Mary Carol StanleyAs a principal of Luella Middle School, I’ve seen the difference it makes when students are the drivers of their own learning. Our school district in Henry County, Georgia, is implementing student-centered learning across the district with a strong focus on student agency. At Luella, student-centered learning means students choose how they want to learn material and how to demonstrate mastery.

Initially, our students weren’t finding time to understand topics at a deep level. So, a few years ago, we decided that we would allow students to choose from a menu that we call playlists, which are different ways of learning, from investigative activities to group collaboration, so that they could delve more deeply in a way that matched their learning preferences. Every Monday we have “What I Need” or “WIN” time—the students have four periods of core classes (English language arts, math, science, and social studies), along with extra time when they can work on a subject they need extra help in, using their preferred learning approach. The objective is for students to master certain material within timely increments, however they feel most comfortable learning it and with whatever additional support they need.

We’re also teaching students to use their own personal data to make wise decisions to boost their performance. Students set goals during each playlist and track their progress through mini assessments. This allows students to be vested in and take ownership of their learning. Likewise, based on the data collected, teachers focus lessons on specific topics for students who need it most. Overall, we’ve not only seen growth in student performance but attendance and behavior have also improved at all grade levels.

WIN time has evolved and continues to evolve as we get more personalized and learn how to better serve our students. Any change we made to the structure of WIN time incorporates input from our stakeholders, including our students. They have the greatest stories that testify to the impact of WIN and there’s been a real uptick in student agency. They’re stepping out of their boxes because they know their teachers and advisors care about them and will listen and support them. And they’re starting to be their own advocates, speaking at Board of Education meetings and guiding school tours because they’re proud of their school’s culture of student empowerment.

Making sure this approach works well for students helps teachers be more efficient and engaged with their students. We quickly realized that it is crucial for teachers to build relationships with students. Our students represent a variety of backgrounds, from homeless to very financially advantaged, and they all come with their own issues and concerns. As educators, we get to know and relate to our students and their needs. Those relationships, combined with access to student data, help teachers understand how they can help maximize students’ potential.

Where we can, we support teachers to create classrooms and learning opportunities that promote student agency. We do a lot of professional development, protect teachers’ planning time, and make sure they are supported with in-house workshops, resources and instructional support. Teachers lean on each other, too. Those who are stronger in certain strands of content will lead lessons for those areas. It’s a very collaborative learning environment that translates well to better classroom instruction.

However, getting teachers to let go and allow their students to guide themselves was a challenge, as was getting parents—who went through more traditional schooling—to embrace a growth mindset that focuses less on grades and more on their kids’ improvements. As a school leader, it’s been hard to convince the adults in the room to step out of their comfort zones. We’ve worked hard to help them understand that sometimes students’ greatest successes come from their biggest failures. They’ve come around and more are embracing our approach to student agency.

In the end, it’s all about the students and what’s best for them. But the needs of one are not the needs of all, and students’ needs stretch beyond just the academic realm. When I think back to being in school, the things that stand out in my educational career aren’t necessarily the things I was tested on—it was the experiences I had along the way. And that’s what we’re focused on at Luella. We’re not just shaping the academic experience of the students, we’re shaping their lives, too.