Apr 29 2024

These Private Schools Bring Personalized Learning to All Students

Technology and teacher training allowed the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens to focus on inclusion and meet the needs of K–12 learners.

Most of the schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn have one class per grade level. Over the past 10 years, the organization has seen increased enrollment of students with special needs and learning disabilities. While a recent report from the National Catholic Educational Association found that 7.8 percent of students at Catholic schools nationally self-reported a diagnosed disability, including a learning disability, that number is around 10 percent for students at the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens.

Across its 64 schools, “none of our rooms are tracked by ability level, so every room is really an inclusion classroom,” says John O’Brien, associate superintendent of changing schools at the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens.

To meet the needs of these students, the organization began making changes that would support learning for everyone.

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“There’s an awareness now that all teachers should understand that everyone sitting before them has a different way of learning,” says Luisa Manzo, who began working with the organization this school year as a field representative for special education.

In addition to training teachers and creating staff positions dedicated to special education, the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens also turned to technology to support different ways of learning.

Data Introduces Personalized Learning to Schools with Small Classes

The educators at the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens needed to know where students struggled and where they thrived before they could provide individualized support, O’Brien says. To measure their understanding of a topic and establish a baseline for tracking their progress, the schools turned to an online assessment program.

“Students use their devices to take three diagnostics throughout the course of the year — one in the fall, one in the winter and one in the spring — in both reading and in math, and it gives instant results,” O’Brien says. Educators can then use these results to tailor lessons and create personalized learning plans for students.

DIVE DEEPER: Technology supports personalized learning in K–12 schools.

“Learning gets to be individualized for students who really struggle or who have some insecurities when it comes to tackling certain topics,” Manzo says. “Inclusive classrooms need differentiation to make sure that students’ instruction is being tailored to their needs.”

Now, students can work in small groups in their classes and use their devices to learn at their own speed or conduct research for project-based learning.

“The older students can be let loose to research, to create, to collaborate with their classmates, harness that technology and come up with a finished product,” O’Brien says. “In general, the younger students are using that technology on their personalized learning paths. Nearly all of our curriculum materials have a digital component.”

Luisa Manzo
Inclusive classrooms need differentiation.”

Luisa Manzo Field Representative for Special Education, Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens

Professional Development and Modeling Win Over Educators

Getting to a personalized learning model in all classrooms at the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens wasn’t easy. “Very few of our teachers were taught how to teach students with special needs,” O’Brien says.

Educators attended professional development sessions that helped them learn how to make the most of the diagnostic data to individualize learning. This helped bring some educators on board, but others were more hesitant to change. “Teachers and principals all had to get out of the mindset of how they’ve been teaching for 10, 20 or 40 years and really start to tailor their lessons differently to try to meet the needs of every student,” O’Brien says.

“The approach of inclusion is understanding our students’ needs,” Manzo adds. “Everyone needs to learn, and they need a certain approach to help them learn successfully.”

She worked with teachers across the organization’s schools to bring these approaches to the classroom. She encouraged teachers to understand the different learning styles and to try incorporating all of those so that all students could be engaged.

READ THE INTERVIEW: A tech integration advocate focuses on mastery-based learning.

Manzo also worked with coaches at each of the schools to model different teaching styles, such as small group instruction, for educators.

“Once they see it happening and how easily it can happen, they’re all doing it,” she says. “We need to continue all of this inclusivity and make sure that our students are continuing to grow.”

Regular Technology Use Simplifies Online Testing

The daily use of technology in the classroom for personalized instruction has had other implications for the staff and students at the Catholic Schools of Brooklyn and Queens. Because they are comfortable learning digitally, students felt more confident taking standardized assessments online this spring.

“Using the devices regularly helped them with their comfort level with the technology for the more high-stakes assessments,” O’Brien says. “Prior to this year, only two or three of our schools did computer-based testing, but this year, there was an expectation that all of our schools did computer-based testing.”

KEEP READING: Prepare K–12 students for online testing.

He also says that there have been practically no technological issues with the online tests.

“Small changes bring big changes, and these small steps are going to be explosive,” Manzo says.

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