Learner-centered leaders provide powerful learning opportunities

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In Episode 16, we spoke with Roger Cook, superintendent of Taylor County schools in Kentucky, along with 3 learners – Weston Young, Lexi Raikes, and Lauren Williams – about learner-centered opportunities in Taylor County and their innovative 24-7 performance-based education school, Cardinal Academy.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders provide powerful learning opportunities.  They listen to their learners to find out what they need. Then they identify a way to create a program or other structure that supports the learners’ needs.


The superintendent, Roger Cook, seeks to provide success for all of his learners. Regardless of what the learner needs, he finds a way to provide an opportunity. This can look very different for individual learners, as it should, but he consistently engages in non-negotiables when addressing a learner’s challenge. In Taylor County, no one is allowed to fail. If a student wants to drop out, he/she needs to sit with Roger and talk about why he/she wants to drop out of school. Roger Cook is proud of the District’s 100% graduation rate! “If a teacher fails kids, the teacher is failing me.”  Not only are all current seniors graduating, but the District has also graduated 16 learners who dropped out of school in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Cook developed a six-spoke “Wheel of Learning” that allows teachers and students to chose the instructional style they prefer for each subject. The spokes are:

  1. Traditional: typical teacher-directed learning and lecturing
  2. Self-paced: a flipped classroom approach, in which teachers develop video lessons that students can access anytime, and then complete coursework on campus
  3. Project-based: students focus on applying knowledge to real-world situations
  4. Peer/group-led: Teachers facilitated group work that allows students to teach and learn among another
  5. Virtual: classes offered completely online from an outside vendor
  6. Cardinal Academy: a group of advanced students who don’t have a class schedule or assigned teacher, but instead have standards to accomplish on a daily basis that they decide independently how to complete

Learners in Cardinal Academy need to be proficient on the state standardized tests,  and demonstrate responsibility and discipline. Applicants are interviewed before enrolling in the Academy.  Before graduating, Cardinal Academy learners are required to complete a culminating community project. Learners shared they appreciated the agency they have over their time in the Cardinal Academy. Learners can manage their schedules to earn college course credit.

Opportunities abound in Taylor County. Everybody has a 1:1 device and can utilize it it to engage in self-paced learning. The District realizes some learners still prefer and a need a traditional approach to their education. In the traditional path, the students learn with a teacher in a more traditional, blended school model. Examples were shared during the conversation pertaining to a student-led bank and grocery store, students earning their flight credentials, and career/technology education (welding, cosmetology and agriculture). Regardless of student interest, a program exists at Taylor that can be personalized to student passion and interest.

STARS – Students Teaching and Reaching Students – The district is building student leadership through Cook’s Kids in the STARS program.  Currently there are 350 students teaching and reaching other students. The STARS earn credit by supporting the learners who need extra help.

To create these opportunities, Taylor County had to readjust some attitudes.  For example, they don’t give learners zeros as they overcame the notion of giving up on learners. No zeros. No failures. No dropouts. No excuses. Dropout prevention Specialists will meet with students 1:1 to talk about barriers to learning. If students are not working diligently in class, they are pulled out of class for a conversation with the Dropout Prevention Specialist.  

Teachers and school leaders need to look at every student every day and help to keep them in school.  As the leader of the organization, Roger holds the teachers responsible for living this mindset. He truly values learners. “If you trust kids and you give them responsibility, they will perform.”

The learners shared their perspectives on learning in the rigorous learner-centered environment. Having more agency over the learning environment requires a strong, and sometimes different, skill set.  The learners in Cardinal Academy need to learn how to be highly effective in time management, realistic about what they can achieve, and how to prioritize their learning goals and study time. The students reflected that working with an individualized schedule supports future work at college.

Leaders also need diverse skills to be effective in a learner-centered learning environment. To Roger, it is easy. Listen to the kids. Be compassionate. Be interested in your kids and see what it takes to make them successful.  Get the staff to listen to kids every day.  Be open-minded. Instead of thinking outside the box, throw away the box. Support teachers as they try something new. If something is not working, find out why and fix it.

Professional learning is a critical component to the evolution of this district. Students are dismissed at 1:00 every Friday so teachers can engage in professional conversations and learning. If students are unable to go home, the STARS students will provide additional tutoring.  Providing alternatives and options helps learners get what they need.

Connection to Practice

Our teachers have significant professional learning time. By contract, teachers complete nine full days of professional learning.  Of the nine, two are choice days in which teachers have significant autonomy over their learning. Are we making effective use of the days? How do we know?

As a result of our 1:1 digital transformation, our learners each have a device which can be used to access resources, collaborate, create, communicate, etc.  How can the tool support our next steps in developing a learner-centered learning environment?

Our graduation rate is very high, but as leaders at the top of the organization, we are not consistently engaging with those learners who are considering dropping out of school. Should we have a process for engaging those learners and their families?

Questions Based on Our Context:

  • Will we get to the point where we maintain the “traditional spoke” and yet have much more to offer?
  • How do we support our leaders as we implement this vision?
  • How can we build student leadership?
  • How can we release agency to our learners?
  • We believe we are supporting teachers in taking risks. What would our teachers say?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations with our teachers about learner agency and risk-taking.

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