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West Allis - After an initial bitter disappointment last year, parents whose children were brought up using the innovative Next Generation learning method are more hopeful as the school year starts this fall.

They are parents of Walker Elementary students who splashed down into standard classrooms when they graduated to Lane Intermediate School last year. However, Lane worked on its Next Generation learning program last semester and over the summer and its new principal Robert Antholine was the driving force behind starting Next Generation learning in the Waukesha schools.

"Our voices were evidently heard," said said Jenny Walkowiak, an outspoken parent advocate. She has two daughters who grew up with the unique Next Generation at Walker and who are now at Lane. "I think we are more trusting this year because of the new principal."

However, Walkowiak was cautious because the school year has barely begun: "We're not sure, because we haven't see it yet."

Wider implications

The Walker parents' struggle for Next Generation personalized learning may have given increased impetus to the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District's acknowledged goal to increase Next Generation learning and to have personalized learning in every school.

In fact, a school official said personalized learning is now in all the schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. Personalized learning is an approach in which students take ownership of their education by setting specific goals with the help of their teachers. Then they decide how to work toward those goals and how to tell if they reached them. Students and teachers work closely together with teachers giving lots of feedback.

The Next Generation approach has all of that plus more emphasis on projects, inquiry and students figuring things out themselves. More than one teacher could be in the classroom if projects involve more than one subject. Next Generation classes also are more flexible and students don't automatically get up and leave when the bell rings. Several ages can be in one classroom, also.

The Walker parents were disappointed that Next Generation was not ready for their children when they got to Lane Intermediate because the parents had been assured for years by the previous school administration that it would be.

Walkowiak said the result was that both her girls, who are good students, suddenly had major problems in school.

Pilots at intermediates

Offering the Next Generation option in the intermediate schools is important to parents all over the district because students can no longer transfer to schools offering it. The district has clamped down on school transfers. As school opens this fall, all the elementary schools offer personalized learning, if not full Next Generation learning.

To be ready for them, all the intermediate schools opened their doors and for the first time are offering pilot Next Generation options. Parents are taking advantage of the opportunity with as much  as 21 percent of students enrolled in those pilot programs, said Deidre Roemer, director of leadership and learning.

That 21 percent is in the West Milwaukee Intermediate School pilot program that has about 80 students.That 21 percent participation even beats Lane Intermediate where 115 students are in the Next Generation program accounting for 20 percent of the student body.

Lincoln Intermediate's pilot program with 40 students has 15 percent of all students in Next Generation while the Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate Next Generation program has 52 students accounting for nearly 8 percent of all students.

Already there

Feeding into the new Next Generation pilot programs are children from elementary schools that are already on the Next Generation path. Walker is the only school that is 100 percent Next Generation, but close behind is Hoover Elementary School, 12705 W. Euclid Avenue, New Berlin, Roemer said. It has full Next Generation, but not all the students have been in it since kindergarten, she said.

In elementary schools that have some Next Generation and some personalized learning in standard classrooms, students land in one or the other randomly, Roemer said. However, if parents want their children in Next Generation or in standard classrooms, the schools try to accommodate their wishes, she said.

The high schools will be the next major hurdle, Roemer said. The first Next Generation students will be getting to the high schools next fall.

High schools next

"We're planning this year to be ready for that," Roemer said. The high school level presents different challenges because of graduation requirements, she said.

Project-based learning with Next Generation-style multi-age classes can be accomplished at the high school level, Walkowiak said. She is a member of a parent group that formulated such a project-based charter school that is awaiting approval. The school to be called Pathways Highis planned to open next fall in downtown Milwaukee. It is documented through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she said. Funding would be from the state Department of Public Instruction and from donations. Her daughters plan to attend school there, she said.

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