How One California District is Giving Learner-Centered Schools More Choice

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Dr. Matt Doyle

What if every school had voice and choice over their teaching and learning approach? That’s the vision one California district is taking on.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Matt Doyle of Vista Unified School District shared his district’s “Personalized Learning challenge” with us on the podcast this week. Through the challenge, school leaders and teachers are invited to be active designers of their school models in order to serve their unique communities.

Dr. Matt Doyle is the Assistant Superintendent of Innovation for the Vista Unified School District. Dr. Doyle is responsible for leading the design and implementation of the district strategic plan, the Blueprint for Educational Excellence and Innovation, in response to State of California LCAP funding provisions. The Personal Learning Challenge project just recently won the Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association. Dr. Doyle has spent 28 years in education as a teacher, site administrator, district administrator, and county administrator.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and is a condensed version of Matt Doyle’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

As Assistant Superintendent of Innovation for the Vista Unified School District, what does personalized learning mean to you?

In our district, personal learning means creating the conditions for students to become stewards of their own learning pathway. So that teachers shift their role from being the imparters of information and the controller of the learning and the teaching process, to the activator of learning. Students are sitting in the cockpit of their learning pathway, and learning how to drive that, in the developmentally appropriate way as they grow up through the ages.

How did [your] classroom experiences [as a teacher] influence your perspective today, as a district leader?

Being a teacher has had a huge impact on my perspective on how we can create better opportunities for students to feel like they’re empowered in their learning process, and not just receivers of information…

What I’ve learned over the 14 years as a teacher is that the better I could create the conditions for students to feel like they had some voice and control and choice in their learning pathway, the more eager they were to adapt to a new language and really invest in their learning pathway.

We spoke a little bit off mic about the plan that you’ve helped spearhead and lead for a Vista Unified School District… Can you talk a little bit about that district-wide [personalized learning] plan?

In Vista Unified, we developed a plan that we call our PL Challenge, Personal Learning challenge, and the reason we created it as a challenge was that we learn, we know from decades of Gallup research throughout the nation that engagement only happens when people feel like they have some control over their learning…

By creating the structure of the PL Challenge we’re trying to emulate that research at a site level.

We’re inviting schools to commit to a transformation of the way they approach teaching and learning, so it becomes more of a learner-centered organization, as opposed to a teacher-centered organization.

In our district, because of the PL Challenge, every school has enough space to develop a model that uniquely works for their student population. In our district we have 30 schools so we have a very different population across our region.

Can you talk about just a couple of the models that the schools in your district have adopted?

Vista Innovation and Design Academy, is a middle school in our school district that has a focus, and their focus is design. Their learning engine is the design principles, the design thinking process, through IDEO. Some of their essential elements are how they bring students’ voice into the conversation through student-led conferences and student goal setting for their progress reports…

At Rancho Minerva Middle School, on the opposite side of the region, we have a school where their identity is more formed around communication. That school makes sense for communication because that school has a high percentage of students that are learning English as a second language. Their engine is using the Summit Learning [approach]…

Many of the students [at Rancho Minerva] are learning English as a second language or just recently re-classified as an English learner. I think that the structure of the Summit [approach] is very helpful for them, both through the pillars we have in place but also through the [Platform] that they utilize…

Rancho Minerva Middle School students consume content in a flexible learning space during Personalized Learning Time.

They can monitor their learning, they can go back in time and adjust areas that may not be as strong as they wanted, whether it be in math or language arts or another subject area… Students have the conditions to be able to accelerate when they are able, and decelerate and move back and do some remediation when they need to. I think that [Summit Learning Platform] is allowing them the ability to be more individualized, more personalized when they’re learning.

What elements and structures are really essential in bringing this level of a personalized learning ecosystem to a district level?

What we did before we even adopted even the Summit Platform, was begin to work on the culture of how we think and talk about what this transformation to a teacher-centric, to a learning-centric organization, looks and feels like. We started that by shifting the teachers’ and the support staffs’ mind frame from a deficit-based model, which was typically thought of when you think of the No Child Left Behind era of education, to a strength-based model.

What else can we expect to see coming out of the district this next year?

What we hope to do, at Rancho Minerva in particular, is begin to bring to scale our commitment for students to become stewards of their own learning. Right now we use the Summit Model in sixth grade and seventh grade, and we’re beginning to develop the foundations to roll that into next year, into eighth grade…

As a school district, a long term goal is to continue to shift the mindset, both with teachers and staff, but also with parents and the community, about how to create more of a learner-centric organization, as opposed to a teaching-centric organization.

What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to communicate that message to parents?

I think there’s two ways we’ve used, and will continue to get better at communication, you can always get better. One way that seems to be much more effective that we originally thought was through videos…. 

Another great way that we’ve used that seems to work is by having mini showcases, in English and Spanish, of the work that [students have] done. An example of the showcase is what we call student-led conferences… we shifted to the students using a format to lead the conferences and talk about their learning pathway, with the teacher beside them. 

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.