Baldwin Public Schools, a K-12 public school district located in New York, has embarked on a journey of personalized learning by creating academic academies. “They are professional academies in our high school, but we brought that from grade eight all the way through grade 12,” says Dr. Shari Camhi, superintendent of Baldwin Public Schools.
The district has built the academies to drive student engagement. They include a medical and health academy, an engineering and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) academy and a new media academy in partnership with a local college. “The premise of these academies is that they are rigorous college level courses combined with internships, shadow days and competitions,” says Camhi.
Baldwin embedded technology within each academy and redesigned learning spaces to mirror what the real-world work environment looks like. For design ideas, Baldwin district leaders visited companies, such as Google, to redesign the spaces around what work will likely look like after they graduate. “If you look at some of our classrooms now, they look like Google — not all of them, but some,” she says.
To start the redesign process, Camhi sent an email to her staff and seven volunteers responded who were willing to give redesigning spaces a shot. Next, she sent another email recruiting volunteers and 47 teachers responded.
In Baldwin, the district defines personalized learning as, “a way to create programs around the needs and interests of kids and around the needs and interests of the professional community where our kids will graduate into and live.”
Many school districts create programs, and then they look for students to fit into those programs. “We’re doing it the opposite way, where we are identifying the areas of need for workers when these kids graduate and designing programs around that and what we have identified as an interest of our kids,” says Camhi.
When Baldwin began developing the academies, expectations were modest. “But now, it’s really the focus of our education system,” she says. “Two years ago, we brought the academies to eighth grade, so students in middle school now have four opportunities to experiment with different academies over the course of the year so that when they go into ninth grade they have a better idea of what they want to do.”
The educators are very careful to make sure students have real-world experiences. In four years, students will easily participate in 40 shadow days. “When they’re doing that work, they’re not just sitting watching. They are deeply involved in what’s happening,” according to Camhi.
The district had a high school graduation rate of 97 percent as of August 2017.
Dr. Camhi wants people to know that school “does not have to look like rows and columns of kids that are sitting and listening to information imparted upon them. If we are preparing students for the future workforce, our kids really need to be producers and not recipients. Part of producing is getting out of school or creating an environment in school that gives them the feel and the experience of what it will be like for them when they are in the world of work. It doesn’t always boil down to assessments and numbers, it’s about learning. I would say education needs to really think more about learning and what that experience needs to be for students to be prepared 20, 30 years and beyond.”