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What Does Personalized Learning Mean at Beekman?

Authored By: 
Kara Krauze, Contributing Writer

From an infant’s first days, parents make choices for their child representing the family’s values and interests – taking into consideration the child’s own personality.  And yet when children enter school, we relinquish much of this participation.  The child becomes a student.  But now more parents are asserting that education needn’t happen at the expense of individuality.

As Lisa Miller reports in New York Magazine, “many parents want to give their kids something more creative, flexible, and engaging than a school day they see as factory-made.”

Whether a child is exceptionally bright, struggles with course material that feels impenetrable, diagnosed with dyslexia or requires an unusual schedule, the family can benefit from a personalized approach.  Large schools, often with more crowded classrooms, are seldom able to offer the customization and attention many students need – especially when a student has additional circumstances to address in terms of schedule, course content or learning style.

George Higgins, Headmaster at The Beekman School, thrives on working with children who blossom outside the mold of a larger school.  While Beekman’s graduating students follow a core high school curriculum, Beekman, along with its companion, The Tutoring School, is able to personalize an education for a range of students.

Personalized learning has been part of The Beekman School’s mission since its founding more than 88 years ago, in the same intimate townhouse setting the school has continuously occupied.  The Beekman School and Tutoring School programs work together to offer invigorating educational opportunities to students.  Higgins points out that “other educators are coming around to this more personalized approach.  We got it right in 1925.”  Beekman focuses on “the uniqueness of the individual,” as Higgins explains, “and his or her learning needs, in order to tailor a program that works.”

Education advocate Barbara Bray describes personalized learning as taking “a holistic view of the individual, learning styles, skill levels, interests, strengths and weaknesses, and prior knowledge.  The learner owns their learning.”

At Beekman, Higgins and Maren Holmen, Academic Liaison, sit down together with the parents and the student to form a customized academic plan.  This plan is sometimes also shaped with the input of a therapist, neuropsychologist or educational consultant, if the parents wish.

“I want the student engaged,” Higgins says.  “I want all students to feel like they have a voice.  This can be an empowering feeling for the student,” Higgins points out.  The process is collaborative.

In a recent phone call, a prospective parent spoke to Holmen with palpable relief, telling her, “I have done my research, not only locally but nationally, and yours is the only program I can find that does what you do.”  This has much to do with the broad range of personalized options that Beekman is able to offer, including:

  • credits granted through Beekman or through a student’s home school
  • choice between a full structured program or individual classes
  • studies customized for an individual student’s needs
  • a wide range of expert tutors (both on- and off-site, or via web-based tutoring)
  • flexibility in time-frame (accelerated or extended)
  • flexibility in schedule (full-time; part-time; single classes; summer school)

Class sizes remain intimate, usually averaging seven but capped at 10 students.  And while 21st century technology augments learning at Beekman – with some textbooks accessible on iPads – this doesn’t replace the critical role of the instructor.  Teachers set the tone of the classroom and create the rapport of mutual respect that Beekman and The Tutoring School nurture in the classrooms and halls.

Parents tell Higgins that their teenagers report “they’ve never had teachers they’ve enjoyed working with so much.”  The teachers are in the trenches with the students and available for additional support.  “It’s a non-threatening environment,” Higgins says, “and that’s very important in personalizing education.”  Holmen agrees: “It’s about how we can put together a program that can make you successful.”

Truly personalizing a course of study to meet the needs of a student sometimes requires creativity – including stepping outside the normal boundaries one would expect between institutions.  An example of this is The Tutoring School’s ability to replicate another school’s curriculum as needed, to assist a student with completing coursework they may have left unfinished, or to allow the student to take required classes at home.  This type of unique approach can allow students to finish their school year – or graduate with classmates – even if they’ve left the school mid-term.

If attending school has become fraught with anxiety for a student – whether due to learning style, illness or prior negative experiences – Higgins, Holmen and the instructors work with the individual to help him or her gain confidence.  Educator Terry Heick, in his piece “How 21st Century Thinking is Different,” notes the importance of nurturing good habits and persistence.  Independent thinking – and ways of responding to it – must be modeled and backed up with supportive resources.  Holmen says, “It starts with a dialogue.  How do you learn?  What works best?”  The ultimate goal is to help all students move towards owning fuller responsibility for their learning – not just covering the material, but also teaching thinking skills.

One precocious student has worked with Holmen for three years.  Now, at age 13, he is preparing an advanced mathematics paper, possibly for publication.  No single school was a fit for him.  He is part of a growing trend, increasingly in urban areas, of homeschooling as an academic and personal choice.  The Tutoring School at Beekman has been able to help the student and his parents craft a program of personalized learning that lets him advance according to his particular intellectual capacities.  “We find ways to support and nurture his natural inquisitiveness,” Holmen says.

Personalized learning, whether working with a whole-curriculum approach or individual courses, helps parents create a program that works for their child.  And every week, Holmen hears from a parent or student, “Thank you so much!”