Commentary: Don’t leave the high-achievers behind

A rendering of the new Farmington High School.

The debate over how to improve public education often revolves around helping the many students who are struggling to meet grade-level standards. Without a doubt, our national education system urgently needs policy changes and the right resources to ensure that underperforming students receive the support they need to grow and thrive.

But this discussion ignores another group of students who are also neglected by the education system: high-achieving students. What happens to high-performing students who have mastered grade-level content and are ready to move forward, work quickly and take on additional content? If you’re a teacher or parent of a high-achiever, you know the answer. Many of them become disengaged or, because they’re not being challenged, fall far short of their potential.

When Farmington High School in the Davis School District opened last year, we decided to make sure our high-achieving students weren’t overlooked. We chose to adopt a blended and personalized learning program that allows students to work at their own pace.

This approach, Summit Learning, is not tailored only to advanced students; it’s valuable for students no matter what level they’re at. But one of its benefits is that it allows students who are clearly ready to go beyond grade-level content to keep progressing, without distracting or negatively impacting their peers.

Our high-achievers are thriving thanks to personalized learning. A number of our students will complete social studies by mid-year. One student completed English by the end of the first term.

Nearly 22 percent of our students have accelerated in one or more of their courses.

When students complete their required coursework, they have the opportunity to move onto the following year’s material. They can also begin taking other classes necessary for graduation or tackle additional study materials, such as enrolling in ACT prep, a test crucial for college placement and scholarships.

One of our objectives is to help these students complete as many college credits as they can before they graduate high school. Besides preparing them for the rigors of college coursework, earning those credits now could enable them to graduate from college more quickly and save money.

Because personalized learning classrooms look and feel different than traditional classrooms, implementing the program involved some challenges. While students picked it up pretty easily, some teachers struggled to adjust at first. Many teachers reported that they are more captivated by their work than ever before. Some had to shift their mindsets as they adjusted to not always being center stage in the classroom.

But one by one, teachers watched their students’ eyes light up as they had the “a-ha” moment. The power of personalized learning began to click. Teachers began to see that instead of being the expert in the room, they could play a more transformative role by helping their students self-discover.

Soon our teachers recognized that while their roles are different in a personalized learning environment, they’re as essential as ever. And for many, the work is even more rewarding. Teachers now tell us they’re more collaborative and communicative with their students. And they love watching their kids catch on in a way that many never did before in the traditional setting.

Our experience has taught us the importance of breaking away from the idea that a one-size-fits-all teaching style will help all students. Some students will fall behind and other students will not have the opportunity to reach their full potential — but it doesn’t have to be this way. By adopting the right approach, educators can have the information and tools they need to meet the unique needs of each individual student.

Richard Swanson

Merci Rossmango

Richard Swanson is the principal of Farmington High School. Merci Rossmango is the Assistant Principal at Farmington High School.