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When Celebrating Learning Differences Is At the Heart of School Culture

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 (Danilo Urbina)

Teachers and parents have long known that every child learns differently, excelling in some areas and struggling in others. And yet many schools still struggle to help students learn a set of standards, while allowing who they are as learners to determine how they do so. While some educators hope technology will make personalization cheaper and easier, so far many of the solutions involve keeping kids on the same path, but varying the pace. The rigid system and its requirements have made it difficult to truly celebrate neurodiversity.

Special education practices may offer a model for other educators hoping to pursue more authentic personalization. When special education teachers create Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for kids with learning differences, a variety of professionals come together to help identify specific needs, and parents are part of the process. Building off this model, some schools are trying in various ways to position differences as strengths and are finding ways to let a child’s personality, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses influence how he is taught.


Gateway High School was founded by a group of parents who wanted to ensure learning differences wouldn’t be a barrier to college access. The San Francisco public charter school is founded on a few core principles, foremost of which are: All children can learn at high levels and all children learn differently, not just students with documented learning differences.

As a California public school, Gateway teachers use a curriculum that adheres to the Common Core State Standards. “A lot of the standards are about ways of thinking, and you can apply ways of thinking and demonstrate mastery in lots of ways,” said Becca Wieder, director of curriculum and instruction at Gateway.


The school tries to individualize the curriculum for students by offering flexible entry points, focusing on process as well as product, and having flexible timelines for achievement of mastery. For example, supporting one’s argument with evidence is a key standard in both math and English. But writing isn’t the only way to demonstrate a student can support an argument with evidence, so Gateway teachers give students the choice to demonstrate learning in multiple ways. Letting students start from their strengths builds their confidence to later show their mastery in other ways.

“All students ultimately in writing need to make an argument using evidence, but the way they get there might be slightly different,” Wieder said. Varying the length of the assignment for different students is another way teachers modify instruction to slowly build student skills. Wieder says the important thing is for students to demonstrate the cognitive skills and then work on length.

Gateway now has a middle school as well. In both sixth grade and ninth grade, students learn about how the brain works, and that there's a lot of diversity in how people learn and approach problems. They work to identify strategies and habits that work for them, as well as identifying areas that need growth. These practices continue into high school; at the end of every assignment students reflect on how their learning strengths and weaknesses played into the assignment. The process builds metacognition about what they need as learners and how to ask for it.

“The idea that fair equals the same is challenged really early on at Gateway,” Wieder said. And when administrators poll students on diversity, the message is clearly coming through. Students explain how and why people are diverse, including how they learn, and what that adds to the school as a whole.

Students with documented learning differences are integrated into all classes at Gateway, but also receive extra support classes. “It normalizes the idea of difference,” Wieder said. “Our students identify as a strength of the school that it’s OK to be different here.”

In addition to focusing on diversity of learning needs, Gateway has a racially diverse student population, with different socioeconomic and ethnic groups well represented. Out of the 475 high school students and 300 middle school students, 15-18 percent are Asian, 20-25 percent are African-American, 20-25 percent are white and 35 percent are Latino.

“It’s unusual in San Francisco to have those four major ethnic groups represented in the same school,” Wieder said. Additionally, in any given year between 45-50 percent of students are on free and reduced-price lunch and about 20 percent have documented learning differences.


Gateway does offer Advanced Placement courses, but recently noticed there was a discrepancy in who took those classes. That led teachers to re-evaluate how they admitted students to honors and AP courses.

“We realized interest in the subject was being underprivileged in how we admitted and thought about honors and AP,” Wieder said. Teachers were looking for honors “readiness,” which in their minds translated to strong study skills, organization, time management and strong academic skills. When the staff widened how they thought about “readiness,” they doubled the number of African-American students taking honors and AP courses.

Rather than limiting who could take those courses, the school doubled the number of honors and AP classes offered. “We didn’t want to change the criteria and keep different kids out. Instead, we wanted to expand the tent,” Wieder said. Now about 90 percent of the junior class is taking an honors or AP class, and by the time they graduate every student will have taken one. That’s very different from before the change, when only about 75 percent took those courses, says Wieder.

When making the decision to change the honors and AP course requirements, teachers of those courses worried that the rushed pace of the class would make it difficult to differentiate. The AP exams cover such a broad array of topics that teachers felt they were on a moving train that could not be slowed. But, Wieder says after the teaching staff re-examined their values and made the commitment to open up advanced courses, teachers have shifted to deep dives in some areas and a more surface approach in others.

“We had to clarify for ourselves that our main goal of offering advanced classes was not so students could pass the AP test,” Wieder said. Although many students will take the tests offered at the end of each year, some won’t, but that doesn’t mean the extra rigor won’t be important to their learning path. This was the first year advanced courses were opened up, so Gateway has not yet learned how well its students will do on the AP exams in this new model.

“Our goal is they all get the skills,” Wieder said. “We’ve always believed the skills are the most central and can be applied to lots of situations.” One part of the change has also meant teachers are using the textbook less, in order to provide a more culturally responsive curriculum in which their diverse student body can see themselves.

Gateway is smaller than many district middle and high schools, with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio because of extra funding. As a charter school it also has more flexibility around release days and staffing. But Wieder doesn’t think size necessarily matters for this type of individualization. She points to Mission High, whose staff developed a clear culture and approach that helped unify the community.

“If you can be really clear about what you believe and you can hire for that and allocate resources for that and make it a great place where people want to stay, then I think you could do it in a variety of environments,” Wieder said.


Across town another public charter school is just starting up with similar goals in mind. The New School of San Francisco is in its first year, and currently has only two kindergarten classes and two first-grade classes, but intends to grow into a K-12 school. The school was founded on three principles: equity, inquiry and personalization. Every child has an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) that includes parent goals and teacher observations about academics.

The process starts at registration with a survey sent home to parents aimed at learning as much as possible about each child. And, before starting school, parents attend “intake conferences” where their child’s teacher listens carefully to their hopes for their child and asks questions about the child’s interests, likes and dislikes. Sometimes parents’ goals aren’t academic. One family said the main goal was for their son to make friends.

“If that’s what matters most to the parent, we will honor that,” said the school’s co-founder and current head of school, Emily Bobel Kilduff. Additionally, teachers take time to observe the student in different academic settings to get a sense of what academic goals should be set in place as well. That’s made a lot easier by the fact that classes are capped at 25 kids and there are two teachers in each classroom.

First-grade teacher Nicola Fleischer said a lot of her ability to individualize comes from knowing the students well. The New School has a longer school day with an hour of “park time” (the school doesn’t have a playground) and other playtime in the classroom as well. When Fleischer thinks about the successes she’s had this year, many of them stem from interacting with children when there are no academic expectations and her students are just being kids.


New School 2
(Courtesy Nicola Fleischer)

She described one boy who struggles with reading. Over a few weeks, Fleischer ended up being the walking buddy of this child on the daily trips to and from the park. During those trips he eagerly described all the thoughts passing through his head. “I get to see this incredibly sophisticated creative thinker that I would never know if all I did was reading groups with him,” Fleischer said.

Fleischer knows the small classes, extra adult help in the classroom and school focus on this kind of whole-child individualization set her current environment apart from many other public schools where she has worked. But when she thought about what advice she’d give to colleagues working in more traditional schools, getting to know students apart from the academics was her first recommendation.

“You realize all their strengths in this new way and then you have more patience when you’re having a hard time,” Fleischer said. She also noted that when she knows her students better, she can also personalize their learning better, roping them into tasks or challenges using their authentic interests.

“I had my first round of parent conferences here at the New School and I walked away elated, the best I’ve ever felt as a teacher, because I felt like I knew these children so much better than any other child I’ve ever worked with,” Fleischer said. That doesn’t mean some of the conferences weren’t tough. She had meetings where she had to tell parents their child hadn’t made any progress on reading, but those difficult conversations felt different because of the level of respect present for each child.

New School 1
(Courtesy of Nicola Fleischer)

“I really don’t want to send the message that we’ve done this perfectly this year, but we’ve tried to do it,” Bobel Kilduff said. She’s disappointed that the school hasn’t attracted a more socioeconomically diverse set of students, but recognizes that demonstrated success will help make families feel comfortable taking a risk on a new idea. Right now, many of the families attending New School were attracted to the model because they already knew traditional didn’t work for their children.

Equity in learning styles as well as race and socioeconomics are at the core of the school’s mission, so even in kindergarten and first grade, teachers are leading conversations with students about difference and learning diversity.

“We spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year talking about equity and what that means in a first-grade classroom,” Fleischer said. They started with the concrete, talking about why one child gets to sit on a bouncy chair and others have to sit on the floor. Soon that expanded into a discussion of whether the same thing for everyone is actually “fair.”

“It was really beautiful,” Fleischer said of a conversation about a graphic showing three kids, each with a different number of crates under their feet so they can see over a fence. “They weren’t pushing back against that; they said that made sense,” Fleischer said. That conversation about “the same” being different from “equal” led the class into a more specific discussion about each of their own strengths, and areas where they might need a “crate” to support their learning.

Educators at the New School are hoping that having these types of conversations early in a child’s life will make them more tolerant generally. A celebration of difference is at the heart of the school and kids are learning early to be comfortable with it. This class culture grounds all the academic individualization teachers are trying to do at other times.

In Fleischer’s first-grade class, she has kids who came in reading at a pre-K level and others who are already mastering third- or fourth- grade-level books. She said it’s common during “readers workshop” for more advanced readers to find a spot in the room to dive into a book on their own, while a teacher leads a smaller group in a vowel patterns lesson that looks more typical of first grade. After a little while, the teacher might check back in with those advanced readers for a “book club discussion,” checking on their comprehension and vocabulary skills.

“You might imagine kids arriving at school and doing whatever they want to do all day,” Fleischer said. “That’s not our model. There’s a structure where everyone is doing reading at this time or doing writing at another time.” But the actual tasks they are engaged in could be very different.

The school’s focus on inquiry also allows for personalization. Some kids hear a broad question and are off and running on their own curiosity, while others need more support questions to get them going. “It’s been so liberating as a teacher that when you see the ones who are ready to go, you can just let them go,” Fleischer said. And, while the school does focus on personalization, teachers also keep an eye on making sure students work together and learn important skills that will allow them to function outside the unique school environment.

“The hardest part is the tension between really giving everyone what they need and being a public school and meeting standards. That’s just really hard,” Fleischer said. And right now, to do that, teachers are spending a lot more time than the average teacher working. But, teachers are working with the administrators to find better ways to capture what they know about each individual child, document it and share it out to parents and future teachers.


That’s one of the New School’s current stretch goals.