Arlington Public Schools Engages with Partners to Create an Environment of Deeper Learning

Last spring, Arlington Public Schools created a collaborative group of over 60 teachers, administrators, students, and family and community members to develop and articulate new vision and mission statements which are now part of a five-year strategic plan. The two statements call out our commitment to be a district that provides equitable education and fosters a sense of belonging and joy, where all learning is inclusive and innovative, and one that values the different identities and ways of learning among our students. Collectively, the district community understands that creating a learning environment that meets our vision and mission is necessary for our young people to succeed when they leave Arlington Public Schools.

The learning environment that the district must create will help our students become deep thinkers who consider the real problems that exist and are connected to their communities and wider world. It must be flexible, open to the ways students demonstrate their learning, and provide time for them to dig deeper. It must involve more students in immersive learning and in “...experiences that develop mastery, identity, and creativity.” It must provide both students and adults with agency and choice.

This is why the district is now part of a community of practice with others across North America that are dedicated to transforming their districts in ways that will support equitable access to deeper learning experiences and outcomes for all students and adults. Together they work with the Deeper Learning Dozen, an organization that helps the partners learn from each other and make the changes in leadership, systems, adult learning, and pedagogy necessary to achieve this transformation.

One way the Deeper Learning Dozen assists the partner school districts in this work is to offer convenings, both in-person and virtual. For example, the APS Deeper Learning Team joined other community members in a visit to the Abbotsford School District in British Columbia. This district includes “...46 schools that are attended by over 19,000 full and part-time students….” Since the schools are located  on “...the traditional territory of the Sumas First Nation and Matsqui First Nation…” it is important that the cultural protocols of these communities are respected in all programs and services. The participants began their visit in a long house where they were welcomed and introduced to the indigenous cultures. The week included visits to the local schools, listening to teachers, and working with facilitators from the Deeper Learning Dozen who helped them learn more about the practice of deeper learning, consider what it means to be more adult and student-centered, and to explore their individual identities as districts. 

The priorities and initiatives detailed in the APS Strategic Plan offer many ways in which deeper learning can become a regular part of the educational environment. For example, choosing a new curriculum is an opportunity to make decisions that start with the student experience, considering the depth and relevance of what our students learn,  and move out as opposed to starting with decision makers and moving down. The current APS work to replace the K-5 English Language Arts curriculum is a good example of how this can work. The process includes hearing from teachers and staff, and community members to understand what has been going on in the classrooms with the current curriculum and what the educators believe is important going forward. Parents are invited to learn about different options and to attend Parent Publisher Roundtables where they can ask questions and provide feedback to the district. Throughout the process, the options can be evaluated as to their support for deeper learning principles. Does the curriculum provide the opportunity for students to think critically, to collaborate, and to see themselves in what they are learning? To learn deeply about an area of interest? To create solutions to real world problems? To support learning in more than one approach? To create high quality work they’re proud of?

Raising and valuing the student voice and that of teachers, staff, and families is an important component to expand deeper learning and one that APS is addressing through the annual Panorama School Culture and Climate Survey. These surveys are early in their implementation and the district intention is to encourage more stakeholder voices to identify problem areas and underpin activities and strategic initiatives that support continuous improvement in creating, as the Mission states, “ equitable educational community where all learners feel a sense of belonging,...” and find joy.

Monthly meetings supplement the convenings in driving the transition to deeper learning in the district. A facilitator from the Deeper Learning Dozen helps all participants expand their thinking and start to identify where immersive learning experiences are happening in the Arlington Public Schools. Team members who have attended the early convenings include Dallin Principal Thad Dingman, Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Homan, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Roderick MacNeal Jr., Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Alison Elmer, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice Margaret Credle Thomas, Assistant Superintendent, Finance and Operations,  Michael Mason, and Science Director Samantha Hoyo. The expectation is that a Deeper Learning Administrative Team will be created in the district, and that additional people will be invited to attend the next convening in Revere, Massachusetts. It is also expected that the partner districts will visit APS, perhaps as early as next year. 

APS has made a long-term commitment toward creating an environment that is value-driven as opposed to policy-driven. It is committed to be a district that listens to students and teachers, puts equity first, and lets students experience learning in ways that are meaningful to them. It is committed to create an environment of deeper learning that leads to joy.