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Leading Experiments in Science and Personalized Learning at Urban Promise Academy

Seventh grade teacher Nora Hurab teaches science to a full-inclusion classroom where students are busy learning about biodomes and the chemical reactions that support life such as photosynthesis and cellular respiration. With a degree in chemistry and three years teaching at OUSD, the subject matter is familiar but Nora is a pioneer in teaching methods as part of a multi-grade experiment in personalized learning at Urban nora Promise Academy (UPA).  


Last year, UPA became first school in Oakland selected for Summit Basecamp, an online instructional model that allow students to work at their own pace with a blend of self-directed learning on computers and group-based work facilitated by teachers. The pilot began with the sixth grade, and is being used in seventh grade classrooms for the first time this year.  


“This has radically changed what 7th grade teachers are doing” said Nora, “We’re so grateful to the 6th grade team, they put in a lot of hard work that we’ve really benefited from.”  She believes personalized learning is the future in classrooms like hers which includes mainstream students along with newcomers and learners with IEPs. “Meeting all those needs is one of the things I love the most and is also what makes my job so challenging,” she added.  


While too early to draw conclusions, Nora is certain that “This platform is where you get student ownership. Before, I would hand out lots of different readings that were all leveled and students didn't necessarily know where they stood at or why. The platform is based on transparency, so when I do family conferences, students already know their grades because they see them every day. The feedback is automatic so they know exactly what to work on and can decide on the best next steps with a teacher. It creates this self-directed learning piece that I feel is so important.”


With such a major shift in teaching style, the experiment in personalized learning involves some trial and error. “You figure out what does and doesn't work pretty quickly, so it gets easier as you go on,” said Nora, “Teachers have to adjust to being needed more as facilitators and mentors and that can be hard because it feels like you're giving away control, but you're putting in the hands of students and teaching them how to use it. Rather than micromanaging every move, you get to see them grow into it.”

Nora’s love for UPA’s community and culture of innovation can hardly be contained. When asked what values she sees at the school, there’s no question: “The two tUPA STUDENT hat really stand out are student-first and equity. There's something so magical about targeted instruction that meets students where they are. It creates a student-centered classroom where they are in charge of their own learning in a way that's productive and can also be tracked and measured. There’s also this major equity component of giving students options and allowing them to thrive in a very diverse class.”


"Personalized and blended learning doesn’t always looks clean” she admits. “It’s messy, but we're doing it. It’s empowering for me as a teacher and I see it directly with my students. It’s really cool to take that on in solidarity with the amazing staff here and be a part of a school that's making moves.”



Photo: Ms. Hurab’s 7th grade student Iyyah Zareef-Mustafa along with her design for a solar-powered water filter that she built and tested with a group of peers. It worked!