By Mike Marsee
Jeff Clair had no idea what individual learning plans were when they were dropped in his lap.
Clair was hired four years ago as the technology teacher at Hazard Middle School (Hazard Independent), and he was told that one of his duties was to administer individual learning plans (ILPs), which are required for Kentucky students in grades 6-12 as part of the effort to make students college and career ready.
He learned what they were and what schools and students were required to do to complete them, and he soon learned that what was being done at his school wasn’t sufficient.
He decided that more needed to be done, and he has been instrumental in implementing a new method in which he and his fellow teachers are working more intensively and intentionally with students on ILPs. His colleagues have become that the change was worth their while, and he is convinced that the changes will bear fruit.
“It’s 100 percent better, and I’m not saying that just because it fell on me and because I’m still in there working with the other teachers. Now it’s more involved with the whole school,” Clair said. “We have everybody on board, the teachers, the site-based council. It’s just a whole lot smoother operation now.”
The ILP is a web-based tool designed to help students connect their courses and extracurricular activities with career goals and to allow students and their parents to work with teachers and counselors toward an appropriate course of study. It contains detailed information on more than 600 careers, as well as demographic information on colleges, career/tech schools and graduate schools across the country, along with information on financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
“The ILPs are lifelong learning tools for our students,” said Amy Patterson, the educational consultant on ILPs with the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Next Generation Learners.
Clair knew nearly nothing about them, however, when he joined the faculty at Hazard Middle.
“At the time I really didn’t know what they were,” he said. “I didn’t have any college classes that mentioned ILPs or anything like that. I didn’t know how it was supposed to be done.”
How they’re being done now at Hazard Middle is nothing like how they were being done before, as ILPs have been converted from a stand-alone assignment that students didn’t fully understand to a part of their curricula.
“We’re taking a process that we used to get through in a couple of weeks, and we’ve slowed it down to at least half a year,” he said. “I actually think by this time next year, we’ll be much improved because we’ll have a lot more experience with it, and we won’t be starting halfway through the school year.”
Of course, it took some time to get to that point.
“What we’d done is take students out of our computer class and give them the ILP as an assignment,” Clair said. “They said, ‘Ultimately it’s a computer program, it runs on a computer, it’s yours.’”
Clair started taking a closer look last year at program reviews and at what is necessary to get higher marks in them, and he saw that his school wasn’t doing that, and he met with Kevin Combs, who took over as principal at Hazard Middle last year and who had been involved with ILPs in his previous job as a teacher at Hazard High School.
“What the state wants is for college and career readiness to be a part of the curriculum, and they’re not supposed to be rushed through in a few days to get it done. But we’re a small district with a lot of stuff on our plates, so I started thinking, ‘How can we fit this in?’
Combs said he attended some trainings and met with superintendent Sandra Johnson, who agreed that more needed to be done with ILPs. He said guidance counselor Sharon Noble got behind the initiative, as did Joann Hall, a science teacher whom he said has been a key figure in the process.
“We pulled in most of our 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade teachers and we slowed down the process,” Combs said. “Instead of trying to get through it in nine weeks, we’ve kind of stretched it out.”
“It’s taken two or three years to get us to where we are now, and we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve made big improvements,” Clair said.
Clair said he was part of a video conference with Patterson to discuss the changes Hazard Middle was making.
“She was great with answering anything we had a concern with,” Clair said.
And Patterson said what Hazard Middle has done can serve as an example for other schools.
“We would like to see Hazard become a model for all schools,” she said. “When implemented with fidelity, as Jeff has done, the ILP tool is so much more than compliance for graduation requirements. Involving all adults in the school in the ILP and advising process results in benefits for everyone. Teachers get to know their students better, students are able to ask better questions and make better decisions regarding colleges and careers, and schools see improvements in program reviews as well as CCR numbers.”
ILPs are now part of the school’s college and career readiness initiative, with teachers sharing the workload. Rather than knocking out ILPs in a couple of weeks during Clair’s computer class, students are being taken out of classes to work on them with four or five faculty members, including the principal and guidance counselor and their content-area teachers.
“Instead of trying to get through it in nine weeks, we’ve kind of stretched it out,” Combs said.
“Once teachers got into the computer room and started watching the students get on the ILP and actually learn what it was there for, they’re really starting to really buy into it. They’re starting to enjoy it now,” he said.
Clair said students are also seeing the value of their ILPs in a way they hadn’t before.
“The biggest thing is they see that were not rushing through it. They now see that were actually taking time to sit down and work through it with them,” he said. “I even heard one of the students say the other day to one their friends that we’re actually spending some time on this now rather than just flying through it to get it done. They see this whole team sitting there working with them, and they’re actually seeing that this matters and that career and college readiness is important.”
Clair said he thinks students are taking their ILPs more seriously rather than simply plowing through the dozens of questions on the program.
“What we noticed before is they rushed through there and didn’t pay a lot of attention to the questions,” Clair said. “This year, because they’re slowing down and reading the questions, we see a lot of kids say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I want to be.’ They’re making better choices.”
Combs said students are guided through those choices with Noble, Clair and two additional teachers working as a team.
“That way we’ve got more time to slow it down and actually sit and make it personal,” Combs said.
He said Hazard High guidance counselor John Day is also visiting 8t-graders to discuss career options, ways to make college more affordable and the importance of planning their high school class schedule.
Patterson said students can use their ILPs throughout their school years and beyond.
“Once a child receives the ILP in the sixth grade, the ILP will continue to be available for the student even after high school if the student continues to use it. We encourage ILP use throughout the school and outside of school as well,” she said.
Clair said awareness of the ILP among parents is also on the rise.
“With all the teachers involved, we’re able to do a better job with our parent communication,” he said. “The last couple years, we’ve had one, maybe two parents actually log in to their child’s ILP. We have launched a campaign to try to get more parents involved. We had an ILP parent night during an open house where we opened the computer lab and parents could sit down with a teacher and look at their student’s ILP. It was a good program. The parents seemed to enjoy it, because they really didn’t know a lot about it before.
“We have quite a few more parents involved this year, and we’d like to have 50 or 60 percent or more.”
Patterson said parents should be involved.
“We want parents to know about the ILP and all it can do for their children,” she said.
Clair said the point of Hazard Middle’s work to make ILPs a part of the curriculum has not been to obtain a better score on program reviews.
“We’re not doing it just to get a high mark on that; we used the program review to realize we needed to improve,” he said.
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Jeff Clair email@example.com
Kevin Combs firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Patterson email@example.com