Personalized Learning Experiences Program
The Personalized Learning Experiences (PLE) program allows high school students to design a credit-earning program of study based on a personal or career interest that isn’t part of the standard curriculum.
Roughly 10 percent of the high school student population (approximately 200 students) completes a PLE every year. Since we started the program during the 2013-14 school year, we have had just under 1500 participants and just over 800 credits earned. Our PLEs are as diverse as our students. PLEs have included everything from Aquaponics to learning another language to Mortuary Science.
Connections to Real World Learning Roadmap
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RWL provides students with opportunities to engage in learning outside of the classroom and explore topics that are personally relevant to them. Through our Personalized Learning Experiences (PLE) program, students engage in meaningful learning activities that help them pursue their passions, identify strengths and areas for growth, and investigate potential career paths. Our goal is to promote student self-advocacy, life-long learning, career exploration, and self-reflection.
Implementation: How We Did It
The PLE program originally came out of some grant work we were doing with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which was focused on implementing district-level change to ensure that all students are graduating college and career ready. Our theory of change involved providing opportunities for student-centered learning, including anytime, anywhere learning, and promoting student voice and choice. We focused, in particular, on implementing student-centered learning models at our high schools.
Students often learn about the PLE program and get interested through their peers. We also distribute PLE flyers and posters, and the PLE coordinators visit study halls to talk about the program and recruit students. We include information about PLEs as part of announcements and daily broadcasts. Some PLEs involve showcases of student work (e.g., a student researched, wrote, cast, and produced a school play), and that’s another way students learn about the program.
Most students focus on a career interest, and what they learn isn’t always what they expected. For example, we have lots of students who love animals and think they want to be a veterinarian, so we help them design a PLE where they put in hours at the local veterinary clinic or animal shelter. By learning through hands-on experience what being a vet is really like, many end up deciding that they don’t want to be a vet after all.
Some students choose to design and complete PLEs because they want to extend their academic learning. For instance, we had a student who wanted to study the Russian language, but her high school didn’t offer a course in Russian, so she paired up with a World Language Teacher who happens to be Russian to design her own learning experience. In another case, a student had exhausted all of the Math classes available in his high school, so he designed a PLE that allowed him to take an online college-level Math class and earn both high school and college credit. If students are on athletic teams, or if they lifeguard or teach yoga, they can also earn half a physical education credit through PLEs.
To participate in the PLE program, students work with a supervising teacher certified in their chosen area of study and a PLE coordinator to design a program of study and complete an application. The application asks students to identify what they want to learn, how they are going to learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning. The PLE coordinator ensures that the program of study aligns to core academic or Career and Technical Education (CTE) standards and helps students complete the paperwork necessary to ensure that they will earn credit.
Most PLEs last a semester or a full-year, but students can earn a half credit or even a quarter credit by designing a PLE with a narrower focus. The schedule for the PLE can be flexible and does not have to align with the academic calendar or fit within the school day. Students commit about 60 hours to earn a half credit and about 120 hours to earn a full credit.
We have one PLE coordinator per building. For the first three years of the program, this was a .4 position (a teacher who teaches one less course and doesn’t have a duty assignment such as lunch or study hall), because the coordinator had to do research into policy and law regarding awarding credit, complete paperwork, and create materials. We also had to apply to participate in the Unpaid Experiential Learning Program (UELP), which is a partnership between the Connecticut Department of Labor and Department of Education that allows us to place students in programs outside of school. In the last two years, as the program has become more of a well-oiled machine, the PLE coordinator no longer has a reduced teaching schedule, but it continues to replace the teacher’s duty. In one of our high schools where we have a particularly large number of student participants, a second teacher splits a teacher duty period to assist the PLE coordinator.
Supervising teachers participate on a volunteer basis. They’re motivated by the chance to work in an area that they’re passionate about, with students with whom they have relationships. School counselors, parents, and community partners also play a role in making PLEs successful. The school counseling department can recommend students for PLEs or meet with the PLE coordinator regarding specific students. Parents sometimes provide transportation for students, and both parents and community partners provide opportunities for hands-on, work-based learning experiences and serve as authentic audiences. We have had City Councilors participate in PLEs so that students can become involved in town politics.
Sometimes the student will find an opportunity or a local organization they want to work with and reach out on their own. Other times, the PLE coordinator will establish partnerships. We host parent and community learning walks to build interest in the program. By bringing in parents and community members, we learn about even more opportunities for students to pursue.
Most PLEs focus on a career interest or passion projects. Some students complete PLEs because an academic course doesn’t fit into their schedule, or because the course is not offered due to lack of interest. Everything is tied to the curriculum, because every PLE is aligned to national standards, whether a core academic or elective areas.
Within the schools, people get very creative to find ways to make the program work for students. When our high schools underwent multi-million dollar renovations, we ran Build PLEs that involved professionals working on the buildings and engaging students to show them the job sites.
We have a committee responsible for quality control, which includes our grant coordinator, an assistant superintendent, and our Supervisor of Blended Learning. Committee members visit the schools to review PLE applications and meet with students to evaluate their progress and the rigor of their programs of study.
Final performance measures are agreed upon up front and vary depending on the PLE. They can be anything from producing a final artistic product (e.g., a performance, art portfolio, song composition, or video) to a resume and mock interview with a favorable rating to an hours log and final reflection (e.g., what I did, what I learned, what I would/will do differently, what I learned about myself) to a favorable review of an internship experience. The PLE coordinator works with students to make sure they complete their final projects, but not all students do. We don’t consider this a failure, though, because the students are still learning through the PLE.
Every year, the district looks at the number of students who participate in PLEs, the number of students who complete PLEs, the number of credits earned, and the end of program surveys for employers. Job site supervisors provide feedback for students.
Originally, we provided training for our PLE coordinators, which went over all of the logistics (e.g., inputting data in the student information system, getting required signatures, reviewing applications). We’ve had very little turnover in these positions, so we haven’t had to provide additional professional learning. We’ve created a guidebook for our PLE coordinators and supervising teachers that outlines expectations. Supervising teachers work closely with the PLE coordinator. Since they are already certified and have a high interest in the area of study, we haven’t had to provide additional professional learning for them.
At the beginning, we had to align the program to legal and policy requirements to ensure that students could participate in off-campus internships and earn credit.
We had funding up front from a foundation to get the program off the ground. The program doesn’t cost that much to run. We spend a little bit of money on promotion and on teacher appreciation events. We also give students who complete PLEs purple cords to wear at graduation, but these aren’t expensive.
Now that the grant is over, our plan moving forward is to keep the PLE coordinator position at .2, so we are only asking our principals to take away teachers’ duty, not teaching time; this doesn’t cost the district much. We have a good relationship with the teachers union, which has enabled us to implement this program without extra compensation for teachers.
The vast majority of the time, students are responsible for transportation. The one exception is when we have programs that involve transporting students from one of our school buildings to another, such as our future educator PLE where students practice student-teaching at one of our elementary schools. For those, we arrange for a bus leaving the high school to drop off students at the elementary school, unless the schools are so close that students can walk. Parents also pitch in to help out with transportation.
The Future of this Work
PLEs have become part of the culture of our high schools. Students like participating because the learning feels authentic. So far, sustaining the program hasn’t been difficult, because the returns far outweigh the investment.