Stoltzfus’ classroom, 19 freshmen were leaning into laptops, fingers ready.

“Get ready. Get set. Go!” Stoltzfus said. The learners began a race through 12 multiple-choice algebra questions. It was an online practice quiz she customized.

An interactive whiteboard on the front wall kept a running tally of the scores. Each learner knew instantly whether an answer was right or wrong. Then it was on to the next problem. Cheers and groans punctuated the frantic exercise.

Three minutes later, it was over.

“Here’s the class results,” said Stoltzfus, eyeing the whiteboard. “So, ouch! Look at Question 12 and all those red blocks,” which indicated that most of the class had gotten it wrong.

Stoltzfus liked knowing instantly what she needed to reteach. The teens just liked the competition.

Addressing the entire class, Stoltzfus went over the question that had tripped up most of them.

Then she used the overall results to divide the class into three groups: one showing mastery of the concept, a second that could use more practice, and a third that was flat-out struggling.

Stoltzfus clustered each group in a different part of the room. She directed two groups to click on brief videos she had recorded at home the previous night, each video explaining a specific task.

“You can spot my Valentine roses in the background,” she told them.

Stoltzfus taught for 13 years at Lower Dauphin Middle School, east of Harrisburg. She could have stayed, she said, and been content.

But in 2015 she couldn’t resist the opportunity to plunge into the bracing waters of innovation at Pequea Valley.

It’s the technology, the school board’s willingness to reimburse her for online graduate courses that give her ideas for the classroom, and the sense that the district is really on to something.

“A lot of things we do with learning are stuck in the previous century,” she said. “So trying to break down some of those things appeals to me.”

On laptop after laptop, Stoltzfus’ face popped up as learners in two of the groups began their assignments. Meanwhile, Stoltzfus settled down with six learners who needed close attention, laptops closed.

“I’m never going to have the luxury of having multiple teachers in the classroom,” Stoltzfus said. But her classroom does have fast, reliable technology, and she considers that the next best thing.

“It’s a lot of work. Let me tell you,” she said. “But it helps me almost clone myself.”





Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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