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Personalized Pathways (copy)

A Madison student explores a table of literature at an expo at the Alliant Energy Center. The event was designed to introduce eighth-graders to the "Personalized Pathways" initiative in the Madison School District, which is now looking to expand.

The Madison School Board is weighing whether to expand its Personalized Pathways program, an initiative that allows students to enroll in core classes organized around a theme and taken with a small group of peers.

The current iteration of Pathways focuses on health services, and has been offered at the city's four comprehensive high schools: West, East, La Follette and Memorial. District officials recommended to the School Board on Monday night that a second Pathways option focused on information technology and communications be approved for future years of the program.

“The small learning communities that Pathways offers are powerful because a small group of teachers gets to know their students,” Cindy Green, the Madison Metropolitan School District’s executive director for curriculum and instruction told the board. “Their students know each other well and build strong relationships. Paired with the interdisciplinary connections and integrative projects and theme-based work, they get to go to math, go to science, go to social studies and there’s light bulbs that are coming on because there are connections being made.”

Representatives from La Follette, Memorial and East high schools echoed the strong praise for the Pathways model, which Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham stressed is “designed not to be incremental, but to be transformational.”

“Smaller learning communities does not mean class sizes are smaller — they’re very equal to non-Pathway classes,” said Mike Hernandez, the principal of East. “The partners, these additional adults that are coming into the classroom, getting to know the kids, ask questions about them. The students look forward to seeing them.”

Hernandez stressed that Pathways had been successful at East because the partners — representatives from various community agencies, companies and universities — look like the students they work with in the program.

The 2017-18 school year was the first year MMSD implemented Pathways into the high schools, serving about 415 ninth-grade students. Green, who led the Pathways program, said participants in Pathways generally had a high attendance record and high likelihood of being on track.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last year,” Green said. “It’s been a learning opportunity for us. The data is generally showing that students are doing well. We are using this to continue to perfect at this point, to use the great teaching cycle: plan, teach, reflect and adjust.”

However, some members of the School Board raised concerns at Monday’s instruction work group meeting regarding the viability of expanding the program to include an additional pathway, ranging from attrition to crowding out the possibility of students taking certain elective classes because of their pathway programming.

“If that (attrition) continues over four years, we end up with very small cohorts,” School Board member TJ Mertz said.

For School Board member Kate Toews, the question of whether Pathways was necessary to achieve many of the benefits district staff said it brings, such as smaller learning environments and a more integrated and thematic curriculum, loomed large.

Green said much of the attrition during the last school year happened at West High School, which is not slated to add the information technology and communications pathway soon. Principal Karen Boran attributed the challenges West faced to misconceptions West community members had about the program.

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Many often thought that by participating in a Pathways program, a student was only going to be learning things related to health services, according to Boran.

“I would agree that there was a misconception among parents, of, ‘you want my eighth-grader to choose a job,'” said Blair Feltham, the Pathway Learning Coordinator at West who taught ninth-grade U.S. History under the Pathways model.

Feltham said the material she taught both Pathways and non-Pathways students was largely similar.

“The main curriculum didn’t go away,” she said.

Outside groups that collaborated with MMSD on the Pathways program included Madison College, UW Health, Edgewood College, the Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, Madison Chamber of Commerce, Dane County and Madison.

Many of these partners organized experiential learning opportunities such as college tours and company visits, as well as events for students to learn about how what Pathways students learn in their classes are applicable to the everyday lives of professionals.   

The School Board will likely vote on proposed expansion at their Nov. 26 meeting.

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.