West Clermont Words: School-Centered vs. Student-Centered

by Natasha L. Adams

Railroad Tracks and Super Highways

Yesterday’s learning system is much like a railroad track. Students get on the railway car, basically head in the same direction together, and often stay on that same track until they move “off track” because they can’t keep up or because they “finish” the ride.  Yesterday’s system was designed to be school-centered, which means standardization and efficiency were of high value. That is why our schools have looked and behaved more like factories serving the masses, sorting and ranking students as either on-track or off-track. 

We must better address our modern learners’ unique needs, interests and capabilities, which is why today’s learning system needs to be designed much more like a super highway with multiple routes and lanes, off-ramps, entrances, exits, layers, alternating speeds and attractions along the way.  It needs to be more student-centered where, by design, the system accepts the fact that not every learner is the same coming into the system and is not going to be the same coming out of the system. It has to be an agile school system that is responsive to the diverse needs of our students and that cares about each child’s personal hopes and dreams. 

According to the Ohio Department of Education’s Whole Child Framework, “When students are healthy, feel safe, are supported through strong systems and relationships, are challenged and experience success, and are engaged in learning that is relevant and meaningful, they are more likely to enjoy learning, develop positive social skills and achieve greater success.”  A student-centered system needs to be in place so that we can create the conditions described above to help all students realize their full potential.

If we are going to RISE in West Clermont, we have to take the “super high road” that boldly moves away from a school-centered approach to a student-centered experience and not settle for the “easy road” of doing what we have always done.  

“Student-centered” was chosen as one of our district values just a few years ago and the COVID-19 pandemic disruption in the spring has only amplified the importance of this value and our dedication to bringing it to life in our schools. When we live our values, we live our “why” – giving us both direction and meaning.  Values anchor our decision-making and give our actions a greater purpose beyond ourselves.  This student-centered value plays out in both small and large ways in our school district.  For example, small ways include the ways we approach organizing our Positive Behavior Interventions Support (PBIS) models so that they are unique to each grade level; in medium-sized ways include how we prioritize social-emotional learning across the school system; and a large-way example is how we design the curriculum offerings, school schedules, and pathways to graduation.  

As with anything that takes dedication, there are both challenges and opportunities for a student-centered learning system.  As an example, the state curriculum, policies and processes, which include what we teach and how we assess our students, are rooted in the old model. Educators are evaluated on how students successfully perform on one electronic assessment on one test day.  Additionally, families often want change, but a shift away from how it was when they were in school can cause discomfort and create anxiety. Schools cannot do it alone; it takes a whole community to come together to serve students in this way. There are barriers to overcome as we have “one foot” in the old school-centered system and “one foot” in the new student-centered system.   

Students should not have to “fit” into a narrow definition of school; they should not have to stay on one railroad track regardless if it is the right track for them or not. The learning experience should be designed to serve each unique learner.  Opportunities that exist in a student-centered learning environment include developing key partnerships within our schools and community; expanding our definition of “learning environment” to include anytime, anywhere learning; ensuring we have the digital capabilities so that all of our students have access to education everywhere they go; and providing a safe space for students and opportunities for our students participate in relevant real-world learning experiences that are meaningful. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly energized our interest and affirmed our vision in developing a student-centered learning ecosystem in our school district because we know our students need this now more than ever.  Although there are challenges and barriers to overcome, we are committed to this work.  

We have formed and expanded our district teams to focus on creating the conditions needed for a stronger student-centered learning environment in West Clermont.  Our emphasis this school year includes expanding our district Business Advisory Council to bring more educational opportunities to our students, enhancing our Family and Community Engagement efforts to advance student learning, clearly defining our roles as leaders and educators in a student-centered system, and taking what we know about best-in-class, face-to-face learning and what we are learning about remote learning to progress our innovative approaches to the student experience.  

Taking on this courageous work, despite the barriers is just another way we commit to excellence with every learner, every day, every way!


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