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Program directors in the Madison School District have been helping teachers and staff this summer prepare for the fall start of the Personalized Pathways Initiative for 454 freshmen at the district’s four main high schools.

The program, billed as a way of providing “a real-world context for learning,” among other goals, represents a potentially major restructuring of high school learning, especially if more students eventually take part.

Special training for ninth-grade teachers early in the summer, and for 10th-grade teachers and other staff earlier this month, was provided in weeklong sessions.

Staff at East, West, La Follette and Memorial high schools have also worked to refine the broad theme of health services chosen for the Pathway program’s first group of students.

At East High, for example, they will focus on studying “health equity,” administrators said, with project work to include measuring how easy or hard it is for residents in surrounding neighborhoods to find grocery stores selling healthy food or to find buses to a health clinic.

With help from community partners, Pathways students also would try to come up with some solutions, perhaps taking recommendations for new store sites or added bus lines to the City Council and Metro Transit, East High School Principal Mike Hernandez said.

“The health opportunity (for education) is huge,” he said. “We want to learn about the hardships some of our families face, and share information with the community for (residents) to be able to navigate the system better.”

That health services focus also is what attracted Eden Welling, a student from Whitehorse Middle School who will be a freshman at La Follette High School when classes start Sept. 5.

“I am pretty excited about it,” Welling said Wednesday. “I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. So I’m just trying to get closer to that.”

This fall, each school will run four to five Pathways sections, with roughly one-fifth to one-third of freshmen participating. The program will group the hundred or so students who chose to sign up for Pathways at each school into discrete cohorts organized around common teachers, classes and enrichment experiences, across an intended four years of a Pathways student’s high school education.

Additional broad themes to choose from may be offered to subsequent incoming freshman classes — though no earlier than fall 2019, after district officials decided in March to build in more time to study how the first pathway performs before broadening the program’s offerings.

Building tighter relationships

Regardless of the chosen theme, though, the program is aimed overall at ensuring greater connectivity across core coursework and building tighter relationships between students in the cohort and between those students and their teachers. Administrators hope that leads to improved graduation rates for the district and for better preparation of graduating students for college and careers, whatever particular theme they explored.

“They’re going to get some great depth of knowledge on what is really happening in the community they live in that they might not have known about before and which they then can think about differently,” said Cindy Green, executive director of secondary programs and Pathways.

“It’s about how to use this theme to make connections across content areas,” Green added, “and to create more hands-on opportunities for students that will make learning come to life.”

Pathways students will explore themes using a variety of methods including smaller learning groups created by their cohort grouping, linked coursework, academic and career planning, one-on-one student support, and project work designed to incorporate skills and material learned in all their classes. There also will be a program focus on real-world learning opportunities, including possible field trips, internships, web-based seminars and guest speakers.

“East is working very closely with Dane County Public Health, and we have a number of other partners across the city that the schools will be working with for hands-on experiences,” said Jen Wegner, a district-level director of the Pathways program and career/technical education. “There are lots of different ways that we’re thinking about to connect our kids to real-life information.”

A total of 518 eighth-grade students applied initially for Pathways in January, with 479 accepted, but 25 applicants dropped out as a result of what Green called “normal fluctuation in mobility,” such as students moving out of the district or changing schools or other scenarios.

Slightly more girls than boys are represented in the program, with participation by both minority students and those who need English language support at percentages higher than their representation in the district overall.

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.