Podcast: Tom Rooney and Scott Rowe: Buildings are Closed, Learning Goes On!

We spoke with Tom Rooney (@TomTrooney) superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District (@Lindsay_USD) and Scott Rowe (@ScottRowe158) Superintendent of the Huntley Community School District 158 (@Dist158) about their successful transition to remote learning. 

While buildings are closed in both districts, learning goes on! Lessons from the two leaders include:

  • Be proactive in crisis, do the best you can for every learner–right now
  • Support the leadership of your team, empower them to problem solve and iterate
  • Bundle challenges and build solutions to ensure equity 
  • Support personalized teacher learning to support student learning 

Lindsay Leverages Learner Agency 

The Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley serves a larger percentage of low-income Hispanic learners with a learner-centered system that allowed them to move quickly and efficiently to an online learning environment. The four key elements of the Lindsay system are 

  • Learner agency: structures and systems that enable learners to take ownership of learning. 
  • Transparency: Make all of the required learning transparent–academic content as well as lifelong learning. Make clear what mastery looks like so they can go after it.  
  • Personalized goal setting:  Tracking and monitoring.  
  • Blended: leveraging a learning platform to promote personalized learning with learning facilitator interventions where most valuable.
  • Personalized professional learning: like Lindsay learners, the staff benefits from personalized and competency-based learning experiences. 

The decision to close schools in California was a local one, although when they made the decision, Rooney thought it would be two or three weeks including spring break. On March 17 (a week before recording) they learned that they would probably be closed through summer. “That day Linday Unified went into a different mode of operation,” said Rooney. They knew they’d be responsible for months of learning. 

The Lindsay Strategic Design shifted quickly to a 24/7 remote model. In Lindsay, each learning as a take-home device and wi-fi access. They use a customized version of the Empower platform to share thousands of playlists in every area. “It prepared us to launch a guaranteed curriculum,” said Rooney. 

“For many learners, schools are a lifeline for learning, for food, for connections, for love and hope and opportunity–we wanted to make sure we don’t cut off that lifeline,” said Rooney.

“We shifted our message, schools didn’t close, facilities close, schools continued. We moved from being physically district to a virtual district,” explained Rooney. 

“When students left last Tuesday, everyone had a device, everyone had connectivity, everyone left with a personalized learning plan”. 

Rooney thinks this crisis will change the general perception of what’s possible. “All the naysayers pushing back on learner-centered models and the use of technology will change their mindsets because all learning will be virtual for months.”  

“It worked, it’s possible,” said Rooney. “We’ll forever have the option of virtual learning.”

For more on Lindsay Unified see

Huntley Community School District

The Huntley journey to personalized learning started in 2011, when Scott Rowe was the high school principal, with blended learning courses that allowed students to attend 2-3 days a week and work online the other days. This year 2,600 of the 3,000 students were taking at least one blended learning course. 

“We’re trying to create a community college feel with time management with safety nets,” said Rowe. “When they own their learning and meet our standards, attendance becomes as needed.”  

Huntley HS learning spaceBecause Huntely was growing so fast, they received some construction funding from the state. That allowed them to convert a gymnasium into a learning hub (above)—a combination library, study hall and project center. With the adjacent cafeteria, there are always 500-800 students learning in these common spaces.  

Huntley High is two years into a competency pilot. The Vanguard Vision academy serves about 100 freshman and 100 sophomores. Students are finding even deeper connections with teachers said Rowe. They have found that time management is key and keeping struggling students on pace is the big challenge. 

When the governor closed schools, Huntley middle and high school continued “business as usual,” said Rowe. Teachers are able to push out assignments on Powerschool.  

Teachers are working on volume parameters,  they are planning about 20-30 of work per class period. “Don’t try to replicate the day, focus on outcomes not seat time,” said Rowe. 

On the shift to remote learning, Rowe said his system has realized “We can do it differently, this awful event will be catalyst for change for the public school system.” 

“Students don’t need to be in the building for seven hours relying on teachers to be source of all information,” concluded Rowe. “We can get rid of schedules and focus on outcomes.” 

For more on Huntley see

Key Takeaways:
[1:27] Tom gives an overview of the core elements of Lindsay Unified.
[3:02] Tom Vander Ark shares an experience of his at Lindsay Unified.
[3:34] Tom Rooney highlights a few more key components of Lindsay Unified’s personalized learning.
[5:19] Tom shares how Lindsay Unified is continuing to teach students since their schools closed their doors.
[10:45] Tom shares the core elements of what is different between elementary and secondary.
[14:14] Tom shares how they’re working towards assisting students with special needs and learning differences.
[16:19] What they’re doing at Lindsay Unified to keep seniors on track.
[17:39] How Tom thinks this experience is going to change Lindsay and learning more broadly.
[22:04] Tom Vander Ark thanks Tom Rooney for his leadership and for joining the podcast.
[22:25] Jessica highlights some other episodes to check out about Lindsay Unified!
[22:41] About this episode’s next featured guest, Scott Rowe.
[23:15] Tom welcomes Scott Rowe on to the podcast!
[23:37] Scott describes what personalized learning looks like at Huntley.
[25:18] Scott further describes their earned autonomy model.
[26:02] How Huntley converted their gymnasium into a cool learning hub.
[27:58] Scott speaks about the competency pilot they recently launched at Huntley.
[30:57] Is pacing a big challenge at Huntley?
[32:30] How have things changed for Huntley when the Governor closed all of the schools?
[34:30] How things are currently going in the elementary vs. the secondary level.
[40:24] What Huntley is doing for students with special needs and learning differences.
[43:47] Scott shares how Huntley is helping juniors and seniors stay on track for post-secondary planning.
[45:09] How Scott thinks this experience may change Huntley as well as learning more broadly.[47:31] Tom thanks Scott Rowe for his leadership and for joining the podcast as well!

Mentioned in This Episode:
Lindsay Unified School District
Getting Smart Ep. 176: “Schools Out: Lessons Learned from Lindsay Unified School District”
Getting Smart Ep. 205: “Rebecca Midles on Mobilizing Change to Meet Learners Where They Are”
Huntley Community School District
iNACOL (now called the Aurora Institute)
Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling, by Rose L. Colby
PowerSchool Learning

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Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

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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