HARRISBURG, S.D.-Personalized or customized learning remains in its infancy levels in the Dakotas, but a school district in southeast South Dakota is taking it to a new level and is becoming recognized as a regional leader in the effort.

Harrisburg is a district that includes students from the southern part of the city of Sioux Falls along with rural and Harrisburg residents.

Visitors by the hundreds, including North Dakota's governor and superintendent of public instruction, have been checking out the innovative efforts with the hope of bringing them back to their home states and school districts and change the traditional way of classroom teaching.

At most elementary schools, students sit in their desks most of the day in classes led by one teacher. It's not that way in personalized learning.

In this new way of learning at Freedom Elementary School in Harrisburg, innovation program director Travis Lape and Principal Tanja Pederson are seeing test scores climb and discipline problems fall dramatically as students learn at their own pace, help each other, and meet in small groups or individually in "coaching sessions" with teachers all day long except for a large group meeting to start each day where teachers pitch activities or lessons for the day and students get to choose.

This gives students much more of a "voice and choice in their educational journey," said Pederson. "It's not competition anymore between the students as they grow on their own."

Students basically no longer call themselves second-graders or fifth-graders, but rather some of the students call themselves or are referred to by labels put on by the district called "little and middles" in the younger grades and "molders and olders" in the higher grades.

Students will have the same four teachers for four years from second through fifth grade, providing continuity and allowing teachers to get to know their students on a much more personal and in-depth level.

Pederson said they asked parents about personalized learning in a survey and 94 percent said they wanted their children in the program, thus they are in the process of making the transition.

Students still get the basics of reading, math, science and social studies, but once they master certain standards, they move along at their own pace.

Sometimes, a student who has mastered a skill will even work with another student who needs some helping catching up.

"Students really seem to become more engaged," Lape said. "They like it."

Some misconceptions

A criticism Lape has heard is that the students get to "do whatever they want."

However, that's not true, he said. "We like to call it the invisible structure because at the end of the day, the students do have to prove they are learning and mastering skills."

"It's just that they are on their own educational journey. They have that voice and choice day in and day out," Pederson said.

"I think sometimes they don't feel so rushed and that's what they like, too," she said.

Some parents with students in the program also wonder why most days they don't have any homework to bring home.

"Well if we are hitting their zone of proximal development and challenging them for six to seven hours they should be tired. They should not have to go home and have another hour of homework." Lape said

"We still want kids to be kids," he said, and have time to be outdoors and do the things on the outside that they want to do, although they do recommend students read at least a half-hour after school or at night.

Burgum impressed

When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum visited Harrisburg in March with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler and the governor's 18-member education innovation task force he formed last fall, they came away impressed and excited.

'I went down there and got completely blown away," Burgum said in a interview in Fargo recently. "It was really, really remarkable."

He said teachers were enthusiastically behind the initiative and that's critical to its success.

"It's all got to come from the front-line teachers," he said. Burgum credited the teachers there with taking a risk and reinventing the way students learn.

Once they started the personalized learning, the teachers said they would never go back, Burgum said.

Pederson and Lape agree, as does Harrisburg teacher Tyler Muth.

Not only does Muth think students are doing better academically and behavior-wise, but he also thinks he's become a better overall teacher working closely each day with the other three instructors in his "pod."

As an example, he said one of the other instructors is very organized and that it's "rubbing off on me."

In some instances, the transformation in the classrooms has been kind of "messy," Lape said.

When the Harrisburg High School first started planning the program seven years ago and put it in place five years ago, "there was a lot of learning and growing," he said

"But this is really a grassroots effort," he said.

Pederson agrees. "They (the teachers) are the ones on the ground that have done the hard work and provided the energy," she said. "Despite all of that, they find it so rewarding in the way the students are doing that they wouldn't do it any other way now."

North Dakota superintendent Baesler, in an interview, said their recent visit to Harrisburg and by teachers and administrators from other schools have left them "inspired."

"When you see it, the teachers and the students involved, it's exciting," she said. "You also then realize it's no longer just a dream, a pipe dream."

Baesler said staff at the Northern Cass school district, which have made several visits to Harrisburg, is believed to be the first in North Dakota to start the personalized learning program.

She said three others, West Fargo, Oakes and New Rockford-Sheyenne, are in the planning stages. In addition to making trips to Harrisburg, those schools are working with a nonprofit organization called Knowledge Works from Cincinnati that helps train instructors and works on policies that need to be put in place. Baesler said a bill that passed by wide margins in the past legislative session has given schools in North Dakota the options of offering the personalized learning programs.

Getting attention

In the last five years, the district has had more than 1,000 visitors to study the high school's customized learning program, that started with planning seven years ago. In just the past year, more than 300 have visited the elementary school, where they call it personalized learning, and more than 200 have visited the middle school.

Lape and Pederson, however, emphasize that when they meet with all of the visitors they hope they consider developing their own personalized programs at their schools and what will work for them.

"We hope they don't replicate what we have," Lape said. "But that they can use the pieces that they like. We think it would be disservice to their school and community as we believe each community has their own different needs."

What Lape and Pederson think may be unique in their school's personalized learning Is the use of technology as a tool for learning. Each learner has an ipad, but it is used as a way to create their learning through artifacts. Also unique, they say, is how they have started "interest sessions to explore student passions" with expert speakers brought into the "pods."

As for technology, students might decide they want to make a video or an online poster to explain how they have mastered a skill or they can use a variety of educational apps.

In the "interest sessions," students even at their young age can start to explore their areas of "passion." Some of the expert speakers brought in have been a meteorologist, a South Dakota wildlife professional, a cake decorator that helped students with math and measurements and sessions about activities with figure skating, curling and snowboarding instructors.

Ongoing effort

Pederson and Lape realize this effort is one that will be ongoing, ever-changing and challenging.

They are excited about how the elementary students will be moving through their educational journey as they reach the middle school and high school levels where they will be used to and comfortable with the new way of learning.

In their "pods" at the school of 260 students in grades second through fifth, about one-third still take traditional classes while the other two-thirds are in personalized learning.

Last year, in the first year of the program on the elementary level at Freedom, there were 94 students in one "pod" with four teachers. This school year, the program has expanded to include 177 students in two pods.

Next school year, the entire second- through fifth-grade-age students, those 260 or more, will be in personalized learning. Students in kindergarten and first grade are still in traditional classrooms.

This year's graduating class will be the 2nd class to have gone through the personalized learning or, as they call it at the high school level, customized learning, for all four years.

Lape said around 30 of the students could have graduated early, having met their credits needed, but they would miss out on some of the schools activities such as sports, prom, and graduation by leaving early.

Instead, the high school has been working on offering college credit courses that students can take in their senior year, including speech, career exploration, college orientation and a certified nursing assistant program.

Professors come to the school for the classes, with the district paying the tuition for the credits that the colleges offer.

Now, when the Harrisburg elementary students move into middle school and high school, this new way of learning will be second-hand. If statistics hold out, they could be much better students and be better prepared for the world, Lape and Pederson said.


Reporter Patrick Springer contributed to this article