Though they were born only minutes apart, Jon Erickson knows his 9-year-old triplets each have their own strengths and interests when it comes to school.

As students at Impact Academy, a new personalized learning program at Orchard Lake Elementary in the Lakeville district, they have the chance to learn at their own pace. The “school within a school” model allows 110 students in kindergarten through third grade to learn together in the same space, moving to different levels based on ability rather than age.

His kids are enjoying everything about Impact so far, Erickson said. “It’s opened up different friendships and relationships amongst different grade levels,” he said. “They like that it’s individualized to the point where they’re learning at their specific level.”

Impact Academy is housed in the school’s old media center, now outfitted with comfy purple couches and plastic rocking chairs, but no desks. A wall was knocked down to create an adjacent area for the kindergartners.

Impact uses the same number of teachers and resources as other classes do, said Julene Oxton, the school’s learning specialist, and was added at no extra cost.

Students meet with grade-level peers and their “anchor teachers” in the morning and afternoon, but switch to one of four different levels for math and reading times. Within those blocks, the students both learn as a group and work individually on specific skills, which correlate with state standards, Oxton said.

Impact students still eat lunch in the cafeteria and see specialists like other classes do, and they have access to services like special education and English as Second Language (ESL) help, too.

The demographics of Impact students mirror those of Orchard Lake, with similar numbers receiving special education and ESL services, Oxton said. “This model is really designed for all students,” Oxton said.

The key to letting students learn at their own speed is to determine what they already know and where they have gaps, said Principal Marilynn Smith. That’s why Impact students took several tests at the beginning of the year focused on mastery of specific benchmarks.

Now, teachers have data that’s “much more fine-tuned,” Smith said. For example, teachers know not just about a student’s math skills, but whether he or she understands problem-solving. Regular assessments ensure they’re progressing, she said.

The program is built on personalized learning, giving students some choice in what they read, what games they play and how fast they move forward, said Smith.

“We want kids to know they’re OK where they are, but it’s their job to get better,” said teacher Leah Johnson.

The element of choice creates motivated learners, who are then more likely to take responsibility for learning and solving problems. Last week, for example, the class received news that the lunchroom was too loud and trays were being accidentally thrown in the garbage, Johnson said. Everyone worked together to create six “I can” statements that would improve things, she said.

A major focus of the first five weeks has been creating a community of learners who are a wide range of ages, said Smith. “They’re not necessarily seeing each other as a second-grader or a third-grader. It’s, ‘I’m a member of this community,’” said Johnson.

More phases to come

Impact was created to give families an innovative educational option, Smith said. Parents must choose to enroll in it.

The option was approved by the school board last spring, but the idea has been in the works since February 2011, when a team of seven teachers started brainstorming and planning it, Oxton said.

Still, the program is “not fully running ... it’s not all there yet,” said Oxton. There are two other phases planned, during which different components will be added.

Starting this year, the concept of service learning, a big part of the program, will be taught. Next year, students will start using “their interests and passions to serve those in the community,” she said.

In the future, students will also get to do elective learning, choosing what topics to pursue based on personal interests, Oxton said.

Current plans call for Impact to expand to fourth grade next year, but there’s discussion about expanding it to fifth grade at the same time. That way, fourth-graders will have a group to partner with, given that there’s no more room in the K-3 space, Smith said.

Getting the brand new program off the ground has gone smoothly so far. “In the first five weeks, what’s exciting is to have kids actually inside of a model you’ve been designing for two years,” Oxton said.