Marsh Prep Academy’s award-winning theater performers: Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

Marsh Prep Academy’s award-winning theater performers: Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

If you were looking for the traditional students-in-desks, teacher-giving-lecture set-up, you wouldn’t have found it in Marsh English teacher Isaac Freeman’s classroom last year, says principal Nicky Niewinski.

“When you walked into his classroom, you really didn’t know where he was because kids were doing different things on computers, or on the floor working on a collaborative project,” she says.

“When we first announced we received the personalized learning grant, we had several phone calls at the front office asking, ‘What’s the process for sending my student to Marsh?’’
That’s the beauty of personalized learning, an education strategy Marsh will launch this year with its incoming sixth-graders. Her team was one of 36 chosen by the district in its initial call for choice school applications, which eventually were winnowed down to just six schools. As part of its selection, Marsh is receiving its share of the $2.6 million Gates Foundation grants, doled out to the Dallas ISD campuses on top of their general budgets.

Marsh piloted the program last year with a few teachers, who converted their classrooms into “station rotations,” Niewinski says. Freeman, for example, created a menu list of learning items each student needed to complete, and students could make choices about what activities they did, books they read, research, etc. He would check in with them along the way to make sure they would finish final projects on time.

It makes the learning process “highly interactive” and the students self-motivated, Niewinski says. Freeman called it “own your learning,” and when she walked into classrooms and questioned the students, that’s exactly what she found.

“The kids were able to explain it to you in a much deeper way than they had before,” Niewinski says. “Whereas when you have a teacher in front of the room talking to a class of 30, you may or may not get that from an individual student because not everyone is able to keep pace with the teacher.”

Lisa Smith, who has a incoming Marsh sixth-grader, says she lauded this to another family trying to decide between Marsh and private school for their child, who struggles with learning differences.

“This is going to make it so that every kid who learns differently — and we all know every kid learns differently — your kid who used to be singled out isn’t going to look different anymore,” Smith says.

Smith also is the talented and gifted teacher at Dallas ISD’s Foster Elementary. Elementary parents are always nervous about middle school, she says, and the prospect of a “personalized learning” campus may create one more unknown. She emphasizes, however, that “these kids aren’t guinea pigs,” participating in an untested methodology.

“The entire education system in the country and in Dallas is changing,” Smith says. “When you think about the world we live in, there aren’t many workplaces anymore that everybody gets the same thing to do.”

With Marsh’s new personalized learning approach, she says, “It won’t be the entire classroom sitting in desks, staring at a teacher.”

She also appreciates that Niewinski breaks down each space on campus, assigning certain floors and even stairwells to certain grades. “She doesn’t, I think, do that so much for the kids as she does for the parents,” Smith says.

Middle school is “such a volatile time,” she says. “You don’t have the control you did when they are little, and they don’t want you involved as much. Parents just don’t really necessarily know their own kid anymore because from minute to minute, they’re different people.”

Niewinski recognizes this, too.

“I feel like middle school is kind of the missing link for us in education,” she says. Schools tend to focus on graduating students, “which is important,” she says, “but in middle school, we have to address the social and emotional needs as well as academic needs. They’re going through so many changes personally, as well as with their learning, so we’re trying to address both.”

To that end, Marsh also is rolling out a school-wide focus on “habits of mind,” which Niewinski describes as “scholar skills,” giving students really clear expectations of what it means to do one’s best or to be persistent. Part of this effort includes a partnership with local nonprofit Momentous Institute, which specializes in training educators to rebuild students’ social and emotional health. The institute will teach Marsh’s teachers about the developmental changes that affect their students’ brain and learning.

All of these efforts combined equal “excitement from parents and kids,” Niewinski says.

“When we first announced we received the personalized learning grant, we had several phone calls at the front office asking, ‘What’s the process for sending my student to Marsh?’ ” she says.

That’s the great thing about Dallas ISD’s choice school model, she says: Anyone zoned to Marsh is automatically in, and anyone wanting to be part of a personalized learning campus can submit a transfer form.

“We’re still a home school,” Niewinski says. “There’s no weeding out process, no test to take.”

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