Innovating School: A Denver High School’s Journey Towards Personalized Learning


In Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design’s (DSISD) AP Human Geography class, Eric, a freshman student, checks off “Mastered” next to one set of competencies highlighted on a big poster board attached to the wall. He rings a loud bell before cheering and high-fiving his classmate, Lily, who is also tracking her mastery on the board. Down the hall, four students are working feverishly in Physics class to put the finishing touches on their eco-friendly, sustainable model home that they are wiring with real electricity. They divide the tasks, working together to decide what needs to get done and the questions they still have. One student steps away from the group for a few minutes to join another small group, led by a teacher, for a short lesson in electromagnetism. Across the hall, students are practicing sophisticated drawing skills as a baseline competency for engineering, using the support of their teacher and content delivered in playlists, online curricula that lets them move at their own pace and activate materials that are just right for them. Later in the day learners are practicing guitar, some are two miles away at a district elementary school tutoring first-graders in reading, while others are in the midst of a presentation on the new recycling program they are launching in the spring for the whole school. Each is traveling on their own personalized path, picking and moving through the learning experiences that work for them in order to master the skills and competencies necessary to excel in school, college, and the world beyond – and innovation and design is the beat that moves through it all. “I don’t learn just from reading a textbook, I have to do stuff,” says ninthgrader Robert when asked about why he chose DSISD for his high school experience. “DSISD is the perfect school for me.” Walking around DSISD, it’s clear doing is at the heart of DSISD, a new competencybased high school, the first of its kind, in Denver. And this “doing” that Robert is so psyched about is hands-on, authentic, in- and out- of the classroom learning all aimed at helping kids become innovators, change their worlds, and experience school in a way that’s personalized to their needs, learning styles, and pace.