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Personalization and Customization to Provide Holistic Student Support in Dowagiac Union School District’s Pathfinders Program in Michigan

Personalization and Customization to Provide Holistic Student Support in Dowagiac Union School District’s Pathfinders Program in Michigan

Within Dowagiac Union School District in southwestern Michigan, administrator Kara Cox wears a lot of hats. She serves as a lead guidance counselor, providing oversight and consulting to all other district counselors (in addition to working with students); manages the district’s high school freshman transition program; runs the Pathfinders alternative learning program; and previously taught adult basic education. Needless to say, Ms. Cox is a busy woman, but this breadth of experience and relationships within the district benefits her work with students, especially in the Pathfinders program, which serves students with widely varying needs.

Recently, we were able to have a conversation with Ms. Cox about how her program is structured, what its goals are, and how she and her staff are leveraging technology to provide more flexibility and personalized attention for students.

Serving Students with the Pathfinders Alternative Learning Program

Especially in the world of alternative learning, every student is entirely unique. Currently, the Pathfinders program serves approximately 60 students on site and an additional 25 students at the high school, some who qualify for special education services, some who need credit recovery to catch up with their cohorts, and others who simply have not been successful in the traditional classroom. For the vast majority of these students, severe behavior problems or unwillingness to learn are not the primary issues. Instead, most face challenges like demanding work schedules; parenting; or struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Working with students with such diverse backgrounds and taking a multifaceted approach to instruction are crucial for Ms. Cox and her staff.

Moving Beyond One-Size-Fits-All Credit Recovery

When Ms. Cox came on board three years ago, Dowagiac Union School District was struggling with credit recovery and low graduation rates. Recognizing the need to provide nontraditional options for some learners, the district’s alternative learning program had already been in place for over 15 years. However, there was frequent turnover in leadership, and the online curriculum that was being leveraged was not sufficiently preparing students for a return to traditional high school classrooms or for the rigors of college and careers.

Understanding the factors behind this poor student achievement was one of Ms. Cox’s first priorities. Although the Pathfinders program serves students in grades 9–12, its students on average come in performing at a 7th grade level in English language arts and a 5th grade level in math; addressing these skill deficits was key. As a starting point, Ms. Cox decided to explore Edmentum’s Accucess adaptive assessment solution at three different points throughout the school year to understand where learning gaps existed and gain insight into students’ academic growth.

This school year, Ms. Cox is taking this approach one step further by utilizing Courseware, in addition to the prescriptive learning paths in provided with Accucess. With these prescriptions, students are automatically assigned appropriately leveled content in Courseware after completing their diagnostic assessments in order to remediate skills gaps and continue building new skills in a scaffolded online learning environment. Ms. Cox and her colleagues within the district have also worked closely with the Edmentum team to customize their courses to ensure tight alignment between the Edmentum online courses and traditional courses being taught at the high school to help students who are in the Pathfinders program for credit recovery more easily rejoin their cohorts.

Achieving Success: Progress Monitoring and Personalization

Once Ms. Cox and her staff have pinpointed students’ skills gaps and learning needs, the next step is to closely monitor their progress. For many Pathfinders students, flexibility is both essential to their academic success and one of the most significant challenges they have to overcome. This makes close progress monitoring a critical element of the Pathfinders program. To manage demanding family and work schedules, students in the Pathfinders program are given the freedom to work at their own pace and on their own time, usually working individually on two to three courses at a time. Ms. Cox and her three staff members keep a close eye on how students perform on every assignment so that they can quickly address challenges, whether academic skills-based or personal ones.

Every aspect of learning in the Pathfinders program is highly personalized. The program staff goes above and beyond to make sure that students are receiving instruction in a manner that resonates and works for them. The staff puts significant time and effort into student outreach and trauma-informed decision-making, prioritizing open lines of communication and utilizing the channels that work best for individual students. Expectations for on-site attendance are also handled on a case-by-case basis. For some students, this means being allowed the freedom to work entirely remotely, while others attend only part-time or take advantage of evening sessions that Ms. Cox and her staff offer. If course progress becomes an issue, students are put on a “contract,” stipulating specific attendance expectations developed to help get them back on track.

Focusing on the Future with Career and Technical Education Options

The Pathfinders alternative program is about more than simply pushing struggling learners across the graduation finish line. When she took over the program, another one of Ms. Cox’s overarching goals was to make sure that students in the program are really getting the specific things they need to be successful in life beyond the classroom. She has pushed for greater access to arts, athletics, music, and career and technical education courses to help broaden students’ experiences and expand opportunities to pursue personal interests. Ms. Cox has also started incorporating career-readiness skills into the program, including interview preparation. Certain Pathfinders students are also able to participate in dual-enrollment programs with local community colleges in order to get a head start on career goals.

In the Dowagiac Union School District, Ms. Cox and her staff are doing outstanding work to attain big results with limited resources by focusing on building relationships with every student and leveraging customized online courses and progress monitoring to provide truly personalized instruction. The Pathfinders alternative learning program is making a real difference in helping students overcome diverse challenges, achieve academic success, and set and meet personal goals.

Interested in learning more about how Edmentum is helping Michigan schools achieve credit recovery goals? Check out how an additional Michigan school and a district, Ludington High School and Van Dyke Public Schools, are using Courseware to address unique credit recovery needs!