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Using Gates money, Pinellas schools plan a shift toward 'personalized' learning

Lealman Intermediate, an alternative school in St. Petersburg, will reopen as Lealman Innovation Academy and accept districtwide applications for grades 6 through 12.
Lealman Intermediate, an alternative school in St. Petersburg, will reopen as Lealman Innovation Academy and accept districtwide applications for grades 6 through 12.
Published Dec. 21, 2014

The Pinellas school system is planning to restructure its classrooms to meet students' individual interests, beginning with a handful of secondary schools but eventually refiguring the entire district.

Called "personalized learning," the approach will take hold next fall in new programs at Northeast, Clearwater, Seminole and Pinellas Park high schools in an effort to engage students and graduate them at greater rates.

Lealman Intermediate, an alternative school in St. Petersburg, will reopen as Lealman Innovation Academy, a personalized-learning magnet, drawing applications districtwide for grades 6 through 12.

The goal, according to the Pinellas Innovates strategic plan, is to implement this learning approach at all district schools by 2030.

The district has secured about $560,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Next Gen Systems Initiative to train educators in what officials describe as a radically different teaching style. This month, the School Board approved a request for an additional $3 million from Gates to implement the grant.

"It's a different way of teaching and learning for students whom the traditional way of school isn't working for," said Jan Urbanski, director of special projects for Pinellas County Schools.

Under the personalized learning model, the classroom itself looks different, Urbanski said.

"Instead of rows of desks, there will be some students working on a project, while another group is on computers doing research, and another is in a mini-seminar with the teacher for additional help," she continued. "Rather than the teacher having all the information and giving it to the student, they're more in the role of facilitator, helping students to meet their goals."

True to the message, each school will execute the personalized-learning approach in a different way. Northeast High School is hoping to capture the 30 percent of its student body that isn't already in a career academy or intrinsically high-achieving.

"They're here because they need to be here, but the idea of going to seven disconnected courses doesn't appeal to them," said principal Kevin Hendrick.

These students will create their own "academies" not altogether different from college majors. For example, if a student had interest in managing a golf course, the school would steer him or her toward business classes, and connect the student with relevant internships and job shadowing opportunities.

The Northeast model will also emphasize AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, a program that steers students in the academic middle toward a four-year college.

"It will be an integrated approach where they're learning about what excites or interests them while learning academics," Hendrick said.

So integrated, in fact, that on some campuses two subjects will be taught at once. The re-imagined Lealman plans to offer science and language arts at the same time, with two teachers present, principal Busara Pitts said.

Unlike the high schools, which will continue to serve their neighborhoods, Lealman will draw students countywide during the district's application period. (Current Lealman students will be grandfathered in.)

To accommodate its expansion from 370 students to about 600, Lealman will build out its second floor and hire additional teachers.

At the start of the school year, administrators will develop a personal profile for each student, including an academic plan, a write-up on the student's learning style, and career suggestions based on his or her interests. Each Lealman student will receive a "goal manager" and adviser.

"We've known that all students can learn best if they have the opportunity to have more voice and choice in what they're learning," Pitts said. "We believe that if they have that opportunity, it will increase their engagement, and it will also increase their likelihood of being more successful."

Initial findings from ongoing studies on personalized learning approaches show that most students made more learning gains in math and reading than similar students in traditional classrooms, according to a report commissioned by the Gates Foundation.

The foundation also is active in Hillsborough County, which has a multiyear $100 million grant to develop a teacher evaluation system.

The focus is different in Pinellas, which last year had a graduation rate of 72 percent, higher than in years past but the lowest in the Tampa Bay area. Its 2013 graduation rate for African-American students, 56 percent, ranked Pinellas at the bottom of Florida's large districts.

But data released last week shows Pinellas is making progress, fast. New numbers from the Florida Department of Education put the district's 2014 graduation rate at 76 percent, with a much-improved 61 percent rate for its African-American students.

In both measures, Pinellas surpassed Hillsborough. Still, district and school officials say there are pockets of students they are missing.

On surveys given out in the fall of 2013, all responding teachers and principals said they had "the capacity for or interest in" personalized learning.

Of about 115 teachers spread across three schools, about 70 percent said they were interested in personalized learning but needed training on how to implement it.

Urbanski said most of the grant money will be used to train teachers and principals. They will likely take trips to observe personalized learning in other districts, she said.

Six districts across the country have received the Gates grant, including Lake County in Florida.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.