Educators in tiny Fairport Harbor, Ohio, got hooked on the growing concept of personalized learning the way so many perch and walleye get snagged in neighboring Lake Erie — with a fishing lure and some luck.
A struggling high school student made the lure on a 3-D printer and gave it to his superintendent, who used it to catch a fish. Hoping to tap into the buzz it created among students, the district applied for a state education-innovation grant to build a program around designing, making and selling lures.
The Hooked on Education program has used the focus on fishing to teach core subjects and a dose of entrepreneurship. It has leveraged community traditions in the single-square-mile fishing port for an intensely localized version of personalized learning, which is centered on the interests and needs of each child.
"This class actually changed my whole perspective on school," said Terrell Becks, the now-19-year-old who made that first lure and later found success in the program.
Becks was so chatty that teachers joked he could sell snow shovels in Hawaii, but it got him into trouble in class and, after some fighting, expelled for a year. He was way behind academically and seemed a longshot for graduation when he joined about 30 students in the program's initial group last school year.
The students were picked by teachers who felt they weren't reaching their potential in the traditional classroom because they were gifted or special-needs or unfocused or, like Becks, kept getting into trouble. With a blend of class and computer work, they helped design their assignments and worked at their own pace.
They went fishing, researched fish species, read fishing essays, wrote about Great Lakes history, calculated boat speeds, made and painted lures, trademarked a lighthouse logo, connected with businesses and held a fish fry. There were some non-fishing projects, too, like studying family heritage to meet world history requirements.
The broad philosophy of personalized learning has received praise from across the political spectrum, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and significant philanthropic support from the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
Fairport Harbor's approach includes some elements popping up a lot in the universe of personalized learning, such as having children demonstrate their competency as they learn and setting each student's educational agenda in a way that takes individual interests and capabilities into account, said John Pane, who has researched education innovation for the RAND Corp.
Educators also have encountered challenges faced by proponents elsewhere, including concerns about fairness and effectiveness. Teachers had to figure out how to provide both collaborative and quiet spaces and how to address parents' confusion about the unusual grading system measuring progress outside the bounds of typical grading periods.
Dave Rentz worried last school year that his son Michael, then a ninth-grader on an accelerated academic track, might spend too much time completing coursework on a computer and miss valuable interaction with teachers and peers. It turned out to be "quite spectacular, but it's not for everyone," Rentz said.
Michael said the first semester was rough as some kids seemed to get away with doing less work and as instructors sorted out logistics, but the fishing was fun, and he has enjoyed having more say in his learning.
"It's been stressful," said Michael, now a sophomore, "but I feel like I'm in control."
His teachers are convinced other places could replicate the approach of personalized learning customized for location, though their town had advantages others might not, including the familiarity of a small community with only a couple hundred high school students, access to a 3-D printer, and an innovation grant of nearly $370,000.
Hooked on Learning highlights the importance of making school engaging, regardless of whether teachers use personalized learning, said state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria.
Fairport Harbor has more than doubled the students and teachers in the program for its second year. The eventual goal is to make lures in bulk more efficiently than with a 3-D printer, with plans to sell them and perhaps reinvest any profits in the program.
In addition to the lure project, more seminars and topics were added in the second year, such as work with a community garden.
The educators hope test scores over time prove the program's benefit, and in the meantime, they point to anecdotal evidence of improved engagement. Participants who in the past were disciplined for misbehavior had no such blemishes on their record in the program's first year, district Superintendent Domenic Paolo said.
And they cite cases of individual growth, like Becks, who caught up enough to graduate on time with his peers last spring.
Time management and other skills he gained through Hooked on Education, Becks said, helped him in a factory job after graduation and helped prepare him for courses he recently started this semester at a local college.
"Everybody should have a class like that," he said.