How a Texas School District Took Personalized Learning From Vision to Reality

By: Vickie Vallet-McWilliams and Melissa Mccalla

Every parent wants their child to grow up to be healthy, happy, and successful. Research shows that 75% of parents expect their child to earn a college degree. In Pasadena Independent School District, just outside of Houston, Texas, we—like any community—want our young people to have access to the opportunities that a college degree unlocks. But in 2015, we found that only 27% of our students graduate from college within six years—a dismal statistic that was a wake-up call to everyone in our community.

We knew we had to do more to help our students achieve at higher levels and prepare them for the rigors of college. Part of it was academics—students need the knowledge and analytical skills to tackle more advanced coursework—but equally critical were the attitudes and behaviors that set them up for success. Research shows that these non-academic skills—such as the ability to plan out a project, collaborate effectively with peers, and persevere through a challenge—can be just as important as mastering academic content. We knew that had to change, so we looked for schools around the country that were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways. That’s when we found Summit Learning.

In the 2015-16 school year, we launched Connect Personalized Learning, which is grounded in Summit’s educational approach, including project-based learning, one-on-one mentoring, and an explicit focus on helping students develop self-direction skills. Connect is designed to help students become aware of what they are learning, why they are learning, and what learning practices work best for them, creating a stimulating experience that prepares students for college and a career.

Launching a new education initiative can be challenging unless everyone—including teachers, administrators, and parents—are on board. Fortunately, in Pasadena, we had already made some changes—like introducing one-to-one computers in classrooms—that prepared us to manage the process of change. In addition, these principles have helped us build support over the past three years.

 Start Small

We started small knowing how important it would be to iron out the inevitable wrinkles and to show progress before expanding. Although our vision is to offer Connect to all students in grades 4 and above, we started in just a few grades at three schools where teachers and principals were ready to make the shift to personalized learning. Teachers and principals were—and continue to be—the driving force behind the program. They participated in Summit trainings, worked closely with leaders from Summit, and gained the support and buy-in of our district leaders.


It is crucial to constantly communicate about the changes with the entire district community. For example, our teachers and school leaders work hard to clear up some parents’ misconceptions about personalized learning. When some parents voice concerns about how much time their children spend with technology, our educators explain that students in the program spend the majority of their time working with their teachers and classmates on hands-on projects. They also describe how these projects, along with one-on-one mentoring, help students develop key life skills that will help them succeed, such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Families can find a wealth of information about Connect through brochures, videos, and a dedicated website we created.

 Show Progress

We make it a priority to demonstrate the positive impact of personalized learning on students. Students in the Connect program made big gains on annual state tests in 2016, 2017 and 2018 outperforming their peers who weren’t in the program. On the 2016 state reading test, for example, 7th graders in the Connect program scored an average of 91 percent: 14 percentage points higher than their peers who weren’t in the program, and 25 percentage points higher than the 7th graders’ average on the test in the previous year. In addition, we saw attendance rates go up and discipline referrals go down.

 Listen to the Community

These improvements are important, but beyond the statistics, students, educators, and parents tell us how they have experienced firsthand the power of personalized learning. Students are more excited than ever to come to school and learn. Educators report that students are more engaged and demonstrating higher level thinking skills. Parents love having a more complete view of what their kids are doing in school, and they say they want their children to continue to have access to this type of learning throughout their education.

We’re responding to that demand by expanding our use of personalized learning throughout Pasadena. The program that started with three schools in 2015 now reaches more than 7,000 students in more than 30 schools across Pasadena. We plan to continue our expansion so that more students can experience the positive power of personalized learning throughout their education here in Pasadena. Our students love the personalized experience we have modeled, our parents want to see it continue to grow, and we as educators know it gives us the tools to prepare our students to succeed.

For more, see:

Melissa McCalla is the Executive Director of Innovation and Development in Pasadena Independent School District (PISD). Find her on Twitter at @melallen6770.

Vickie Vallet-McWilliams is the Director of Innovation and Development for Pasadena Independent School District. 

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment

John Smith

Wow. I appreciate it. It's really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.