A popular school store. One well-established student technology program. School-wide self-reflection and educator agency. At Beaver Area School District, examples of personalized learning are plentiful. One year into a sweeping educational transformation at the system-level, the District is embracing the benefits of student-centered learning and teaching, with promising results and plans for deeper engagement.
Delicate gemstone bracelets, beaded in bright patterns, are displayed on a jewelry stand, enticing small customers at Dutch Ridge Elementary’s “Shop @ 6th,” a student-led school store. The bracelet designer, sixth-grader Peyton Konkle, is confident that her well-crafted product will outshine competitors’ goods — stickers, patriotic pins, Taylor Swift-style friendship bracelets — all of which are merchandised, priced, and sold by her peers.
“My product is unique because I hand-make bracelets out of real natural gemstones,” Peyton wrote in her business plan, outlining target markets and differentiators. “Most of my customers will live in Beaver County, and they do not need to be affluent,” she noted. “These bracelets make a great, unique gift for all friends and family.”
At Dutch Ridge, one of four schools in Beaver Area School District, this enterprising student elected to learn startup “how-to” in her sixth-grade class. Peyton and her peers are deeply engaged in a culture of personalized learning that is central to the District’s mission and vision.
Personalized learning creates authentic, equitable learning opportunities centered around each learner’s strengths, needs and interests. It places the unique attributes of each learner at the forefront of educational and instructional decisions.
“We give our kids such choice and voice and agency, more than I’ve ever seen,” said Tara O’Leary, a sixth grade teacher at Dutch Ridge. “We keep exposing them to things, and then kids get to decide how they want to personalize their learning.”
At Dutch Ridge and across the District, teachers are using RIASEC assessments as a method of self-discovery, helping students understand their preferences and aspirations. Already a widely utilized career tool, RIASEC uses six themes to identify interests and match them with career fields.
With districts in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including Avonworth, Duquesne City, Elizabeth Forward and South Fayette, Beaver is learning how to connect the RIASEC assessment to World of Work, a dynamic career exploration and simulation curriculum for K-12 students that supports pathways to future employment. Last spring, educators from the collaborating districts traveled to Cajon Valley Union School District, in El Cajon, Calif., to see the curriculum in action.
“We are so excited to bring World of Work to our school and use it as another tool to personalize learning,” said Tonya O’Brien, co-principal at Dutch Ridge. “The more students learn about themselves, the more we can create relevant learning opportunities that prepare them to become future-ready.”
At Dutch Ridge, teachers also meet one-on-one with students whose developing interests are discerned through coaching, arranging everything from German lessons to Origami to create empowered, connected learners. Dutch Ridge has built a climate of support and reflection, giving students and teachers permission to continually try new things and “fail-forward,” if necessary.
Along with an emphasis on strong relationships, “we have students, teachers and administration who are willing to take healthy risks,” O’Brien said, a District-wide theme that is championed by leadership.
A New Direction
The 2022-23 school year ushered in big changes for Beaver Area School District, a 2100-student district located 25 miles west of Pittsburgh. Like many schools in the region, Beaver is modest in size, with an annual budget that doesn’t support large investments or pricey new initiatives. Instead, the District has leveraged ingenuity and a positive school culture to achieve results.
In July 2022, Beaver Area hired a new superintendent, Dr. Mark P. Holtzman, who quickly brought in new administrators, including Emily Sanders, a veteran educator with a longtime belief in the power of personalized learning.
Crucially, to engage stakeholders, Holtzman spearheaded the development of a comprehensive strategic plan for Beaver Area. The new leadership team “didn’t have a lot of historical perspective or context, and we sought clarity about the past in order to make important decisions for the future,” Holtzman said.
During the data collection process, which included focus groups, interviews and classroom observations, clear evidence emerged. Excellence in personalized learning and student-centered learning was organically happening District-wide. “We saw pockets of it everywhere,” noted Sanders, who serves as the District’s assistant superintendent.
Already, the student-driven culture at Beaver, which Sanders described as “unique,” supported student-initiated clubs and activities, including the well-established Student Technology Assistance Program (STAP), demonstrating an aptitude for new ways of educating. “We wanted to harness that student-run approach in other areas of student learning,” Sanders explained.
With support from the board and stakeholders, Beaver’s leadership team reimagined their mission, vision and goals, grounded in future-readiness and personalized learning. The District’s new strategic direction was formally adopted in September 2023.
In an effort to support principals through the changes, Sanders sought to empower them, creating opportunities for educators to engage in personalized learning workshops and professional development, and visit the classrooms of like-minded schools. “When you see it with your own eyes, you take away more,” she said.
To encourage District teachers to adopt personalized learning components in the classroom, administrators helped them access mini-grants and other resources to take “little bets” — flexible classroom seating arrangements, Maker learning, STEAM and passion projects — aligned with the District’s broader vision.
Working with District teachers, Sanders is redesigning elements of the state-required teacher evaluation system to complement personalized learning, allowing educators to opt-in to research-based projects, learning walks, and student shadowing opportunities. “Teachers will be able to learn from the perspective of the student, discovering what their day looks like and asking, ‘how can we improve learning experiences for students?’” she said.
To support continuous improvement, teachers also have 13 hours of Individualized Professional Development, with choice over how and when to complete those hours. “Not only are we personalizing learning for kids, we’re allowing teachers to do it, too,” Sanders said.
Deepening engagement, four teachers from Beaver were selected to participate in a new regional program, Personalized Learning Ambassadors, powered by Remake Learning and KnowledgeWorks. During the year-long fellowship, more than 20 educators from across Southwestern Pennsylvania will share best practices and strengthen their commitment to implementing personalized learning in the classroom.
With little more than a year into practice, the systemic changes at Beaver Area School District have merited national recognition. In November, Beaver was recognized as a Lighthouse School System by the AASA, one of only 31 districts in the country to receive this distinction.
But the real impact is felt in individual classrooms across the District. Back at Dutch Ridge Elementary, home to 624 3rd-6th grade students, an empowered community of learners and educators is redefining what school success looks like.
“Growth is the goal, not perfection,” explained Tara O’Leary, the sixth grade teacher. Because of the school’s holistic approach, “all parts of the person are celebrated,” she said, so that students can confidently say, “I am more than just my test scores.”
Author: Erin Kane