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The Portland Public Schools believes that learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and time frames.
That belief is the second of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning.
Joined by Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns on our Learning Beliefs. This month, we focus on why differentiated instruction is important to help our students succeed.
Every parent knows that children learn and develop differently.
In my own case, for example, my elder son was a reluctant reader who didn’t really embrace reading until the fourth or fifth grade. He went on to earn a degree in history and anthropology and now is an avid reader who also enjoys writing. My younger son, by contrast, began to read early and has an amazing mathematical mind. Still in high school, his math skills put my abilities to shame.
Traditionally, many schools have approached teaching as though all students in a class are basically alike. That approach doesn’t take into account the learning needs of individual students. It doesn’t ensure that students with different learning skills – such as my sons have – achieve their maximum potential.
We’re Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Our students come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and also from multiple countries and cultures. They bring diverse strengths and have different learning needs.
Some students may need little guidance and support to achieve mastery of a topic, while others may need significant background building and assistance to get to the same place. A traditional course-based learning structure can fall short by not differentiating those learning needs. That’s one reason why our district is moving toward proficiency-based diplomas.
In a proficiency-based system, some students might be able to satisfy the standards traditionally associated with demonstrating competency in a particular course through a final exam or capstone project instead of taking the full semester or yearlong course. However, other students taking a course might fall short in just a couple of areas. Under traditional credit-based systems, those students would have to retake that entire course, but with proficiency-based learning, students can work to demonstrate competency in the areas where they lag behind, and then move on when they achieve it.
The Portland Public Schools tailors teaching to meet the varied learning needs of students in a range of ways.
For example, our high schools have built flexibility into the school day by designing blocks of time that students can use to get additional support in areas where they need help – or to accelerate their learning beyond baseline expectations.
At Casco Bay High School, flexibility also is built into the calendar year to help students meet rigorous standards. CBHS offers a “Frost School” in December and a “Mud School” in late March. Those are opportunities for eligible students to meet any remaining course standards in a course or two from the first or second trimester, respectively.
CBHS also offers students the opportunity to exceed standards in all courses. For example, ninth- and 10th-graders can take an Exceeds Reading Seminar, where they explore literary theories while reading literature beyond what’s required in Humanities courses.
At the elementary level, we use a “workshop” model for reading and writing in which all students learn the same grade-level content but get differential support as needed. Those supports can include visual cues such as a chart, speaking and auditory cues and an opportunity for independent time so students can progress at their own pace.
To fully master a concept, some students benefit from extended learning time via summer school. This summer, the district hosted a Middle School Summer Academy, a two-week experiential academic summer camp, funded by a grant of nearly $25,000 from Unum. Teachers collaborated with The Telling Room, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Sail Maine to develop engaging experiences to help selected students master challenging STEM and humanities standards.
In summary, our goal is to prepare and empower students to succeed in college and career, and we recognize that they need multiple pathways to reach the academic milestones that get them there.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.