A Maine School District’s Approach To Personalized Learning

By Jesse Moyer

Schools have always done their best to help every student succeed. But Bill Zima first realized the system wasn’t working for all learners when he was a middle school science teacher.

He randomly sorted students into lab groups at the beginning of the school year. At one table, there was a student who scored perfectly on the state test four years in a row. Sitting across the table from him was a student who just read the Foot Book to his younger brother, which was cognitively a huge success for him as well.

Thinking about these two students at the same table made him realize that education isn’t working for all kids, and he began looking for tools to help him personalize learning for his students.

Today, Bill works as the superintendent for Regional School Unit 2 (RSU-2) in Hallowell, Maine, where the entire district envisions a “system of student-centered learning.” Specifically, the district has implemented a proficiency-based system (also sometimes called mastery, performance or competency-based education).

Through the implementation, RSU-2’s experiences and lessons learned have been consistent with that of other districts my organization Knowledgeworks has worked with across the country. Effectively scaling personalized learning approaches like competency-based education requires focused attention on vision, culture and transparency.

When districts are considering personalized learning, we ask them to reflect on their own vision, culture and transparency. I asked Bill for his insight on these three themes, and these are the answers he shared.

1. Does your district have a common vision for what it wants to provide students? Are decisions aligned to making this future a reality?

In the 2010-11 school year, RSU-2 leaders gathered stakeholders to discuss what a local high school graduate should look like and how the district can support that. The group developed a community-wide vision for learning: RSU-2 is a system of student-centered learning.

While the district has re-evaluated and adapted the vision, it ultimately stays the same. The district and school staff consistently turn to the vision to ensure they’re headed in the right direction–sometimes it’s just nice to remind yourself of a bigger purpose. It gives you the ability to come up, catch your breath and then dive back into the work.

A district-wide vision also creates space for teacher agency and ownership, while providing an aligned goal toward which to work. Additionally, I recommend districts revisit their vision regularly to keep it in the forefront.

Vision isn’t something you put up on a plaque. It really needs to be revisited and thought about and talked about. Is what we’re doing aligned to our vision? If not, do we need to readjust the how or why to make sure everything is aligned?

2. How does your district provide a supportive environment for students and educators? Do they feel empowered to take risks and learn from each other?

When visiting RSU-2, the culture is obvious. Students are engaged with and excited about learning; educators are passionate about their jobs. Culture is a crucial component to what makes RSU-2 unique.

I always say culture is not part of the game–it is the game. Everything that happens throughout the district is either a result of or impact of the culture. For RSU-2, the culture is participatory and collaborative–not only for students but also for staff. Learning is appreciated and expected at all levels, extending from students to adults in every building.

Student and teacher agency is crucial. Agency allows for people to develop their path forward. Creating that kind of culture isn’t easy, but it’s so important. And it’s also important that culture plays a part throughout the district. It permeates every school building, each library, all offices and every classroom.

Administrators need to allow teachers the flexibility and autonomy to create culture. And the teachers need to allow students the flexibility and autonomy in their learning. The culture has to exist in the classroom, in the building and in the district.

3. How are you open and transparent with students, parents and community members?

When I was a middle school science teacher, my team sat down to examine the entire science curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade. As we laid out the lessons, we realized students learned about fossils and butterflies five or six times. But meiosis, mitosis and cellular division were only taught once in eighth grade.

It was such an eye-opening experience as we really needed to be building on each other. Transparency helps teachers know exactly what students are learning so we can keep building on knowledge. That ability to share and know where kids are requires transparency.

Transparency focuses on ensuring all kids, parents and teachers know what the learning expectations are, where students have been, where they are now and where they need to go. In classrooms throughout our district, there are curriculum charts and student binders so learners can easily track their progress.

The student sees it. The parent sees it. The teacher sees it. That’s powerful.


When districts focus on vision, culture and transparency, they are more prepared to help personalize learning for each student. However, through KnowledgeWorks’ research with districts across the country, it’s apparent that local operational practices can often create roadblocks to systems change.

To help districts learn more, we recently launched a four-question self-assessment asking questions about operational areas that enable the district’s ability to scale personalized learning. It also provides areas where districts could benefit from additional focus.

By thinking strategically about these areas, districts will be ready to help all students succeed.

For more, see:

Jesse Moyer is the Senior Director of School Development at Knowledgeworks. Follow them on Twitter: @knowledgeworks

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