Kevin: In a recent survey of educators, 69% say that personalized learning will become more relevant to their work in the next few years. But what are the implications for curricula that is not based on teaching to the middle? How will teachers develop the skills they will need to instruct students in new ways? And how can we secure the resources needed to provide each and every student with a personalized learning journey? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Lindsay Unified School District Superintendent, Tom Rooney, to find out. Tom Rooney has led the transformation of the Lindsay Unified School District into a shining example of what personalized learning can accomplish. His learner-centered performance-based system yields a 98% graduation rate and enables 75% of his students to attend college right out of high school. And the system boasts this record despite the fact that 100% of his student body receives free and reduced lunch, and 53% of his students enter the system unable to speak English. These successes are credited to a personalized learning approach that is premised on the notion that people learn in different ways and in different timeframes. Tom Rooney is with us today to share how the Lindsay Unified School District has been able to act on this realization to the benefit of its entire learning community.
So, Tom Rooney, I'm so excited to have you on "What I Want to Know." This podcast deals with things that are important in education. And I think as I've told you that one of the great American success stories in education has been the turnaround associated with the Lindsay Unified School District in California. You've been involved in that effort the last 13 years, first as assistant sup, and now a superintendent, you're going on your 10th year. I remember you told me the story about your metamorphosis, your change. You know, recount the story about a man coming to you with his student who just graduated, and it was pretty graphic.
Tom: Before we started what's called now Lindsay's performance-based system. But before we started that model, we had a lot of people who were working hard, but the reality was and the facts were that it was failing far too many learners because the system move learners through when the school year ended, no matter if they learned or not. And so one kind of story that we kind of always reflect upon is a story of a learner who came in with his father. And at the time, we had a new principal at our high school. And it was a couple of days after graduation and the principal was kind of putting things away for the summer and the secretary comes in and says, "Mr. Gonzalez is here." And he goes, "Okay." And this is a new principal that had just started. And he said, "Well, who's Mr. Gonzalez? You know, I'm new. I don't really know who that is." And she goes, "Well, he's here with his son, Junior."
So he goes, "Okay, bring him in, bring him in." And the principal sits down, and his name is Virgel Hammonds. He's part of KnowledgeWorks, but he currently...he was the principal at Lindsay High School. And he sits down with this father and he says, "Tell me about... How are you? You know, how are you doing? You know, what can I do for you?" And he goes, "Well, you're the new principal, right?" And he goes, "Yes." And he goes, "Well, this is my son, Junior." He said, "Hey Junior, how are you, man?" "He just graduated from Lindsay High School." "Oh, awesome. So awesome, man. So what's the plan? How are you doing? I just wanna hear about your future." And the father looks over and he says, "Well, that's the problem, Mr. Hammonds?" He goes, "Well, what do you mean?" He goes, "He has a high school diploma." He goes, "Yes." He goes, "You know what, Mr. Hammonds? Can you give me that newspaper on the shelf right behind you?
And the principal grabs the newspaper, gives it to the father. The father puts the newspaper in front of his son, Junior. He says, "Junior, go ahead and read this. Read this article right here. You have a high school diploma from Lindsay High School. And this is the new principal. Go ahead, read this article for him." And after a moment of silence, Junior puts his face in his hands and he looks at his father and he says, "Dad, you know I don't know how to read."
Kevin: Related in that story, kids were just pushed through even if they didn't grasp what...even if they didn't learn. But I was struck by when you began the change, it wasn't like a blue-ribbon task force appointed by the governor or you. What you did...tell me about when you brought everyone, including people who lived in the community, in the gym, and you put together task force and you took a year to put together this plan. I just think that's phenomenal.
Tom: The transformation that has happened in Lindsay over the last years is not the vision of the school board, the vision of Tom Rooney, the superintendent, the vision of the previous superintendent, or because of some government mandate. It truly has come from the voice of the Lindsay community. And when I mean community, I mean from the broadest standpoint. What we did was we brought the community together in a series of meetings and we brought parents together, English speaking, Spanish speaking. We brought our classified staff. We brought our union representation. We brought our leadership. We brought our community representatives, our city council. We brought our school board. We brought business owners. We brought people together and we essentially asked five essential questions.
And the questions are, why do we exist as an organization? What are the values that we will embrace and be expected to live by? What are the principles that will guide our decisions? And what is our vision for the future, the vision of learning, the vision for technology, the vision for personnel, for curriculum, there are seven different areas? And then most importantly, what is the description of the Lindsay graduate? What kind of human being will leave our system? And so the community collectively answered those questions over a series of, I don't know if it was a whole year, but we worked together, we put out drafts, we got more feedback.
Kevin: It was about a year, I talked to your people. And it's pretty fascinating because as they answered the questions, they found common ground on value, expectations, the profile of the graduate. This was such a community-driven effort, but ultimately, what did that plan look like in terms of the change? And Tom, you are a curriculum guy. One of the big changes was you stopped teaching to the middle, and you said, we've gotta figure out where kids are and start there.
Tom: And one of the first things we did, Kevin, is we engaged in some curriculum redesign work. And what we did was we took the content knowledge for every...what was expected for academic learning and also what the community defined as the profile of the graduate, which we call life-long learning. And we took both of those and we essentially created a continuum of learning. So we built it out from the very beginning level of when you enter our system to when you leave. These are all of the learning outcomes that you will demonstrate at a level of proficiency. And so we define that. So the curriculum wasn't designed by grade level or by age, it was designed in this continuum of learning so that learners could essentially advance in their learning in all content areas, as well as in life-long learning at the pace that is appropriate for them, at the pace that guarantees competence, at the pace that ensures that they demonstrate and get the foundational knowledge in order to access new knowledge.
So a key piece right out the gate was the curriculum redesign. But obviously, when you redesign curriculum, right behind that, you have to have assessment systems that are in place. So we call that curriculum the guaranteed and viable curriculum. So we took...and we had to redo it when the common core standards came out, but we had to redo some of it anyway, but it's the way it's organized. And that content is fully transparent to the learner and it's fully transparent to the parents. And it's very clear on what's expected in the learning.
Kevin: It really hit home when I talked to the students. You had a couple of your students take me around. And I said, "So how is what you're doing different from your peers who go to other high schools?" That's the question I asked. And they said, "Well, let me show you." They pulled out a sheet, says, "To us, it's about mastery." That was the word they used. And they said, look at my American history, there are 30 things you need to know in order to be proficient in American history. And six of these things I can pretty much do on my own, two or three of the others I work in a group, you know, two or three others, you know, I need extra help from the teacher, and I have a timeline. And the timeline's not based on a chapter in a book or after two weeks you need to be at number 7 of the 30. The timeline's based on, this is what you need to do by the end of the semester.
Literally, I can remember this conversation like yesterday, Tom. And the student said, "So, you know, right now, I'm at number 17 and I'm less than halfway through the semester. So I know I'm gonna make it. My friend over here's at number 13, but we're going on a project on three." These kids really were controlling their own destiny and they were learning at the same time.
Tom: That's the transparency of the curriculum. And there's no guessing as to what the expectation of the learning is, and the learners can go after it themselves. That's a key element of a personalized system is one where learners know where they are in their learning, they know what's coming next, and they actually can go after it on their own. All that you shared, like those check sheets, all that is virtual now, too. So they literally go into our Empower Management System and they know where they are and they know what they need to do next. And they monitor their progress. They find different ways to demonstrate their competence in a variety of different areas. And a key thing around a personalized system is it's not about time, it's actually about the learning, okay? And that's one of our key guiding principles is that people learn in different ways and they learn in different timeframes. Not everybody's going to take a whole semester to learn that.
Kevin: It also recognize the challenges that students come to school with day to day. We talked about your community. You know, social and emotional learning are really big, important issues now, but when I visited your school, you had a daycare set aside for students who may have children. You had more counselors and nurses, you know, social workers. This whole idea of understanding the relationships also means understanding the whole child's challenges, that helps with the learning journey. And you're still doing that.
Tom: That's right. We talk about it as the full wraparound services. Learners don't come just for academic learning, learners bring who they are. And our parents bring and send their children to our learning communities and they entrust us with their very best, and they entrust us with the most precious possession of their life. And so this learning journey is not just academic. Absolutely, we want academic proficiency, but it's also what do you need with regard to nutrition? What do you need with regard to social-emotional health? What do you need with regard to what kind of a human being you're becoming? What do you need with regard to helping you set goals and dream of a future and create a vision of what's possible for you that perhaps you can't see, and you can't understand because of you're dealing with day-to-day survival? A hundred percent of our children receive free and reduced lunch, over 50% come to us speaking a language other than English. And the parent education level is actually quite low. And so, we face these challenges and yet we don't use those challenges as excuses for why learners cannot learn.
Kevin: So, Tom, this is what I really want to know. Does this level of personalized learning have a place in every school district in the country?
Tom: Absolutely. You know, and I'll go back to what I said a while ago. It's simply what the very best to do. It's simply taking what the very best learning facilitators do in the country and it's making it systemic. It's making it so that what that person... Because we all had one or two or three in our life where they loved us deeply. And we knew it. They made sure we learned no matter what. They gave us what we need, the time, the resources. And what we do in Lindsay is we say, okay, we take that very best, and we want the office staff to engage the same way. We want every learning facilitator, whether you're teaching 5-year-olds, or 12-year-olds, or 18-year-olds to actually engage the same way. So it's our responsibility as leaders in the system essentially is to empower and motivate people to embrace the mission of the community, and to empower them and support them in becoming who they need to become.
And a very exciting thing, Kevin, that has transformed over the last several years in Lindsay is we now have a program where we essentially are taking our graduates and our classified staff and we are sending them to college with the commitment that...and we pay for their college if they commit to come back to teach Lindsay's children. So those are the people in the system as we move forward and more and more of our staff deepens their commitment. And it is hard work. It is absolutely hard work, but you know what, most things in life that produce results are hard work. But it's hard work that is mission-driven. We work hard, but we also look at it like it's such a worthy cause. And we are so fulfilled in our profession that I know, I'd say this personally for myself, but I think there's many who believe it is none of us come to work every day. We actually come in service to our learners and we give our very best. Whatever our role is, we give our very best. And so it's a mindset of the adults that transforms what's possible for learners. And is that needed in every school district in this nation or world? Absolutely.
Kevin: Tom Rooney, Superintendent, Lindsay Unified School District, you and your team are doing amazing work. Thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know" and keep doing what you do.
Tom: Thank you so much. It's an honor.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Tom Rooney is the Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District. In this role, he has led the transformation of his district into a shining example of what personalized learning can accomplish. The district’s learner-centered Performance Based System yields a 98 percent graduation rate and enables 75 percent of its students to attend college right out high school. Prior to his position as Superintendent, Tom served as the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, elementary Principal, elementary Assistant Principal, and classroom teacher.
Join The Email List
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.