South Eastern and West York Area school districts are dabbling in personalized learning in an effort to better teach students of different levels within the same classroom.

The two school districts were recently recognized in a report by the Hybrid Learning Institute for their work with personalized learning, which involves a hybrid approach to instruction. Essentially, hybrid learning means students are divided into small groups and switch between having small-group instruction with the teacher, working on a project with other students or working individually with technology.

South Eastern Intermediate and Middle School Principal Jon Horton has explained in the past that there's a lot of flexibility in how the model is implemented in each classroom. Some teachers might have four stations in their rooms, some might have three or two, and sometimes a traditional lecture is best for the subject matter at hand, he explained.

The hybrid-learning model gives teachers a chance to have face-to-face time with every student in the room, implement technology into lessons and foster an environment of teamwork and collaboration, all in one day, he has said.

"It takes a little bit of time for teachers to make it their own," Horton said. "It works differently for everyone."

Test scores: West York Area High School has been working with a personalized-learning model for three years, and district Superintendent Emilie Lonardi said this year it has expanded to some classes in the middle school. Sixth-grade students as a whole still aren't seeing the hybrid instruction, but they will next year. Some sixth-grade classes have started to implement it, Lonardi said.

Starting at the high school level makes the district different, Lonardi said. Many other schools who have implemented personalized learning do so at the elementary or middle school level, as South Eastern did. South Eastern Intermediate School also has been using a hybrid-learning model for three years. This is the first year the district has implemented it at the middle school level as well.

Horton said there's no plan right now to expand to the high school level because it appears to be working best at the lower levels, with PSSA test scores having increased at the fifth-grade level since implementation, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

In 2015, 68.5 percent of fifth-graders at the school scored proficient or advanced on the English language arts exam, and the total increased to 73.1 percent in 2016. For math, 49.8 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in 2015, but in 2016, 56 percent of fifth-graders achieved those levels.

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West York is seeing results with the approach, too. According to the report by the Hybrid Learning Institute, the high school passed the state Keystone exams at a 32 percent higher rate than students in traditional classrooms across the commonwealth.

Other benefits: According to Lonardi, the test results are just one good part of the personalized-learning model. She said in her class observations she's noticed the subject matter is more personalized to each student, that higher-level thinking is done by the students and all students are on task.

"Nobody is just sitting there looking around or looking out the window," Lonardi said. "Everybody's doing something."

Teachers at South Eastern were initially worried about having students work together because of the potential for distractions, but now students work together every day and are great about staying on task in that group time, staff members say.

"Watching them thrive with peers is interesting to see," said seventh-grade English teacher Jillian Watto, adding that most of her students tend to prefer a collaborative setting now.

Lonardi pointed out collaboration is a major skill required in the job sector. Though students need to be taught how to effectively collaborate, rather than just dividing and conquering an assignment, it's beneficial to getting them to being career- or college-ready upon graduation, according to both Horton and Lonardi.

Lonardi and Horton said they've also seen a change in student behavior under the hybrid-learning model. Because teachers are working with students in smaller groups, they aren't able to hide from instruction or distract other students. Lonardi said the school also has seen a decrease in discipline issues among teachers who struggled with classroom management before the shift.

The personalized-learning approach can be a major change for teachers, though. Many have to completely shift their thinking, and Horton has said it requires an emphasis on student data so instructors understand each student's strengths and weaknesses.

Despite this, Lonardi and Horton said teachers who have implemented the model prefer it to traditional teaching.

Horton also said he would encourage other schools to look into this style of teaching, particularly if they want to reach students who need help or need to be challenged more.

"We can't just teach to the middle anymore," he said. "It doesn't work that way."

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