An approach to letting students drive learning and education

Schoolwide Enrichment Model requires educators to relinquish some control

Giftedness is not just a test score. How many students have we seen who did not have a test score to qualify for a gifted program but became an expert in an area of passion and interest? This broader definition of giftedness is one I learned from Joseph Renzulli, a longtime professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

I have worked in three school districts as a building principal and superintendent, collaborating with Renzulli to apply his pioneering ideas about giftedness and personalized learning.

Following passions

What if we could personalize learning for all kids in all classrooms? Another of Renzulli’s principles—the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM)—serves as an entry point for schools that want to do just this.

In an SEM cluster, students drive their learning with the help of the cluster facilitator. Additionally, teachers do not create a lesson plan prior to the cluster meeting but lead class discussions to help students determine their own learning paths.

I had identified five elements to personalize learning. They are:

knowing your students

voice and choice

flexible groups, spaces, mindsets


technology support

A teacher who knows their students’ interests and capacities well can allow for more voice and choice. Once students find their voices and make learning choices, a teacher becomes more flexible.

I had a teacher tell me she was letting go of deadlines because students wanted to submit their best work and needed more time. Data informs our work with individual students. This data is critical to map out a learning pathway that is personalized based on student needs to extend learning or to relearn content.

My district, Westside Community Schools, is a 1-to-1 learning environment. Our teachers enhance learning by using technology such as iPads and laptops. We do this so our students can create personalized content and use individualized applications while they work at their own pace to master our standards and benchmarks. The results are definitely worth the journey.

At Westside Community Schools, reading scores are improving and fewer students need remediation. Furthermore, our Gallup student and staff engagement scores are on the rise, demonstrating that people enjoy the teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms.

Proven success

I have seen similar results each time I’ve implemented these types of learning approaches. Achievement gaps closed. Student achievement increased. Students could see the relevance in the subject matter based on their interests. Most importantly, students’ academic confidence grew. SEM leveled the playing field.

Today, Westside has nine of 10 elementary schools and our middle school implementing SEM. In addition, our high school, with the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, is implementing a version of SEM through our Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

Students in the center participate in a variety of meaningful, real-world learning opportunities, such as job shadows and internships. One group of students recently designed and built a circulation desk using recycled materials from a historic district elementary school that was recently torn down to make room for a brand new building.

One student became so engaged that he will now pursue a major in architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His excitement and engagement is off the charts, thanks to his involvement in this project.

With the emphasis on personalizing learning for every student, SEM is a perfect entry to helping staff feel comfortable relinquishing classroom control and begin to trust their students.

Blane McCann is the superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Nebraska.

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