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Finding New Ways for Everyone to Learn

May. 15, 2019
Three elementary school students wear costumes of historical figures.

As a group of second graders at High Tech Elementary learns about famous figures from the past, they’re also developing personalized learning strategies to prepare them for future academic success.

Personalized learning is a way for students to learn educational strategies that work best for them. This helps students and can even encourage them to take agency over their own learning. One student was so inspired by the project that he continued to research his chosen subject (Abraham Lincoln) during recess. The student wanted to bring a level of authenticity to his project and even learned what Lincoln had in his pockets during his ill-fated trip to Ford Theater.

High Tech is supported by the Diverse Learners team, who work with students in special education as well as English Language Learners; the team also works with teachers throughout the school to provide support in personalized learning.

“We all learn differently because learning is a spectrum,” said Dustin King, team lead and special education teacher. “There’s a misconception that it’s letting students do whatever they want, but it’s about autonomy and high academic standards.”

“We try to give our students a level of choice as they’re learning, because they’re more likely to be engaged and excited,” explained Megan West, a member of the Diverse Learners team who also teaches special education. West, who works with students in first and second grade, explained that younger students may not be given as much autonomy as older students, but having choices at an early age helps develop valuable social-emotional skills.

“There are so many ways to learn about something, and we want students to learn what ways work best for them. It might be a video, library books or articles. When they have that choice, they feel a sense of ownership of their learning. We had a student become so passionate about this project that they spent recess continuing to research the subject of their presentation. That was incredible to see.”

As the students worked on their biographies, the Diverse Learners team worked with second-grade teachers to identify ways to ensure every student could be successful with their project. Whether it was providing time to rehearse for students with anxiety, giving sentence stems to jump-start writing, or providing a note-catcher to help guide research, these strategies helped students across all ability levels.

Allison Valvo is another team member who works with third-graders in special education. “We have some students who use the speech-to-text function in Google to write their papers because that’s what will help them engage with this information successfully.”

“When you learn these skills at a younger age, you’re going to be more successful,” said Kara Swierczynski, another member of the Diverse Learners team. “Many of our students in special education aren’t struggling academically, but they’re missing the skills they need to be their best selves.”

Dr. Amy Gile, the school leader of High Tech Elementary, has a background in special education and opened the school with a focus on inclusion and personalized learning, focusing on hiring staff members who support that vision.

“This work isn’t easy,” said Dr. Gile. “Inclusion and personalized learning takes time. Building relationships takes time. But helping students be their best selves means more than teaching them about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. It means helping them see themselves as resilient, productive, intelligent people who can accomplish anything with the tools they need.”

Superintendent Susana Cordova’s plan for leading DPS toward a streamlined focus on Equity, Instructional Excellence and Collaborative Teamwork includes the goal of identifying the skills and supports teachers need to provide instructional excellence through approaches like inclusion and personalized learning. Learn more at