Tag: high school

Casco Bay High School: We Will Shape our School by our Learning

November 30, 2015 by

From the Casco Bay High School Website

This post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the last of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Part One for Tips and TakeawaysPart Two for Learning as Exploration, and Part Three for the What and How of Learning.

As is the case with everything at Casco Bay High School, the system of supports is designed around making sure every student can participate in support (i.e., access). It is designed to be meaningful whether you are a student learning English, have an IEP, are struggling to get a “meets” (i.e., proficiency), or are generating a 4.0 in the academic grades by constantly producing work that gets an “exceed.” Support doesn’t happen once in awhile – it is embedded throughout every part of the Casco Bay High School experience.

Several staff members mentioned that “we shape our school by our learning.” That seems particularly true as I pull together all the different strategies they mentioned to engage and support students to ensure they are making progress:

Crew: Every student is in a Crew they stick with throughout their high school experience. The design of Crew is to have a team of people who are dedicated to your success and will have your back if you start to stumble. This is a very powerful strategy that unleashes the leadership of the students to wrap another layer of support around their schoolmates. The advisors in Crew monitor how students are doing and set up conferences early enough in the year so there is time to make adjustments as needed.

Student Support Team: Grade level teams review student progress to see how students are doing across the disciplines and make adjustments as needed. The student support team meets with grade level teams when a student is identified as having some troubles. They review the discussions about the student, see what has been tried, identify the concerns, and then engage parents and students.

Academic Support: The schedule is organized so that students have approximately three hours per week of extra support. It’s not a random study hall – teacher teams are assigned to about 100 kids who need extra help. For those excelling in school, there are organized efforts as well as book clubs in the ninth and tenth grade for kids who can’t get through enough books fast enough.

Block 7: Need more support? Every day after school is a time set aside for students to get extra help.

Extra Time: If students have a 3 on the Big 3 Habits of Work (attendance, homework, and deadlines) they have free access to extra support. If their HOW is less than 3, there is a sliding scale. Casco is never going to turn a student away, but they want to have logical consequences.

  • Mud Season: In March, students have two three-hour sessions to spend more time on topics that are difficult for them.
  • Summer school: Casco offers a “trimester” for students with a 2+ at the end of the third trimester to provide more time to get “meets” on the specific standards they are missing.

There are also three other strategies I would mention: (more…)

Casco Bay High School: Learning as Exploration

November 18, 2015 by

MapThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the second of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Part One for Tips and Takeaways. You can also read about Casco in Making Mastery Work and Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations.


From start to finish of my day at Casco Bay High School, the overwhelming feeling was one of fun. Or perhaps it is really an all-out pervasive joy of learning. I saw it in the students gathering together in the Great Space before the start of the school day, the group conversations among students, the discussions with teachers, and the knock-me-over-I-was-laughing-so-hard game of Your Greatest Fan with the staff and visiting educators from Chicago at the end of the day. (You can get a taste of FUN at the video Movin’ On Up – the celebration when students get accepted to their first college.)

Before I dive into describing the proficiency-based system (remember Maine uses the term proficiency-based), it is important to understand the overarching design of Casco. It’s not easy, as Casco is what I described as an integrated model. The pieces all work together – take away one element and it will have direct implications on the rest of the model.

1. Size and Student Population

Sharing space with the Portland Arts and Technology High Schools, Casco serves, at its maximum capacity, 400 students with about 50 percent FRL. It is one of three public high schools in Portland and has a large number English Language Learners, many of whom are from the over ten African countries for which Portland serves as a refugee settlement city. With a waiting list, students are admitted to Casco based on a lottery weighted for Free and Reduced Lunch, special education, and ELL. Given that refugee families are in the midst of many changes as they create new lives, mobility is an issue. In addition, Casco accepts students in all grades throughout high school.

2. Expedition, Community, and Adolescent Development

Casco is an Expeditionary Learning school with an emphasis on achievement, character, and meaningful work. (If you haven’t visited it yet, check out the Illuminating Standards that has been developed by a partnership between Expeditionary Learning and Harvard Ed School.) Again, Casco is so integrated that any activity is designed to build on all three components.

Expedition: The concept of expeditions, or learning as an exploration, is constantly drawn upon throughout the school. Expeditions, all of which are interdisciplinary, can take place within the school, on Cow Island for outdoor learning, or in the community to look at topics such as sustainable foods. Each class has a major question guiding their year. This year, sophomores are exploring Africa Rising, juniors are looking at income equality, and seniors are learning about the Arab world with a final project of turning the school into a museum so others can learn as well. Freshmen and seniors have Quests, and the Junior Journey is a week of investigation, community service, oral histories, and video production on inequity in an American city such as New Orleans, NYC, or Biloxi. Here is a video about expeditions created by Edutopia in the Schools That Work series.

Another form for students to explore their passions, the world, and their own perspective on the world is through intensives. These week-long opportunities may include learning to swim, learning conflict resolutions skills, or embarking on career exploration. (more…)

Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety at Merit Prep

November 10, 2015 by
Sajan George

Sajan George

This post is the second on my visit to Merit Prep as I try to capture a couple of the big huge takeaways. (Click here for an overview of Merit Prep.) I really believe that schools like Merit Prep and Building 21 – schools that are student-centric, competency-based, and exploring how to use technology to support the learning process – are opening the door to models that will work for our most vulnerable students. I believe they are at the forefront of turning around education in communities shaped by a concentration of poverty. We aren’t there yet, but after visiting these schools, it’s as if a path opened up in my mind about where we are going. Being able to climb up and outside of the traditional box is the power of innovation, especially when it is designed around the needs of students.

Catching Kids Up Through Non-Linear Progressions

During my site visit, we had a fascinating conversation about how to respond to students who have huge gaps in their skills when they enter a school or have had difficulty keeping a pace that allows them to complete their work for a course. This is no different than a traditional high school when students enroll with elementary school skills, or when ninth graders don’t achieve all their credits, thereby creating a pool of over-age, undercredited students who need special strategies to help them complete high school.

In a competency-based school, the problem has to be dealt with directly, as we don’t pass students on with Cs or Ds. Our discussion touched on creating forcing functions early in the year so students must complete their work before being able to do something else, creating learning experiences that allow students to “double up on standards,” and establishing “competency or standards recovery” mechanisms that can be accessed throughout the year.

Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, explained that they are making a pivot on how they think about missing standards. Remember, they are a school that is designed to have students working at their own level. He said that it doesn’t always make sense to have a seventh grader who is starting at the fourth grade level to follow a linear path. He suggested that we need to think about non-linear paths that will produce greater growth, be engaging to students (can you imagine being a seventh grader who has to work through three years of standards just to get to grade level?), and be instructionally sound.

Matchbook has been looking at Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards. (Please go to link before reading on.) Baumes has developed a way to visualize the prerequisite knowledge for any math standard and to look at a specific standard to see what other standards are built on that knowledge. When you move your cursor to a standard it turns green. Those standards that it depends on turn blue and those that are dependent on that standard turn red. (more…)

Merit Prep: Where Students Feel Safe to Learn

November 9, 2015 by
Ron Harvey

Principal Ron Harvey

This is the first post taking a look at Merit Prep. For part two, visit Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety.

I am deeply grateful for the time the team at Merit Preparatory Charter School spent explaining their school, the model, their sparkling information system, their school culture, how to accelerate learning for students who have not been previously well-served by public education, and what they are learning about turning around schools. This post will be followed by another with some of my big takeaways.

Thanks to Laura Shubilla, a long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder of Building 21, for joining me on a site visit. Listening to her perspective helped me better understand Merit Prep, reminding me how important it is to do joint site visits.

The Challenge

What is truly amazing about Merit Prep and the Matchbook Learning approach is that they are pushing hard to create a personalized, competency-based, blended model. And they are doing it with the most student-centered starting point…making sure kids feel loved, cared for, and safe. They are also doing it in an area of concentrated poverty in Newark, NJ, where kids face multiple challenges day in and day out. Matchbook began working to turn around Merit Prep last year, thus they are still in the process of reshaping the culture and expectations while simultaneously working to get the design of the school just right.

The Team

I met Sajan George at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit in 2011. I was instantly impressed by his commitment to finding solutions for our lowest performing schools in our most economically challenged cities. Soon after the summit, he launched Matchbook Learning, and I’ve been watching its development ever since. What was interesting in meeting the team of Merit Prep staff (Ron Harvey, Principal and Jason Lewis, Director of Culture) and the Matchbook Learning leadership team (George; Nithi Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology; John Polk, Chief Operating Officer; Laurance Specht and Tiffany McAfee, Directors of Personalized Learning; Al Motley, Chief Technology Officer; and Dr. Amy Swann, Chief Learning Officer) is that the same level of leadership, courage, commitment, and love of children is held by all. It was such a treat to be in a room of warm, brave-hearted people. As I told them, I think they are going to be leading the way to help us transform schools in big, broken-down districts.

Culture of Safety

The Merit Prep team takes culture-building very seriously. They start by ensuring that students feel safe and cared for, and that learning is at the forefront of any decision. Given that they are introducing an entirely new set of values, there is also an emphasis on high expectations and being “firm, fair, and consistent” to rebuild trust and respect. I’ll write more about their school culture in the second post on their school. (more…)

Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

November 3, 2015 by

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools. (more…)

Biddeford School District: Never Unpack Alone

October 27, 2015 by

Maine Road TripThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine.

Dan Joseph, Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Lab, suggested I visit with Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Biddeford School Department, to learn about how they were progressing toward proficiency-based diplomas. The conversation included Margaret Pitts, Principal, Biddeford Primary School; Lindsey Nadeau, Early Childhood Coordinator, JFK Memorial School (kindergarten); Kyle Keenan, Principal, Biddeford Middle School; Mary Bellavance, Instructional Coach at the Middle School and a contributor to CompetencyWorks; Deb Kenney, Principal, Biddeford Intermediate School ; and Paulette Bonneau, Principal, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. Thanks so much to all of you!

Biddeford is a small district serving a town of 21,000. The student enrollment is approximately 2,600 with about 60 percent FRL. Ray described that although they aspire to higher student achievement, “those kids who go to college tend to stay.” Thus, driving their focus is a strong emphasis on improving achievement and expanding the numbers of students going to college. Already there are signs they are moving in the right direction – Pitts mentioned that the proficiency-based instruction along with strong RTI has resulted in a decrease of third graders who will need intervention next year. Biddeford is already seeing signs of an upward trajectory.

Ramping Up

Ray explained they didn’t jump to the RISC model. He believes that change starts with people. He wanted to make sure that principals would trust the RISC staff. Dan Joseph joined two leadership team meetings before a contract with RISC was established and he began working with teachers.

Biddeford made a decision to focus the community engagement at the school level rather than district. It was a strategic choice for Biddeford. The state policy requires districts to create proficiency-based diplomas, so there is less demand for community-wide engagement to move forward. Yet, community engagement is important for building a shared vision and embracing the new values. Given that Maine takes local control very seriously, it made sense to use an even more decentralized strategy. Keenan explained that they started with having schools engage their parent communities about what is best for our kids.

Ray also believes that “the quickest thing to get a thing killed is to name it.” With the support of the Biddeford School Board, he made sure the message was clear that proficiency-based learning is not an initiative or a fad. This is based on what is best for children.

Starting with K-8

It made sense for Biddeford to start with K-8, as it was already comfortable with standards-based education. Furthermore, high schools add a layer of complexity to change: Maine state policy starts the clock ticking when a student enters ninth grade by only calculating a four-year graduation cohort and counting students who need a fifth year as a drop-out. Thus, they are often the most intransigent to change. (more…)

Phase In or Overnight Your Implementation?

October 20, 2015 by

Guinea Pig Reading a BookWhen implementing a Proficiency Based Learning system, many schools need to choose between a “phased in” approach or an “overnight” approach. Typically, a phased in approach identifies a specific group of students for which change happens over a prolonged period of time. Conversely, an overnight approach involves developing a program from philosophy through logistics (such as scheduling, assessments, reporting, transcripts, etc.) and making the transition for an entire school or district to happen at the same time.

Having experienced both, I offer a discussion of unintended consequences to one of these choices. In one school, implementation was scheduled for a freshman class with a four-year phase in process through which the entire school would transition to a new system. In another, a decision was made to transition an entire school together at one time, given the thinking that ultimately “we’re going that way” anyway, why not do it together approach.

We’re the Guinea Pigs

Stakeholders may or may not embrace a change to a proficiency-based system. When deciding to implement this change, a single group of students (in this case, a freshman class) and their families experience the change over a period of multiple years. While it is a fact of life that schools are “building the plane while flying it,” it has a dramatic effect upon the “guinea pig” class. Not having answers is natural when transitioning to a whole new philosophy and approach to educating our youth. It is natural not to anticipate some of the issues that arise within transition; however, the guinea pig class certainly had their fill of “I don’t know” responses from teachers and administrators. (more…)

True Voice and Choice at Kettle Moraine Perform

October 19, 2015 by

KMPerformCan you envision a high school without courses, semesters, or trimesters? A school where students build their schedules every four to six weeks, choosing seminars, workshops, internships, projects, and the like that are interesting to them?

A school where students are not moving through a schedule created for them nine months before the academic year even begins?

What if instead you take the competencies from math, science, reading, writing, and the like, and then put them together into interdisciplinary learning opportunities that students can choose?

What if students were so knowledgeable about their learning that they could add competencies to existing seminars so they were meeting their learning goals, or creating seminars to co-teach with school faculty so their fellow students can meet their learning goals?

Well, I have not only envisioned it but I finally got to see it in action last week when I visited Kettle Moraine Perform in Wales, Wisconsin, a 170 student performing arts high school inside the larger 1400 student legacy high school. (Click here for more on the model.)

Abby, our student tour guide, was a senior with enough credits gathered to graduate. But instead of leaving high school, she decided to stay to make herself more competitive for the college of her choice. This is a wonderful model of true voice and choice.

I look forward to going back.

See also:

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw@yahoo.com.

Going BIG in Cedar Rapids

September 30, 2015 by

iowa bigCedar Rapids is only twenty minutes down the road from Iowa City, a center of the educational curriculum and assessment industry (ACT and Pearson both have offices there), but feels like a journey twenty years into the future. I had a chance to meet with Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent, Trace Pickering, and visit Iowa BIG thanks to an introduction from Sandra Dop, competency education guru at the Iowa Department of Education.

In 2008, a devastating flood destroyed Cedar Rapids’ downtown and many residential areas. Community members came together and realized that rebuilding the city provided an opportunity to completely rethink how they did things, including redesigning education. As part of the planning process, community leaders conducted what they affectionately, but unofficially, called the “Billy Madison Project.” Adult community leaders attended high school to see how they would experience it with the hindsight of their own education, life experience, and knowledge of the skills actually needed to be successful in a career. They realized how ridiculous it seemed to ask students to sit through lectures, with bell schedules and silos between subjects. They agreed that the following key elements would be necessary in a new school model:

  • Focus on kids’ passions: because most successful adults have passion for what they’re doing;
  • Get kids out doing real work: the community has more problems and opportunities than the adults can address on their own. The Cedar Rapids area has 7000 high school students—an untapped resource for the community;
  • Make sure kids are learning content in an integrated way: academic rigor is essential, but it must be relevant.

Iowa BIG was founded as a result of these findings and the superintendent agreed to include it in the district’s portfolio of educational opportunities. (more…)

Going Deeper with New Resources

September 23, 2015 by

It’s helpful to read all the papers that get released on competency education and other related efforts…but they never totally help you understand how to do something. Thus, I keep my eyes out for resources that allow you to go deeper more easily.

There are two new resources that I think could be helpful to educators – Making Mastery Accessible by reDesign and Illuminating Standards at the Center for Student Work. And if you know of others that you have found helpful to you in your work, please pass them on.

redesignMaking Mastery Accessible was developed in partnership with Springpoint and is supported by Carnegie Corporation as a follow-up to Making Mastery Work. It can help you navigate terminology and there are lots of resources from other schools so you can see how they have organized their schools, what they have developed as overarching competencies, and access lots of teaching resources. There are also tools developed by reDesign to help you think about your process of conversion. For example, there are a number of design tools including readiness, adoption process, and grading policies.

snakes are born this way

From the video Snakes Are Born This Way

Illuminating Standards is a project to help people see how they can use project-based learning and performance tasks to help students meet the standards set out in the Common Core. It’s been developed through a partnership with Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (check out the home page, as there are a lot more resources available there). There are great videos about how to teach standards using project-based learning and student voice/choice. You will also find projects and examples of student work at each grade level.

Both sites have a lot of material, so you might want to dedicate an hour or have a team of people look through to find out what might be most useful in your work right now.

See also:

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