Carl Sandburg Middle School Episode 1: Personalized Mastery and Turnaround JOURNEYS

By Scott Vince / March 11, 2014


A New Reality

More than 100 miles west of Chicago – in the town of Freeport, Illinois – sits Carl Sandburg Middle School. Sandburg is one of two middle schools in the Freeport School District. Freeport, a small town of 26,000 residents surrounded by a rural landscape, has been hit hard by the recession. Many big employers have closed their doors, and unemployment hovers around 12 percent – well above the 9 percent state average. The downtown area has a lot of empty storefronts, and many residents travel 30 miles to Rockford to shop.

The school has 537 students enrolled in grades five through eight. Reflecting the local economic challenges, more than 61 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch (compared to 50 percent statewide).


Sandburg has been on Academic Watch in recent years (schools that do not make Academic Yearly Progress [AYP] for 4 consecutive years are placed in Academic Watch Status) due to a persistent achievement gap. Further, in 2013, Illinois raised performance expectations on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) to more accurately measure college and career readiness.

This year marks the first reporting data based on the new expectations, and the consequences have been dramatic. Achievement levels dropped across the state, and Sandburg is no exception. Under the old expectations, at least 83 percent of Sandburg students met standards in both reading and mathematics in 2012. With new expectations, those numbers dropped by at least 23 percentage points and show a downward trend for 2013 (see figures below). This is a true picture of the students’ performance and the challenges that the school is facing.

"This is a school that does a great job for some students, but not for all students."

— Stacey Kleindl, Principal, Carl Sandburg Middle School

The achievement gap between white students and African American students has also increased across both reading and mathematics. Only 33 percent and 17 percent of African American students are meeting standards in 2013 in reading and mathematics respectively compared to 67 and 53 percent of white students. Everyone at the school and district recognize this situation, and it has become a major focus for a new instructional approach.


"The school tends to treat its fifth graders as elementary students and sixth through eighth graders as middle school students. We would like to see a more fluid approach with the right curriculum for the right child at the right time."

— Roberta Selleck, Superintendent, Freeport School District

Magnifying the difficulties with the achievement gap and new expectations is the fact that the school has recently undergone a significant grade restructuring, making it incredibly difficult to form a cohesive approach to school improvement. Three years ago Sandburg went from a fifth/sixth grade school to a fifth through eighth grade school as part of a larger effort in the district to reduce the number of school transitions for students. This change resulted in half the staff leaving Sandburg, and many new staff starting. Much of the tension of the restructuring has been resolved, but Sandburg still essentially has three models: a self-contained elementary model for the fifth graders, a team-based middle school model for the sixth graders, and a secondary model for the seventh and eighth graders.

It’s important to make sure we have the right materials and appropriate supports for our special education

— Stacey Kleindl, Principal, Carl Sandburg School

In addition, the school is also formally designated as the primary middle school for special education students with severe and profound needs and those with emotional disabilities. The result is that nearly 20 percent of Carl Sandburg students are classified as special education—over eight percentage points higher than the neighboring middle school, and six percentage points higher than the state average. While there are certain benefits to this designation (e.g., a full-time social worker), it is a big challenge to effectively meet these students’ needs.

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A New District Leader and a New Paradigm


Freeport District Superintendent, Dr. Roberta Selleck

Roberta Selleck – a forward-thinking, bold, and thoughtful leader – is now the superintendent of the Freeport School District. When Selleck started teaching over 30 years ago, she intuitively realized that “one size fits all is an inappropriate construct for learning.” Although she did not yet have the research to support her instincts, Selleck knew that each learner is unique and that some need more time with certain content, and some need less. This belief influenced her throughout her career, and she studied it more and more.

My whole background has been one of recognizing the fact that public education needs to do a better job of being personalized to the unique needs of the individual learner.

— Roberta Selleck, Superintendent, Freeport School District

Prior to Freeport, Selleck was Superintendent of the Adams County School District 50 in Colorado. Selleck worked closely with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition and Robert Marzano, a leading education researcher, to bring personalized mastery to Adams District 50. Personalized mastery (also known as personalized learning or competency-based education) allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.

Selleck decided to bring her vision and lessons learned to a new district and began as the superintendent of the Freeport School District in fall 2012. She spent much of the first year getting to know the district and planting the seeds for personalized mastery. By that spring, some retirements at the district office allowed her to put a team in place that would help her lay out a plan for implementing personalized mastery. In Freeport, as she did in Adams District 50, Selleck is proceeding cautiously to ensure that the changes have the time to take hold and the support to become sustainable.

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Leading Sandburg


Carl Sandburg Middle School Principal, Stacey Kleindl

Stacey Kleindl has been at Sandburg Middle School for 18 years – first as a teacher, then as the assistant principal, and in 2009 she became the principal. Kleindl is friendly, reflective, and thoughtful about her practice, with a good dose of humor about all of the challenges that a principal faces. The grade restructuring at Sandburg put a great deal of strain on Kleindl and her staff, and emotions ran high for both the teachers who stayed and the new teachers who came from the former junior high. Kleindl spent a lot of time listening to staff concerns, with some of the staff wanting to maintain the elementary feel of Sandburg, others believing that a middle school model was the way to go, and still another group who believed in a blended approach. At this point, it seems that Kleindl has alleviated staff concerns, showing that she understands and can lead all of these models.

There was lots of storming and norming with the grade restructuring – this affected our teachers greatly.

— Stacey Kleindl, Principal, Carl Sandburg Middle School

While navigating these structural issues, Kleindl was notified that the ISBE had put her school on Academic Watch for not making AYP. Since 2009, Kleindl and her school leadership team had been trying to address this, but they felt like the state was requiring a lot of compliance-oriented extra work without much support. At the same time, Kleindl and her staff were not seeing the outcomes they wanted, especially when the ISBE released the results of implementing the new expectations.

Kleindl was concerned about student achievement in general at Sandburg, but she was especially distressed about the achievement gap at her school and the proficiency levels of Sandburg’s African American students and special education students.

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First Steps of Personalized Mastery

Kleindl was interested in Selleck’s vision for personalized mastery, but she was understandably apprehensive. She knew that the needs of all of Sandburg’s students were not being met. She also realized that the school needed a new approach. But at the same time, after four years of being on the Academic Watch list, Kleindl felt the school was in a precarious position, and Selleck was a brand new leader with a brand new paradigm.

In getting to know Selleck and learning more about personalized mastery, Kleindl began to feel that this new approach could be powerful for her school and all of its diverse learners. By spring 2013, Selleck had assembled new leadership at the district office, and Kleindl could feel the change. The district had always been encouraging in the past, but did not always provide the necessary support to the schools. Kleindl could see that Selleck was bringing a coherent vision to the district and was also starting to provide resources to support schools in implementation. For the first time in Kleindl’s 18 years in the district, it had a clearly laid out plan for professional learning for the school’s teachers, and it was focused on instructional coherence and the early building blocks of personalized mastery.

Kleindl decided to boldly lead her staff toward personalized mastery. That summer the district offered a five-day symposium on personalized mastery for staff. Staff would be paid, but participation was voluntary. Kleindl knew this was a great opportunity to get her staff on board with personalized mastery and help them really begin to understand it. She could not require attendance, but she did her best to strongly encourage participation (Kleindl is known for being persuasive). She was thrilled that the majority of her staff attended the training.

After the symposium, Kleindl and her assistant principal spent a lot of time thinking about how best to initiate this work with their staff. They decided to focus on student voice and choice since it is the foundation of personalized mastery. They would start with three concrete strategies – the code of collaboration, monitoring the code of collaboration, and parking lots. Kleindl decided that teachers could determine how far they wanted to take each of these strategies, but at a minimum they had to demonstrate a basic level of implementation. Kleindl told teachers, “You have to do this [implementation of strategies] if you would like to remain at Sandburg, but how much you bite off at once it up to you.”

Where we’re at right now is we’ve started with student choice and voice. Because truly to become a mastery system—to jump in with feet first–would be a bit of a dangerous mission, considering that our curriculum isn’t set up yet to be mastery.

— Stacey Kleindl, Principal, Carl Sandburg Middle School

The first strategy Kleindl required was the code of collaboration, which is an agreement the teacher and students create at the beginning of the school year. It guides behavior throughout the year. The teachers and students sign it and commit to upholding it throughout the year. Then, teachers, along with students, monitor the code and check in to see how well they are upholding the code — the second strategy in Kleindl’s approach. Kleindl and her staff also have a code of collaboration and are working on making monitoring it one of their norms.

The third strategy is that all teachers implement a parking lot, which is a chart that helps the teacher determine what is on students’ minds. It includes sections on what is working well; what needs to be changed; what questions the students have; and what have they learned. The parking lot is posted in the room. Students can place stickies on the chart anonymously at any time, and teachers can ask students to post as they leave the class or try a new strategy. Parking lots are also posted in staff areas to enable adults to raise the same issues regarding their workplace.

Examples of a classroom code of collaboration and student parking lot

At this point, Kleindl is allowing a good deal of freedom in the level of implementation of these three strategies. Some teachers may have the code and monitor it occasionally, while others use it daily to gauge classroom culture. Similarly, all teachers have the parking lot, but they can decide how much they use it. Some teachers use the parking lot as a real indicator for student understanding of concepts and standards. Many of these teachers now even enable some students to progress onto more challenging subject matter, while the teachers support other students to fully master certain standards before they move on.


Student voice and choice in action

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Superintendent Selleck plans to use this fall and winter to further educate the community and continue to engage the school board and staff in personalized mastery. Her goal is to have the board vote to adopt personalized learning district-wide so that she can move the whole district in this direction, starting with the elementary grades.

At the same time, Kleindl and her staff are getting more comfortable with choice and voice. The tricky part is having a foot in two systems. One encourages teachers to personalize learning and advance students as they demonstrate mastery. The other requires teachers to administer end-of-quarter assessments and complete traditional report cards that measure students on defined criteria.

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About the author

Scott Vince

Scott Vince is a Research Associate at WestEd and a Center on School Turnaround staff member. He is on the Journeys content team, and is also a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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