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How Responsive Practices are Transforming the Student Experience in Mayfield City Schools

How Responsive Practices are Transforming the Student Experience in Mayfield City Schools

Innovative Leadership

Late August is a lovely time to visit Northeastern Ohio, and as educational leaders around the country are asking, “How might we transform the learning experiences for all students in our district?” a visit to Mayfield City Schools is a must-do if you find yourself in the Cleveland area. As a learning organization, we seek out innovators who are impacting the educational landscape, and our hope is to help connect them with each other, and to share what they have learned with partners in our network. Dr. Patrick Ward, Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Mayfield City Schools, is one such innovator. 

This was no ordinary meeting–it was simply a time to sit down and talk about our common interest in effective change management, student-centered learning, and schools as learning organizations.

Effective Change Management

Three years ago, Mayfield City Schools embarked on an experiment. The problem they sought to solve was how to put students at the center of their own learning. Fortunately, Dr. Patrick Ward has spent a few years and a dissertation’s worth of research exploring how best to manage change in complex organizations, and he led the charge at Mayfield City Schools. His experiment has much to teach us all about how to set a vision, run experiments, and win hearts and minds. Dr. Ward and his team started with a very simple task–name the goal. 

Dr. Ward: In Mayfield, our goal emerged after we committed to embracing a design thinking mindset rooted in continuous learning and action research.  We knew that the current model of education was not meeting the needs of our students. We also knew we wanted to do something different. We believe in the power of collaborative capacity. In a learning organization, the intentional structures you build are networks of people! Our first steps were to get educators and students from across the system together to start dreaming about what we could accomplish if we made learning our focus. From this, our Instructional Innovation Committee was born! This team of 50 adults and students helped frame the vision and direction and laid the important foundation for all of our work.

From this group, two other key teams emerged. We created a blended learning action research team. This team allowed more voices to join in the conversation. During the early stages of this work this team was given technology and asked to design an environment where students had more voice, choice, and control over their learning. We learned a lot from this group about the importance of placing learning and instruction first and technology second. In other words, when looking to truly change the classroom environment for students it is not about technology, it is about how students interact with the curriculum. 

Finally, the last team we formed was our personalized learning action research team. This K-12 team took the lead on making sense of what personalized learning meant for our district. This team took all of the key learnings from the previous teams and helped us better understand what we were trying to accomplish in K-12. After three years of capacity-building and learning together we finally named what we were trying to accomplish. All-Access Learning was born. 

Our next step was not conventional or what you might expect. We struggled to explain what All-Access learning actually was. Those that were part of the work understood it best. What we could do was show people what “All-Access Learning” was not. So we started there. With a spirit of action research, this simple step sparked doing with our staff. We were on the hunt for deep learning. 

Our big takeaway for leading effective change is this: go slow early to build capacity and learn together. Be intentional with the structures you build and make those structures about people and learning. Once we reached a critical mass of engagement across the system, everything started to accelerate! We were embracing the core tenet of a learning organization. Quick action based on current data to impact learning in the moment. This is our wildcat PLC in action. 

Student-Centered Learning

Risk-taking, action research, and a spirit of innovation is the mindset we embraced. We also learned early in our journey that in order to really bring about K-12 change you need to help people see what you are trying to accomplish. Creating incubators of action across every level became the priority and focus of the work. Our High School team went big with what they call The Option

Leaders and educators in Mayfield City Schools decided to create a Senior Option Program, which allows seniors the opportunity to opt-in to a more personalized approach. This year, 45% of all senior classes are engaging in this experience. The district leadership decided to experiment with this approach because they knew it was low stakes –the requirements of the seniors were already complete for the part. Our survey data from our seniors that graduated was telling us that our students did not have the time-management skills to be successful after graduation. After three weeks of school, the early returns from this program are inspiring! Our students have been giving us feedback on how we might continue to expand this model for learning to other grades, and these plans are in the works! 

During the 2019-2020 school year, the district has educators in fifth grade and first grade transitioning to an All-Access Learning approach, too. 

They saw measures of success in last year’s third-grade incubator that showed that the classrooms that transitioned to an All-Access Learning environment had 100% passing rates on their end of year exams vs the traditional classrooms. The students were selected based on their teacher’s willingness to participate in the incubator and represented 66% of the third graders in this particular building. 

The district has adopted the belief that it’s important to experiment and learn from their experimentations early on vs spending years planning and not actually implementing. They are becoming designers of their own district and learning from all their stakeholders whether that’s their students, teachers, or the needs of their business partners.

The key to success across the system is a simple belief. Empower teachers to be co-designers of what All-Access Learning should actually look like. Central to this work are four simple components: student agency, engagement, outcomes, and opportunity! The early prototypes across the entire system have been incredible!

Schools as Learning Organizations

Education Elements: Mayfield City Schools is creating a learning organization built on the foundation of responsive practices. They have been able to facilitate an exchange of experiences and ideas between their schools and teachers over the course of the last three years. 

Their approach to learning with adults is aligned with the Education Elements SEPAD cycle of learning, and they are implementing organizational practices around these key questions:

  • How to inspire leadership at all levels starting with the heart and minds of educators?
  • How to amplify stories of those taking ownership of leading change?

Dr. Ward and his team have incorporated a regular practice of learning walks with school leaders. This past month, they visited an elementary school and realized through classroom visits that the constraint of time was bottlenecking teachers into thinking they had only 45 minutes for Math and only 45 minutes for ELA. It wasn’t until they sat down to debrief (SEPAD) that they realized the artificial scheduling constraints were preventing these teachers from feeling empowered to protect the time and space needed for students to engage in deep learning. The simple shift of asking, “How can we use the 3 hours we have for instruction to better meet the needs of all learners?” This began to spark (SEPAD) a new idea for school leaders and teachers. 

Dr. Ward: Our most recent visit to our Middle School yielded the same in-depth discussion and conversation. After the team meeting, our Middle School Administrative team took the SPARK (critical feedback from the team about what they saw). The feedback was clear–teachers were still very much in control of the learning process. The challenge they left with was how do we help teachers give up control, empower students, and truly place them at the center of their learning? The team decided to each take a grade level and propose this question to their teams later in the week. Each team can then set a goal and action steps to try something next week. This is the essence of a responsive learning organization! Closer to realizing All-Access Learning at our middle level! 

Using this simple framework and cycle has been liberating for our learning community. With each new spark, a new opportunity for our students is born. We are just getting started!

Education Elements: The transition to All-Access Learning continues this year at Mayfield City Schools. Dr. Ward and his team continue to learn and iterate on the work they have done to empower their teachers to create the best conditions for students to step into themselves. 

How did SEPAD play out in Mayfield City Schools?


The spark for us was our Mayfield Vision for Learning. We believe the current model for how students were accessing content was outdated. We also saw increased disengagement across the system. We set out on an ambitious path to “spark doing” with small wildfires of change across every level within our system. 


Our 1:1 initiative for K-12 provided tools for us to truly think about how we could move to a more personalized learning model in Mayfield City Schools. With this investment, we needed a change in practice as well. Our approach was to think like designers and build the new model together! 


We believe that if we create incubators of All-Access Learning across every level that we will be more successful. We found that showing people the prototype and letting them build out from there is more successful than forcing people to try something they did not completely understand. 


Building out to 4th Grade by creating a section of “All-Access and PBL learning” that cohorts of fourth-graders will experience this year. Use it as a training space for teachers to design and create similar environments in their classrooms. 

Debrief: Video of teacher testimonial 

A video of a testimonial from a teacher–Mayfield Option Teacher Kerry Rutigliano CAT TALK 

We gather our teachers together throughout the year and learn from each other as often as we can! All of our professional learning this year is personalized for our teams as well and aligned with this work. 

For a deeper dive into responsive practices and how teams can better work together to transform both teaching and learning, join the upcoming Team Habits Leadership Institute. You'll learn and take away actionable practices to implement with your team.

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About Dr. Patrick Ward, Kelly Freiheit, and Megan Campion

Patrick Ward is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Mayfield City Schools. He has served in this role for three years. Prior to this assignment, Patrick was a High School Building Principal, Associate Principal for Curriculum and Staff Development and a science educator. Areas of professional interest include change leadership, personalized learning and building collaborative cultures. In his free time, Patrick enjoys running, reading and teaching graduate level courses in Educational Administration and Leadership at Ursuline College. Kelly Freiheit is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team. Kelly is a former blended learning science teacher from Charlotte, NC. Kelly was a part of the Opportunity Culture positions with Project L.I.F.T. in North Carolina, where she was recognized as a Blended Learning Teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Kelly was recognized as Meck Ed Teacher of the Year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the 2013-2014 school year. During her time at Education Elements, she’s supported over 16 school districts and coached approximately 99 principals to lead innovative changes in their building. Megan Campion is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team. Megan came to Education Elements with extensive experience working in schools as a teacher and administrator, and with schools as a program manager and consultant. Megan began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at an independent school in McLean, Virginia. She transitioned into teaching middle school history in her second year of teaching, and spent her time as a teacher creating student-centered, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. SShe went on to work with a technology and research company as an associate director of research, working with school districts across the country on school and district climate studies, leadership transition plans, and community engagement projects.

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