Student-Centered Learning at Hamilton Community Schools

Image of hand formed in the shape of a lightbulb against yellow background
Flexible learning options. Standards-based grading. Blended learning, teaching, and coaching. Just some of the ways in which “Each Will Thrive” at Hamilton Community Schools.

As part of our Student-Centered Learning blog series, this is the first installment of three in our mini-series, Stories from the Field: Student-Centered Learning. In this mini-series, we celebrate and highlight the successes of three different Michigan schools that are embracing student-centered learning.

These same schools are also featured in our recently published report, “Student-Centered Learning: In Principle and in Practice.” In the report, we share the principles of student-centered learning, the rationale behind the philosophy, and the stories behind some of the innovative approaches being utilized by districts not only across the country, but right here in Michigan. 

In this article, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools, Dave Tebo, shares some of the exciting ways in which they give their students flexible learning options and make learning more student-centered. 

Thinking outside the box

Prior to spending the last 10 years as the superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools located in Hamilton, Michigan, Dave Tebo spent 4 years as a superintendent at Michigan Center Schools. After serving in this role for some time, Tebo has come to realize that “as a superintendent, you can’t scare parents, you don’t want to be the bad guy. As a result, it’s hard to implement ideas that are outside the box.” 

We know that when it comes to education, some teachers, parents, and administrators are most comfortable with a style similar to what they experienced, insisting,  “What’s wrong with the old system? We turned out just fine.” 

But Tebo knows that school doesn’t have to look like it used to — we can always improve. 

He admits, however, that at Hamilton, the shift towards implementing a more student-centered learning philosophy was made easier because test scores were already good, families were already supportive, and they already had eager students.

Hamilton was a community that was ready for a change

Embracing their strategic plan

Although Hamilton’s transition towards student-centered learning had been in progress for quite some time, Tebo said that he feels the real work has been done in the last 5-6 years when they really began to embrace their strategic plan. 

In 2015, Hamilton Community Schools entered into a collaborative partnership with Michigan Virtual to increase student engagement and achievement through the implementation of personalized and blended learning strategies. 

Hamilton saw that this work would complement the continuous work they were already doing in regards to standards-based grading

They knew that grades didn’t necessarily correlate to success. 

Their goal was to more closely align their grading to focus on standards and to track students’ understanding of or struggles with individual standards. 

Teachers were trained in cohorts and learned the blended learning coaching model in an effort to make learning more personalized for their students. 

Then in 2017, Hamilton updated its vision and mission statement and in 2018 adopted an Instructional Model, coining the phrase “Each Will Thrive” based on this updated vision. The model is based on four pillars: 

  • a safe educational environment, 
  • rigorous instruction and assessment, 
  • a modern learning culture, and
  • personalized learning. 

Out of their instructional model grew an increased focus on personalizing learning.

Giving students choice

At Hamilton, students have choices and opportunities as the district offers some Project-Based Learning (PBL) classes and online classes

Students also have the option to enroll in the Hamilton Flex Virtual School, which is part of their new Hamilton Flex Program. This program provides their students with even more learning options to choose from. 

As the learning options graphic shows, students can choose from one of four learning programs to best suit their needs: 

  • Hamilton – Traditional
  • Hamilton – Online
  • FLEX – Blended
  • FLEX – Virtual

By offering these additional learning options, students have the opportunity to choose the path that is right for them. 

Choice + voice = student-centered learning

Tebo believes that the school district has made their greatest gains in giving students choice and voice and says that the next step is pushing them together. 

“Giving choice gives voice, but it requires a leap of faith, which is difficult for teachers to take — to empower students to make the decisions for themselves. Giving students ownership of their learning is a key component of a student-centered approach.” 

Empowering students to take ownership of their own learning is what student-centered learning is all about

Advice and final thoughts

When making the shift to a more student-centered learning model, Tebo stressed the importance of giving patience and grace, both to yourself and to others, and being willing to ask for help. 

“It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. You may have to say ‘I don’t know’ more than ‘I know,’ and that’s okay.” 

He also pointed out that when transitioning to a more student-centered learning model, there is no quick and easy path, so you need to play the long game. 

“You may not be able to see your work through to completion yourself and it may outgrow you as a leader. However, you may be the one to get the ball rolling and to get the work started. Just remember: it’s not about throwing out what was done before, it’s about determining what we are going to bring with us to a new model. It’s about adding and enhancing.”

So, as you get the ball rolling, what aspects of your current educational structure will you bring with you to your new student-centered learning model? 

Student-Centered Learning Blog Series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion each month about student-centered learning: what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

The Digital Backpack

Get our latest articles sent straight to your inbox every week!