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Everyone Graduates

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Everyone Graduates

By moving to a performance-based model and giving students a choice in how they learn, this rural Kentucky district has eliminated dropouts for the last six years. By Charles Higdon

Taylor County is a rural community in central Kentucky. We have three schools serving approximately 2,900 students—60 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

We don’t fit the typical profile of a poor, rural school district, though: We haven’t had a single student drop out of school in more than six years, and in the last two years we’ve seen a 100-percent graduation rate.

We’ve achieved this success by embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

In Taylor County, we have moved to an entirely performance-based model in which students are placed in classes based not on their age, but their ability. What’s more, we no longer require seat time for students to advance.

While other schools in the state require 176 school days to get through the curriculum, we operate differently. Our students work through the curriculum at their own pace, and when they are ready to move on, they can—provided they can demonstrate proficiency on an exit exam.

To operate in this way, we have received special approval from the state. We’re one of the first five districts in Kentucky to be designated as a District of Innovation.

Three years ago, the Kentucky Department of Education invited districts to apply for this status, which gives those chosen more flexibility to be creative in their approach to educating students. There are now roughly a dozen Districts of Innovation across the state.

When we applied for this status, we had to submit a plan describing what we intended to do that would be innovative. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply, and in return, we were granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.

We also give students a choice in how they learn, because one size definitely does not fit all. We have implemented a “wagon wheel” approach, which places the students at the center, surrounded by six spokes, each of which represents a different way of learning.

Both our students and teachers choose which approach to instruction is right for them, and then we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.

Included in this model is a traditional approach, in which students come to class for 176 days and receive direct instruction from a teacher. Some students and teachers still prefer this method.

But we also offer five other, more innovative approaches, for those who want to learn in a different way.

Online learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courseware. We have created a virtual academy in which students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide. Since we’ve opened our virtual academy, many of our at-risk students are now actually moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace and graduating early.

Project-based learning: Students can learn the curriculum in the context of authentic, real-world projects. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories.

Self-paced learning: In this “flipped” approach to instruction, teachers record their lessons and students can watch these videos as often as they need in order to learn the material. Teachers serve as facilitators during class time to help students master the content.

Peer-led instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. For some students, it helps to hear an explanation of the content from one of their peers as opposed to a teacher.

Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan. They have an advisor, who oversees them to ensure they’re completing the objectives they need to and are pacing themselves correctly, but students can choose for themselves what subjects they will work on, and when. They can also learn off campus through internships.

Letting students learn at their own pace, and giving them a choice in how they will learn, empowers students to take control of their education—and we have seen this approach pay off.

As educators, we’re not here just to ensure that students score well on state exams; we’re here to educate students fully, and prepare them to succeed in college or a career. And we are doing that here in Taylor County.

Charles Higdon is assistant superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. He can be reached at charles.higdon@taylor.kyschools.us

Image: Media Bakery

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How do your scores correlate on a standardized test, and how do they perform when they leave for higher education?

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