This satellite of Shaker Heights High School gets personal with learning.

By Jennifer Proe

Upon entering the lower level of the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building, Shaker students and families are welcomed into a satellite of Shaker Heights High School known as the Innovative Center for Personalized Learning and Family Engagement – the IC, for short.

Seated at a group of round tables in a quiet but collegial environment, a group of Shaker Heights High School students work diligently at their laptops, within arm’s reach of four blended-learning tutors who are ready to offer support and instruction when it’s needed. One student is studying Beowulf for British Literature while another is working on geometry. A third student has just completed a government class.

The Shaker Schools Innovative Center

The IC officially opened its doors in 2014.

For each of these students, the IC may be offering just what he or she needs in order to succeed: an alternative-learning teaching style, more course options, or the ability to work at a slower – or faster – pace than a traditional classroom can offer.

“The IC’s ultimate personalized learning mission is actually threefold,” says Marla Robinson, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Shaker Schools. “The goal of Phase One, our current phase, is to provide high-quality alternative learning opportunities for high school students who are not finding success in a traditional setting.”

“Phase Two, which will begin next year, will expand options for students who may have a scheduling conflict that prevents them from taking a particular course, or to allow them to take an elective the High School does not offer — like Arabic, for example. Phase Two will also include an expansion in the areas of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics through increased collaboration with community partners such as businesses, colleges, and universities.

“Phase Three will expand the Center’s role by creating a professional learning hub for Shaker Heights staff. We may, for example, provide cohorts of Shaker staff with the opportunity to take university courses at the Center.”

Making Connections

The mission of the Family Engagement Center is to provide a place where parents can interact, learn more about navigating the system, obtain information about community resources, and have online access to their student’s information, such as grades and assignments.

The IC opened its doors at the beginning of the school year, thanks to a partnership with the City of Shaker Heights, which provides the building space rent free. Significant funding from the Shaker Schools Foundation, along with a host of private donors, helped bring the District’s vision for the IC to fruition. (See sidebar.)

“Establishing an online learning center has been a priority for our District since I arrived last year,” says Superintendent of Schools Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. “This is an important step in expanding the opportunities for students beyond the traditional school day. We are very grateful to the City and our funders for making it possible.”

Over the summer, the lower level of the Community Building was transformed into a learning lab, and outfitted with wifi, computers, and furniture that can be arranged for independent or group work. (Recreation programs that formerly used the space have been relocated.)

For each of these students, the IC may be offering just what he or she needs in order to succeed: an alternative-learning teaching style, more course options, or the ability to work at a slower – or faster – pace than a traditional classroom can offer.

Says Mayor Earl Leiken, “The members of City Council and I were delighted to be able to find a space in a city building to accommodate the IC. This is a good example of Shaker’s governmental entities working in partnership to achieve goals that benefit the whole community.”

The Family Engagement Center is one example of how the IC is serving all Shaker families. This partnership between
the School District and the Shaker Heights PTO Council has launched a series of informational events focusing on topics like measuring school quality, family wellness, and technology. A dedicated Family Engagement space within the IC will offer a number of resources to help parents support their students’ development throughout the Pre K-12 years.

“We are very excited to be partnering with our District to engage families in the holistic educational approach we value in Shaker,” says Tracy Peebles, who is PTO Council co-president this year with Jeff Isaacs.

Back in the Fold

Opening the IC has allowed the District to bring back students who had left the school system in order to attend North Coast Academy, an online learning center located in Richmond Heights. The students are happy to be able to pursue their Shaker diploma at the IC, using the certified Ohio Online Learning Program.

The District also realizes savings to its operating budget from re-enrolling the students here. Being closer to home is a major plus for the students. The relocation not only eliminated the commute to Richmond Heights – up to an hour each way on public transportation – but also gives students opportunities to meet with their guidance counselors and attend events at the High School. They also benefit greatly from face-to-face instruction time with blended-learning tutors who are specially trained to support them.

Gina Eaton, Coordinator of the IC, stresses, “Engagement is really critical to the students’ success. One-on-one interaction with the tutors allows us to know what the students are working on, to set goals with them, and to hold them to it. They’re not just out there in cyberspace. We personalize the experience as much as possible.”

The online program permits students to master material at their own pace, enabling the highly motivated to move at a fast clip. Says one student, “My goal is to graduate on time with my class this year. I thought I was too far behind, but now I think it will happen. I would like to do a two-year program at Tri-C and then go into the Air Force.” Another student has plans to attend CSU next year and study medicine.

Soon, the IC will be ready to accommodate Shaker High students who would like to make room for an elective in their schedule, add another language, or take a course not offered at the school. Down the road, the Center will also be available for teachers pursuing professional development. The District is looking into the possibility of a partnership with a local university to provide a doctoral program, for example.

Next on the horizon is helping students apply their knowledge in the real world through career education and internships in the community. “The vision is really limitless,” says Robinson. “Some of our students who struggle in a traditional academic setting thrive when given a creative outlet. I could even see a student running his or her own business using this model. Meaningful engagement is the goal.”

Originally published in Shaker Life, Winter 2015.