How Lindsay Unified earned Race to the Top success

The Fresno BeeNovember 27, 2012 

LINDSAY -- At the Lindsay Unified School District, a second-grader can be doing fourth-grade work while a fellow second-grader gets one-on-one help to make the grade.

Here, children progress at their own pace, regardless of their grade level. It's called performance-based learning, and it's a growing trend in education.

Lindsay learned Monday that it's one of only four districts in California to be named a finalist for federal Race to the Top education improvement funds. Its innovative program might have given the rural district a leg up in the competition.

"I think it would certainly draw the attention of the judges in the U.S. Department of Education," said John Fensterwald, editor of EdSource Today, an online news site dealing with California education.

Personalized learning is one of the government's priorities in the Race to the Top program, Fensterwald said. "Performance-based learning certainly complements and fits into that focus very much."

Lindsay Unified Superintendent Tom Rooney has no trouble trumpeting the system. "People learn in different ways and they learn in different time frames," he said.

But he wasn't gloating. The district still must compete against 60 other districts that made the list of grant finalists announced by the Department of Education.

Lindsay applied for $10 million of the $400 million up for grabs. The Department of Education will award four-year grants of $5 million to $40 million to 15 to 25 districts by the end of this year.

One of Lindsay's competitors is Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, a kindergarten-eighth grade district with an enrollment of about 4,000 located between Stockton and Sacramento. Also making the cut: New Haven Unified School District, a 13,000-student district south of Hayward, and Animo Charter Schools in Southern California.

Galt has a lot of similarities to Lindsay, besides its small enrollment. It applied for $10 million in Race to the Top funds and the district's focus is personalized education. "The intent, I believe with this grant, was really looking at system change to personalize the learning environment to make students college- and career-ready," Superintendent Karen Schauer said.

Rooney is confident Lindsay has a strong application, and its inclusion as a finalist put him at "another level of hopeful" Monday evening.

Making the final cut is a significant step for the 4,100-student district surrounded by orange groves in Tulare County. The district beat out much larger competitors in the San Joaquin Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Sanger and Central unified districts.

Lindsay Unified introduced performance-based learning four years ago to ninth-graders and expanded it this year to every grade level, making it a pace-setter. "It's just beginning to gain speed" nationwide, Rooney said.

School officials from districts across the country visit Lindsay schools to study the education system. In January, officials from Kenowa Hills, a 3,500-student school district in Grand Rapids, Mich., will be in the city, said Rick Schreiber, co-founder of Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, an Alaska-based nonprofit that helped Lindsay develop its program.

Lindsay's history with the learning method could have played into the district's ranking with Race to the Top judges, Schreiber said.

The judges would have known "they're already well along the path, and that this grant award would allow them to further develop what they're doing and would allow other districts across the country to take that information and apply it to their organizations," he said.

Lindsay's scores on the standardized API tests have increased 91 points from 2009 to 2012, the district says. That includes an increase in ninth-grade English Language Arts proficiency, from 29% of students in 2009 to 41% in 2012.

The system is a hit with students at Lindsay High.

Senior Roman Bravo, 17, said the new technique allows him to get through English class faster. "It's pretty cool," he said. "You can go at your own pace. On the old system, you have to just wait."

Teachers say they like it, too.

Students who need to go more slowly can do so, and still end up with good grades, said history teacher Joe Traeger.

Third-year science teacher Perla Haro said students tend to fall into groups of faster learners and slower learners, yet both groups benefit. "The kids who can work on their own, we let them," Haro said. "That lets me concentrate on the kids who need more one-on-one."

It took teachers a while to accept the performance-based learning, but they're starting to like it, said third grade teacher Greg Shanley, president of the Lindsay Teachers Association. "Change is always scary," Shanley said. "After awhile, I could see the benefits."

With $10 million from Race to the Top, the district could "refine and accelerate" its program, Rooney said.

The district has a clear curriculum so that students, teachers and parents know what students are required to learn, he said. The grading system uses a 0 to 4 range rather than letter grades.

"It clearly defines what a student is supposed to know and at what level," Rooney said. A student receiving a "2," for example, has mastery of simple knowledge, and a "3" is an understanding of simple and complex knowledge. "Our minimum standard is a Level 3," he said.

Level "4" is the ability to apply learning -- and it's the district's goal for every student to reach that level, Rooney said. "We've raised the bar," he said. "And Race to the Top will take us to Level 4."

Staff writer Lewis Griswold contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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