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Professional Opinion

Personalized learning turns struggling schools around

New approach energizes teachers and students after period of low performance in education
Linda Mulvey is chief academic officer, Nate Franz is assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Syracuse City School District and Manami Tezuka is supervisor of library media services.
Linda Mulvey is chief academic officer, Nate Franz is assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Syracuse City School District and Manami Tezuka is supervisor of library media services.

The Syracuse City School District serves more than 20,000 students across 34 schools, most of which have been classified by the New York State Education Department as either “priority” or “focus” schools.

These schools have the overall lowest student academic performance on state assessments, persistently low graduation rates, and had shown little improvement.

As educators, we strongly believe all people have a need and a desire to learn, but we were simply hitting a roadblock in our schools. We knew this was due in part to the way we were presenting information. Instead of it being student-driven, it was test-driven. The focus was on what students needed to know to pass the test.

Personalized learning seemed like the best way to address our needs, so in 2015 Syracuse began implementing the approach at 10 of our elementary, middle and K8 schools to improve academic outcomes and student engagement, as well as climate and culture.

Core four

Our goal was to create a classroom in which instruction, teaching and learning was closely tailored to the individual needs of our students. We leveraged digital content to do this, while making sure our teachers remained at the center of instruction.

The model we use focuses on Education Elements’ “core four” of personalized learning: targeted instruction, integrated digital content, data-driven decisions, and student reflection and ownership. We changed our classroom arrangement and instructional strategies to include:

  • Flexible grouping: Students are grouped by data and lesson objectives.
  • Station rotation: Students rotate through different learning stations upon teacher instruction.
  • Teacher-guided, small-group targeted instruction: This provides direct instruction, remediation or acceleration to six to eight students.
  • Digital content: Students use adaptive content on laptops or iPads. Data helps them set goals.
  • Collaborative station: Students work with peers to check work, partner on tasks related to the topic.

District doubts

The district’s board members initially questioned the impact of personalized learning, but after a series of “learning walks” they were impressed and excited about progress they had seen in just one month.

Chaos, which had stopped learning from happening in our classrooms, was replaced with engagement. And the state education department took notice. Grant Middle School, which had been on the state’s priority school list for 10 years, was removed from the list.

Teacher excitement

Personalized learning has also given our teachers a renewed excitement. They are intellectually engaged and noticing student progress. Station rotations allow for small-group time where they can give students targeted feedback.

Students also agreed that small-group time was their favorite because the teachers paid more attention to them. Student walk-outs and behavior issues have also decreased.

Our entire team worked hard to improve student performance through personalized learning and those efforts are paying off. By no means has it been an easy shift, but the success seen across the first wave has only led to more excitement for the future.

Wave two of our plan is to add 12 more schools to our effort this fall, and, by the end of wave three in the 2017-18 school year, all our schools will participate.

Personalized learning has been the solution to turning our struggling schools around, and we are confident it will help us continue on an upward trajectory for greater student achievement and positive outcomes in the years to come.


Linda Mulvey is chief academic officer, Manami Tezuka is supervisor of library media services and Nate Franz is assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Syracuse City School District.