Fresno is a city of a half a million people (twice that in the metro area) in the middle of California’s central valley. It’s a diverse city with large Hispanic and Hmong populations.

The Fresno Unified School District (@fresnounified) serves 75,000 students, of which almost nine in ten live in or near poverty, in about 100 schools.

Fresno has a well developed Personalized Learning Initiative (PLI, #FresnoPLI) developed by CTO Kurt Madden and Philip Neufeld, Executive Director of IT (featured image in front of the CART career center) in conjunction with the curriculum and instruction unit.  

The PLI goal is greater personalized, competency-based learning at and beyond the classroom. The initiative advances student-centered learning focused on #AsYetImagined futures with competencies, content mastery and agency. Neufeld said, “If the shift to digital changes student readiness then so should our models for student preparation.” PLI pedagogy is about high-quality instruction with the intentional use of technology, effective use of collaboration while honoring and activating student voice.

Building a Personalized Learning Initiative

Neufeld joined Fresno Unified in 2014, after a career in business and higher education. His dissertation explored student’s perceptions and experiences with a tablet initiative at Fresno State. It showed that teachers well-prepared to effectively use tech and collaboration within instructional design increased students active engagement. After joining Fresno, he began socializing the importance of effective, meaningful integration of technology within instruction to develop 21st-century skills and promote deeper learning.

In 2016 the board approved $4 million to improve access to technology. Madden and Chief Academic Officer Kim Mecum decided to pilot full class sets linked to professional learning. Neufeld and Ryan Coe developed the professional learning program with help from two teachers-on-special-assignment.

The program kicked off in the spring of 2016 with 220 teachers choosing to commit to instructional shifts and then 10 schools chose to accelerate their instructional shift (385 teachers in 2017-2018).

PLI expansion continued with 25 schools choosing to become partner sites and received enhanced access to technology, professional learning, and engage with Education Elements in an 18-month design and implementation process. The professional learning that comes with PLI embodies the intended student learning experience. Neufeld explained how “teachers must experience new instructional practices before they practice delivering such learning experiences”.

The Situatedness of Tech

The PLI leadership team joined Education Elements in classroom walks, teacher and student interviews, and conversations at 25 schools for the Site Readiness assessments. Neufeld said several interesting themes emerging. First, there is a big variation in teacher readiness within and across sites. Second, teacher readiness is improving as the enabling environment improves with digital curricula, Microsoft Teams for workflow management, and working IT infrastructure. Third, Neufeld sees more synergies with instructional models from International Baccalaureate to career and technical education.

It’s the situatedness of tech that matters said Neufeld–the full context of goals, learning models, infrastructure, and culture that contribute to usage and efficacy.

The PLI is based on accountable communities influenced by the work of Richard DuFour. PLI educators set norms, leverage student-by-student data, and learn by doing. PLI teachers have had up to 30 hours of professional learning and many more hours collaborating in their PLI community. They also receive training on Microsoft apps including Classroom, OneNote and Forms, along with additional support when they launched using the whole class device sets in their classrooms.

PLI builds on Fresno Unified’s capacity development partnership with Long Beach. The partnership grew into a broader improvement initiative called the CORE Districts including Garden Grove, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana. They developed an improvement and accountability system that provides data on student-level academic growth, high school readiness, students’ social-emotional skills and schools’ culture-climate, along with traditional measures of test scores, graduation rates and absenteeism.

Ready, Set, Go: Visiting Partner Schools

One of the PLI partner sites is Tehipite Middle School, a high challenge 7-8 school serving 500 students. Dave Peters is the second year principal. He is working hard on culture, expectations, and recruiting great staff members. He is pleased that neighborhood violence is down from last year.

Peters sees more collaboration between History and English this year and triple the computer use with more intentional focus on applications including Personal Math Trainer and Khan Academy.

Easterby Elementary (@EasterbyE) is another PLI partner site led by Pam Taylor (above).  “We’re working hard at being a professional learning community,” said Taylor. And that is across the Easterby campus and in the Sunnyside High region. Taylor appreciates the feeder pattern teamwork.

“PLI adds depth of understanding of standards,” said Pat Marino (below), a thoughtful 4th grade and a PLI leader. Working in a personal learning community, Marino and his colleagues are developing a student-centered model with “More choice for kids.”

“The students need me to stop suffocating learning,” said Marino. He added, “Me at the center of all learning in my classroom is not efficient,” but acknowledge that the blended and student-centered approach takes more planning to be clear about goals, strategies, and tools.

Marino sees “Kids become experts and helping other kids.” That allows him to spend more time with kids that need help.

PLI teachers use Microsoft Teams for their PLC and to manage classroom workflow. Marino also appreciates the assistive features of Office 365 (featured here).

Neufeld created a research partnership with Microsoft, HMH, and Digital Promise to analyze the impact of the PLI. The first report, published in June 2017, concluded the combination of technology and a clear pedagogical model, along with experiential professional development, has a strong impact on students’ learning outcomes. PLI contributed to social and emotional learning and improved results on ELA and math assessments. Strong results help build board and staff support to expand the initiative.

Fresno developed a data analytics partnership with Microsoft’s Education Customer Intelligence team. They built a comprehensive integrated data model (with anonymized personal identities) that enables the exploration of teaching practices. The model includes use streams from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Classroom, Forms, and Windows to analyze usage patterns. Microsoft data teams are helping the Fresno team understand how to use the data to impact learning outcomes.

Career Center for the New Economy

The Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) is career center shared by Fresno and Clovis. Housed in a former pump factory, CART opened in 2000. The flexible space featuring big double classrooms and labs supports dynamic programs including biotech, cybersecurity, game design, forensics, robotics, marketing and multimedia.

CART is a work environment and culture. Professional dress is required two days a week.

Serving 12 high schools, there is a morning shift with about 800 students, about 600 students come in the afternoon.

In each of the 16 programs, students engage in project-based learning with real-world connections. Public products are showcased twice a year.

The Environmental Studies and Field Research team–Staci Bynum, Ashley Howell, Steve Wilson (above)–lead hands-on science including growing native plants, restoring native wildlife habitats, studying tide pools, rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife species, and monitoring forests and snowpack.

CART, like Fresno Personalized Learning Initiative, is expanding access to powerful learning for Central Valley students.

For more, see:

This post was originally published on Forbes.


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