Podcast: Rebecca Midles on Mobilizing Change to Meet Learners Where They Are

Rebecca Midles leads the school systems design team for Getting Smart. She works with districts and networks nationally to develop transformation initiatives. She’s a nationally recognized expert in competency-based systems having kickstarted efforts in four states. 

Midles grew up in Washington and headed north to Alaska to make a difference. A presentation from the now famous Chugach School District inspired her to get a teaching degree. She co-founded Highland Tech High in a converted Anchorage grocery store, another early competency-based initiative. She was the lead trainer for Reinventing Schools Coalition (now part of Marzano Research) and shared competency strategies with 15 other districts in Alaska and then more broadly. 

Lindsay USD leaders Tom Rooney (@TomTrooney) and Virgil Hammonds (now KnowledgeWorks) visited Chugach and Highland to learn the Alaskan secrets to competency education. When they applied for a Race to the Top grant, they knew they needed someone like Rebecca to lead the effort. She moved to the Central Valley district to help mobilize the change effort (see feature and podcast).

Former Mesa County Colorado (@district51) superintendent Steve Schwartz (below) visited Lindsay to learn more about mounting a change effort that would meet every student at their level every day. He convinced Midles to move to Grand Junction to lead the effort. Rebecca spent four years helping Schwartz and now Diana Sirko mobilize pilot schools and lay the groundwork for broader change. 

In Grand Junction, they held community conversations to develop a graduate profile and built a shared vision of powerful learning. They build a framework for modern schools and invited schools to grow into that framework giving teams the dynamic support they needed. 

For elementary learners, Midles hopes they feel safe, valued, supported, and have some voice and choice in the day, to know what they’re learning and why, and to engage in contextual, sequential, productive struggle. 

Midles encourages high school learners to “Pursue something you don’t know.” She thinks schools should foster agency by enabling student choices. A dashboard of progress can help students know where they are, what their strengths are and what they still need to master.  

She thinks school visits are important learning experiences that can kickstart school and district transformation initiatives. 

Midles notes that in the best case (like classroom learning), district transformation work will include productive struggle. Hosting community conversations can build support to persevere 

To discuss your transformation initiative, contact her at [email protected]

Key Takeaways:
[:47] When did Rebecca decide that she wanted to become a teacher?
[3:58] When did Rebecca finish her Master’s? What work did she do after that?
[5:28] Rebecca tells the formation story of Highlander.
[8:02] How did Rebecca get from Highlander in Alaska to Lindsay Unified in California?
[11:50] How many years was Rebecca with Lindsay Unified for? And what were some of the major takeaways she learned from working there?
[13:02] Tom speaks about Lindsay and some of the incredible changes they have helped create there for learners.
[14:47] What were some of the changes that Rebecca saw when she visited Lindsay again?
[16:26] What attracted Rebecca to work at Mesa Valley Country School District 51 after Lindsay?
[19:32] Did Rebecca see similar efforts at D51 to that of Tom’s work in Lindsay?
[23:03] Rebecca gives her vision of what powerful learning looks like and what she would like to see a week of school looking like for her own children.
[24:22] When Rebecca thinks of high school students, what would she hope to see school looking like for them?
[27:44] What should educators be doing to build their knowledge, skills, and disposition for the work ahead?
[30:24] Tom and Rebecca discuss keys to transforming schools and systems.

Mentioned in This Episode:

Rebecca Midles (LinkedIn)
Mesa Valley County School District 51
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Highland Academy Charter School (Highlander)
Quality Schools International (QSI)
Lindsay Unified School District
Virgel Hammonds — KnowledgeWorks
Washington Elementary (Lindsay Unified School District)

For more, see:

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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