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Freeport Leader Promotes Ambitious Learning Model

We continue our “Community Close-Up” series with a proposed change to the educational structure in Freeport. 

At Center Elementary School, some third grade students each have what are called “choice boards.” They get to choose when they will do each activity during the week, and then highlight each box when they complete a task.

Teacher Michele Downing says the modern classroom is no  longer a teacher lecturing to students in rows of desks:

“They all take their pre-tests the first day when we start our new choice boards. Then I ask them to do a few practices, but they can choose what kind of practices they do (or who they do it with) and then they tell me when they are ready for their test.  So somebody might be ready for it tomorrow versus another student who may not be ready for it until next Friday.  I think they have less anxiety. They come to us when they are ready for it.”

These activities are a sample of some of the methods that align with a district-wide proposal in Freeport called “personalized mastery.

In most public schools across the nation, 5-year-olds go to kindergarten, 6-year-olds first grade, and so on. But Freeport Superintendent Roberta Selleck says that system is based on a factory model that is outdated.

Credit Freeport School District
Freeport Superintendent Roberta Selleck

“In typical systems, we would like to see at least a year’s growth in a year’s time. In this model, you can achieve much more than that. Let’s say in the traditional model, they fail. They have to repeat the class. In a typical model, they would repeat the same curriculum the second time around. In this model, they don’t fail, they are put in their instructional model and they build upon where they left off. They are not wasting their time regurgitating material that they probably already know.”

Before coming to Freeport, Selleck led a school district in Adams County, Colorado, north of Denver, somewhat of a pioneer in competency-based learning.  But even before her district took the plunge, there was Chugach, Alaska. Chugach made the change in the mid 90s.  It took two and a half years to convince the community that it was the right fit for the struggling school district. Current superintendent Bob Crumley was involved with the transition and says there’s no going back:

“If we tried to go back now, there would be a revolt. Just like there might be a revolt for people trying to change away from a traditional model.  We don’t need to sell it anymore.  The students and their performance sell it.”

The Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t have a policy preventing Freeport from using the competency-based method. Illinois law only requires that districts have an organized plan for recording student progress. Meaning as long as they track progress, it’s doesn’t have to be A, B, or C report cards.

Freeport Superintendent Roberta Selleck says report cards would be much more detailed under a personalized mastery program:

“What does a ‘C’ tell you? It really doesn’t tell you whether or not the child is struggling with maybe borrowing and carrying. In a standards-based report card or personalized mastery, whatever you want to call it, what you do  is you take each of the discreet skills in math and you break it down and you identify and mark and track when the kid demonstrates proficiency.”

Selleck knows it could take a while to sell the idea, because she had to do it before. Freeport held four community meetings about the personalized mastery idea. The feedback was generally positive, but several people voiced concern about how the model would affect minority students and those at the lowest end of the achievement gap. Others worry children will become discouraged because they can’t catch up with their peers.


Another question is why the model hasn’t caught on in more school districts. A big part may be the time and energy it takes to convince a community to change from the long-held traditional model.

Getting the idea to “catch” on is the idea behind a conference later this summer for Iowa educators.  Andrea Stewart is the Muscatine, Iowa, district coordinator for competency-based education. She says part of the sell is among teachers:

“Not that people weren’t student-centered before, but this has completely switched the paradigm. Everything is about ‘How do I ensure that the learning happened? How do I know that they learned it, what do I do next?  If they come into me knowing the information, where do I take them to enrich them?’ They are talking to their peers within our community and outside of the community about how they couldn’t teach another way. Aligning learning to clearly defined learning targets through the Iowa core standards in a way that allows students flexibility. It has been seriously career-changing for them.”

Credit Jenna Dooley

Several stakeholders must be willing to look at education differently. Northern Illinois University sociologist Joe Magliano researches cognitive development. He admits he’s intrigued by the idea in Freeport:

“We really are sort of operating on a model of education that was laid down 100 years ago. It’s not to say there aren’t innovations and we are doing exactly what we did 100 years ago, but the general model is that way.  It’s the 25 kids in a classroom and everyone is treated the same way. Students come into the academic situation with different strengths and weaknesses and under optimal situations they are going to learn how to leverage those strengths and weaknesses.”

His colleague Amanda Durik also sees some advantages in a more customized learning environment in Freeport, but offers some advice:

“The important idea that needs to go along with that experience for the student is to not think ‘I’m bad at math, therefore I’m being punished and I need to go this lower math level’, but, in contrast, to think ‘I have more room to develop skills in math and this is the place for me to develop skills’.  So much more of a growth mindset.”

For now, Freeport education officials are taking it slowly and waiting for the feedback to come in. But Superintendent Roberta Selleck is itching to change course:

“ We can no longer afford just to pass them along in that factory model and say ‘oh well, we taught it, they didn’t learn it.’ We need to stop the assembly line and say ‘no we are going to make sure kids can learn at high levels.’”

About Community Close-Up

The WNIJ audience includes a wide geographic area in diverse communities with a wide range of challenges and opportunities. This occasional series will inform our audience -- both on air and online -- of activities, opportunities and events in individual communities to build common understanding among listeners of the government, business and social climate in northern Illinois.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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