‘Race to the Top’ funds accelerated Lindsay’s ed system


Lindsay Unified’s $10 million Race to the Top grant launched 24/7 learning, transformed school culture and catapulted the district into the national spotlight

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

LINDSAY – The recent announcement that Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) was awarded a $28 million grant to recruit and retain teachers came on the same day that the innovative district’s previous multi-million grant ended. The Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education brought more than $10 million to Lindsay Unified over the course of four years with the intent of building a digital platform for learning, ensuring 24/7 access to those online resources and training teachers to implement its Performance Based System district wide.

At the time it was awarded in 2012, it was the largest grant the district had ever seen. Now, five years later, there is no question that the money has changed nearly every aspect of the district, from the way classrooms look to the way students, known as “learners” in Lindsay, learn.

Race to the Top accelerated the performance based system that Lindsay Unified implemented in 2008. The system is customized for each learner so that those wanting more challenging work can move ahead while those falling behind pace can get the attention they need. Unlike traditional classrooms where teachers talk and students listen, the performance-based system is student-centric. Each learner is responsible for their own learning while the teacher, called a learning facilitator, is responsible for mentoring those learners who are struggling and guiding those who are not through the process of demonstrating if they know enough in one area to move on to the next.

Through Race to the Top, LUSD’s grading system was quickly expanded through every grade level. Its assessment system processed faster and more efficiently and its curriculum was catapulted onto the national stage of innovative education.

“Race to the Top built the systems that our the foundation of our learning system,” said Deputy Superintendent Lana Brown. “Now that all of that is in place, this new funding will help us build up the people to run the system better.”

Brown, who oversees curriculum, said Race to the Top was about access and acceleration. It provided funding to put a tablet in every student’s hand, create a citywide wifi signal that every learner could connect to and enhanced the connectivity between parent and learning facilitator, learner and learning facilitator, and offer all three the ability to track the progress learners are making.

“Learning is now 24/7,” Brown said. “No one is dependent on the school day. We took down the walls of the school and now learning can happen anywhere at any time.”

Access Granted
When the RTTT funding was announced in December 2012, the only access learners had to the Internet was one computer lab at each site that could only accommodate about one classroom at a time. In February 2014, LUSD completed its goal of providing every learner with a tablet or laptop they keep with them at all time. The devices are issued to them at the beginning of the year with a signed contract that they will take care of the device or be responsible for its repair or replacement outside of normal wear and tear. In February 2016, LUSD completed a project to broadcast a wifi signal across the entire city so that every learner could have free access to the Internet and achieve 24/7 learning for both children and their parents.

“We used to be so dependent on someone else, a teacher, to learn,” said Ikonkar Khalsa, a senior at Lindsay High School who spent half of her school-age years in the performance based system and out of the performance based system. “I learn something new every day now because I’m not just learning the information but where to find it myself.”

Instead of staying after school to have access to the Internet, learners like Ikonkar could spend their time after school in extra curricular programs knowing that homework could actually be completed from home. In the case of Ikonkar, she was able to use her afterschool time to play tennis and soccer, learn sign language, participate in Mock Trial Competition and join Future Business Leaders of America at school. It also freed up more time to pursue more of her Sikh culture. She began singing at her temple and learned classical instruments of the sarangi and tabla. She also took up gatka, a form of martial arts that originated in India.

“All of these skills are helping me to be all the things I want to be,” Ikonkar said. “I want to do well in college but I also want to be involved in my church, be active and be well rounded for the real world.”

Round-the-clock learning also came with constant monitoring of both the learners use of technology and their proficiency. Each school-issued tablet or laptop can only connect to the Internet via the school district’s server. Learners must log-in with their district-issued username and password.

“The idea of citywide wifi is that these parents have access to resources as well,” Brown said. “But we also wanted to make sure they were using for educational purposes and not for the wrong reasons.”

Race to the Top also created key positions within the district that did not exist before. Barry Sommer, director of advancement for the district, said LUSD created blended learning assistants at each campus to help learning facilitators integrate technology into their lesson plans, and administrative positions such as a director of personal learning, who works with principals to set up staff development opportunities; a director of 21st century learning, to monitor and oversee learners’ use of their devices. In order to ensure they are making curriculum decisions on sound data, LUSD even created a coordinator of research and evaluation. That position is held by Abinwi Nchise who looks for achievement gaps in the data that the district uses to adjust their curriculum and teaching strategies. Nchise’s data has helped the district increase its reading proficiency in K-2 from less than half of learners (46%) to three quarters and just a quarter of learners in grades 3-12 to more than half (51%).

“This technology was a part of an opportunity to create additional learning opportunities to learn,” Brown said. “Learners took it a step further saying, ‘I want to be this,’ ‘I want to learn more about this.’”

Attitude Adjustment
While learning facilitators were asked to embrace technology more heavily, learners were simply asked to learn in the digital era in which they grew up. The change for them was a cultural shift.

Ikonkar was in sixth grade the year prior to the Lindsay Unified implementing its performance based system. She described her campus as being fraught with gangs, full of fights and failing students who would rather skip school than read or write. She was bullied that year by a group of students for her Middle Eastern features. By her sophomore year, after the changes implemented in the performance based system, Ikonkar could feel the cultural shift and began wearing a turban to school in her sophomore year at Lindsay High School. During her junior year, those same students who had bullied her in sixth grade came into her father’s market and were completely respectful and commented on how nice she looked.

“Their was a difference in them,” Ikonkar said. “They were open minded and more accepting. It wasn’t an overnight change but it happened more rapidly than I would have thought.”

The cultural shift is not only the most powerful, it is the most significant for Lindsay Unified, statistically speaking. Before Race to the Top in 2011-12 school year and at the end of the 2016-17, suspensions/expulsions were down 65% and the district’s School Climate Index (SCI), a survey which measures how safe students feel from violence while at school, went from being average in the state (52md percentile) to among the best (99th percentile) in the state.

“Where we really smashed this out of the park was in the behavior data,” Brown said. “We built a culture of constant learning where before there was a culture of waiting —  to learn, waiting for school to start, waiting for the teacher to tell you what to do and waiting for a test to tell you how you did.”

LHS graduation rates increased from 69% to 90% and college enrollment from 66% to 70%. Pre Race to the Top, just 12% of LHS graduates obtained a four-year degree. Now more than half (57%) of graduates will obtain a degree in four years, nearly two-thirds (65%) in five years and 70% in six years.

“Learners know what they are learning and why it’s important,” Brown said. “That is an essential skill that translates into any field.”

Part of the success in college enrollment is credited to the district’s ability to attract funding for its scholarship program. Sommer said Lindsay is among the top district’s in Tulare County for scholarship funding in part because all donations are tax deductible because the district formed its own tax exempt educational foundation.

“100% of the proceeds go to Lindsay learners and the formation of the education foundation is a direct result of Race to the Top,” Sommer said.

And scholarships are not just about good grades. In Lindsay Unified’s system, learners receive grades for both academic and life skills, or behavior, based on their competency and performance. Their behavior score is heavily weighted when considering applicants for the district’s largest ongoing scholarship.

In partnership with the REAP program, learners with the highest Life Skill score of 4 out of 4 are rewarded with $125 per class per semester. Students who earn the award are then eligible to receive the “super scholarship” of $45,000 give to the senior with the highest combination of academic and life skill scores.

“If you want the money you have to have the highest life skills score and a 3.5 to 4 in academics,” Ikonkar said. “I think that’s a great incentive for learners to not only do well in class but act better at school.”

Attention Span
Sommer said Race to the Top’s full impact may not be known until after the three-year funding from the $28 million Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program, but there is no question that Race to the Top helped Lindsay grab the attention of education leaders nationwide.

Superintendent Tom Rooney has been invited to a convening of select superintendents at the White House two times, in 2014 and 2016, routinely speaks at national education conferences on the system and many of his administrative staff, learning facilitators and learners regularly speak at conferences about the performance based system as well.

Ikonkar recently traveled with some fellow classmates in LHS’ Academy of Engineering to Florida for the National Academy Foundation conference. Just two months ago, she was among four learners to join Sommer at an educational conference in Pennsylvania where each of the teens shared their inspiring stories as well as their critiques of the system. This week she is attending the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) Symposium in Orlando, Fla. The symposium is the industry’s leading event for K-12 competency-based, blended and online learning.

“In the beginning it feels like a lot of pressure is put on you,” Ikonkar said. “But once you become an independent learner and a problem solver you learn to love the idea of learning and how it can happen all the time.”

LUSD’s system of personalized learning even inspired the district to author a book, “Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning” earlier this year. The forward of the book was written by Robert J. Marzano, founder of Marzano Research and a leader in the field of education research for more than 40 years.

Sommer shared that before Race to the Top, less than one school district per year would visit LUSD campuses. Now, four years later, the district accommodates more than 250 campus tours per year among its six elementary schools and high school. In March, Lindsay Unified was ranked 20th nationwide in GettingSmart.com’s list of “30 School Districts Worth Visiting.”

“It allowed other entities to learn about Lindsay Unified,” said LUSD Board President Robert Hurtado. “Getting attention nationwide and having people come through to tour and talking up Lindsay Unified all over the country has really helped us change things here.”

Assessment Lagging
The only area where Race to the Top funding didn’t build much momentum was in academic achievement. Over the four years of the funding, statewide test scores in the district only improved marginally. The number of learners proficient in English language arts and mathematics both increased by just 6%. Less than two-thirds (31%) of Lindsay learners are proficient in English language arts and just one in five are proficient in math.

“It will take time to demonstrate achievement growth,” Sommer said. “We need more time in the system and we will see that growth.”

Sommer points out that Lindsay’s data is not complete on the full effect of the performance based system. Students who have been immersed in the system since preschool will not graduate from Lindsay High School until 2023. He said the current $28 million grant will also help Lindsay recruit and retain the best teachers for its innovative system of education leading up to the that milestone.

“We want to get to a point where there is no data to point to that doesn’t reflect the success of the system,” Sommer said. “I look forward to the day when we can do that.”

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