Author: Eliot Levine

Personalization and Positive School Culture at Del Lago Academy

February 19, 2020 by

This is the third post in a series about Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Student Team-Building Activity

A Student Team-Building Activity

Del Lago Academy’s commitment to personalization has led to design innovations such as a village structure with cohorts of 100 students sharing a small group of teachers, daily staff circles, and facilities that support individual and small group learning.

One of the school’s key strategies for personalization and building a positive culture is a weekly advisory period. Each advisory has students from all four grades. Students stay with the same advisor for all four years of high school, but the group changes as the seniors graduate and new 9th-graders arrive.

Advisory activities often revolve around reinforcing the school’s “pillars of excellence,” which they describe as “mutual agreements guiding how we work and live together” and “a framework to proactively and intentionally teach scholars the skills they need to be responsible, respectful, ethical, and compassionate world citizens.” The five pillars are: Welcome, Do No Harm, Never Too Late To Learn, Choice Words, and Be The Best.

For the “Welcome” pillar, they have done activities on what it’s like to be welcoming and to feel welcome. When a mass shooting took place at the synagogue in nearby Poway, they did a “Choice Words” activity that focused on the impact of their words and actions. If the campus is looking strewn with trash or otherwise neglected, they might do a cleanup and a discussion of “Be the Best” and “Do No Harm.”

Older students often lead activities, including discussions to pass down the school culture to younger students. Every student has an advisor, and most staff members, including administrators and guidance counselors, have an advisory. (The principal and assistant principal co-advise with a teacher in case they have a conflict or need to step out.) Advisory meets for 45 minutes every Wednesday.

Pillars of Excellence

Daily Staff Circle

In order to build a positive, personalized culture for students, Del Lago believes they need to do the same for staff. A terrific culture-building activity for school staff is a daily 10-minute morning circle that takes place just before school starts. It’s optional, but the day I was there about 30 staff members were present, which was almost everyone. Given how busy teachers are as the day begins, this was a tremendous turnout. But for staff who value community and connection with their colleagues – most of them, I suspect – it seems that it would be an uplifting and energizing part of the day. There was lots of laughter as everyone filed in, and many teachers were wearing bright orange for a school-wide pep rally that afternoon.

After Principal Ruth Hellams kindly introduced me, the meeting began with a quick touch base about any students of concern, and teachers raised issues about students’ injuries and academic problems. The goal wasn’t to fix problems during the meeting, but to share information across all of the staff who work with the students in question. Next was a brief announcement about discussing vaping-related health risks with students. A few teachers asked for a schedule change because unexpected school days off due to nearby forest fires had led advisory to be cancelled. The ten minutes passed quickly, and as teachers left to join their students, Hellams said, “Have a good day. Let’s inspire kids to do great things!”

One purpose of the morning staff circle is to model practices that staff can use with their students. On Mondays they do check-ins in smaller groups to ask how everyone is doing. Sometimes they form groups of three or four and do a quick share-out, such as describing an assessment practice they used in the past week or an interdisciplinary project they’re working on. Once a week they have a quick discussion of a piece of scholarly research that everyone has received ahead of time, related to an aspect of competency-based education. (Hellams believes that deep understanding competency-based education theory and practice is essential for sustaining it; otherwise, it’s too easy to revert to traditional thinking and practice when challenges arise.)

Thursdays in staff circle are for letter-writing, using labels the school prints with every student’s name and address. By the end of the year, a staff member has sent an affirming handwritten letter to every student about something specific the student has done – more than just “How are you doing?” or “Thank you for being part of our school.” Fridays are celebratory and include shout-outs to staff and check-outs to see how the week went. (more…)

Science Competencies and Micro-credentials at Del Lago Academy

February 13, 2020 by

This is the second post in a series about Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Del Lago Academy Banner

Del Lago Academy is a “Campus of Applied Science” whose staff have developed a biotech curriculum with digital badges and strong industry connections. I spoke with 10th-grade science teacher Rita Boyd, who was passionate about building Del Lago’s competency-based approach. Through a multi-year process, the science team developed the following 11 competencies that they call “science and engineering practices”:

  1. Science CompetenciesAsking questions
  2. Planning and carrying out investigations
  3. Analyzing and organizing data
  4. Constructing explanations
  5. Analyzing error
  6. Developing and using models
  7. Mathematical and computational thinking
  8. Obtaining and evaluating information
  9. Communicating information
  10. Engaging in discourse from evidence
  11. Technical lab skills

Students in all grades do projects every semester that give them at least two opportunities to work on each competency and demonstrate mastery through a variety of assessments. The teachers ask students to make a case for which science and engineering practices they demonstrated through different elements of their projects. After each assessment, students complete a “Competency Reflections” handout by checking off the practices they used and responding to one of the five “perplexity prompts” below to be used as evidence in their science portfolio.

  • Confounds: Explain something that caught you off guard, deeply interested, or surprised you. Something that challenges a prior understanding or something you previously would have found hard to believe.
  • Confirms: Explain what confirms what you already know or have experienced. Something that is not surprising at all. Describe what was confirming to you.
  • Conducive: Explore a term, phrase, concept, event, or idea that you find particularly conducive to your learning. Describe how your learning or understanding was supported.
  • Confuses: Examine something that is unclear and you are working on understanding. This can be a term, idea, a passage (including citation), or concept. Explain what about it is confusing.
  • Curious: Express something that you want to learn more about. Indicate what made you curious and what you hope to learn.

The science course grade is currently calculated by averaging a student’s grades on each competency, but in the future the school plans to report a separate grade on each competency. They also aspire to develop learning progressions that locate students’ evidence on a continuum from 9th-grade to 12th-grade levels on each competency. Given the teachers’ devotion and progress on these complex tasks so far, it will be great to hear about their advances in the coming years.

Badge ImagesScience Micro-Credentials

Boyd’s 10th-grade science students can also earn three online badges (micro-credentials) for skills in using spectrophotometers, serological pipets, and a genetic engineering technique in which students transform a bacterium using a plasma they make in the lab. To pursue the badge, students first had to receive a ‘4’ grade (extending the competency) on the qualifying class assignments. This led many students who were excited about earning the badge to revise and extend their ‘3’-level work (meeting the competency) from earlier in the year. After qualifying based on their classwork, students needed to upload their evidence, write a reflection, and make a presentation to the class.

Del Lago uses the Portfolium online badging platform, which is part of the Canvas learning management system the school uses. The badges evolved from discussions among several San Diego County schools on topics such as developing a set of required skills and principles for using serological pipets. Then Del Lago aligned those skills and principles with their science competencies, and Portfolium turned that information into a badge. Some other grade levels and academic disciplines at Del Lago are engaging in similar processes to develop badges for selected competencies. More information on this work is available at the CompetencyX website.


Interdisciplinary Projects and Assessment Practices at Del Lago Academy

February 10, 2020 by

Lots of Students in Front of Del Lago Academy Building

This is the first post in a series about Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Del Lago Academy – Campus of Applied Science, a high school in the Escondido Unified School District, opened in 2013, just north of San Diego. The 800-student school was launched through energetic efforts of community members and school district personnel seeking a more personalized education than the district’s 2,200-student comprehensive high school offered. A bond issue funded the new school as the district’s student population expanded. Admission to the district’s two high schools is lottery-based and open to all students.

The school has developed and continues to strengthen many competency-based practices aligned with Del Lago’s four core beliefs – personalization, authentic learning experiences, an ethic of excellence, and skilled professional teachers. Principal Ruth Hellams has developed a passion for competency-based education during her three years at Del Lago and is dedicated to advancing the school’s founding vision. (She’s doing her doctoral dissertation on how to sustain alternative education in a traditional system.) The school’s founding principal, Keith Nuthall, created and protected the school’s vision in a way that has enabled it to survive substantial turnover of instructional staff and changes in school and district leadership.

Students Doing Project in HallwayInterdisciplinary Projects

Del Lago’s innovative structures enable important aspects of competency-based education. Students in grades 9-11 are organized in “villages” of about 100 students who move together throughout the school day to the same group of shared teachers, with two villages per grade level. This builds community as students get to know each other well, and it helps teachers work collaboratively to get to know and support students. Twelfth grade doesn’t use the village system because the many individualized course choices and off-campus opportunities available to seniors make it impossible for 100 students to move through the day together.

The village system facilitates Del Lago’s commitment to interdisciplinary projects – a key element of deeper learning and designing for the development of rigorous, higher-level skills, which is one of the quality principles of competency-based education. The school also has a “bell schedule” with no bells, so teachers in village teams can flexibly change the day’s schedule to create an extended block of time for interdisciplinary projects or other learning needs. They make use of this flexibility not only within villages, but also across multiple villages and grade levels when they want a larger pool of students for interest-based groupings.

“Teachers re-roster their students and renegotiate their time within the school day” one teacher explained. “Then you’ll see 220 kids moving around in different ways to different classrooms and parts of the school, and this is just part of the alternative structure – big groups of kids moving but not within the regular bell schedule.” Knowing how bells can snap students out of their focus on a learning experience, Del Lago teachers appreciate not having this distraction.

One 9th-grade interdisciplinary project emerged from students who didn’t like the state’s physical fitness test and developed a project to research and propose a different one. In history class they researched how the current test was created, through the U.S. military in the 1950s. In their science and ENS (exercise nutrition & science) classes they researched which muscle groups were important and how to strengthen them. In English class they wrote materials to recommend a new test and made presentations about it. One group of students who wanted an extended option administered the new test at eight local schools and presented their findings and recommendations at the San Diego school district office and an education conference.


What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?

February 3, 2020 by

What's New ImageAurora Institute News and Reports

  • When the new Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) website goes live in early spring, will become part of it. All CompetencyWorks blog posts and reports will be available in the new location. More information will be provided when the new site is launched.
  • In January the Aurora Institute and the Center for Assessment released How Systems of Assessments Aligned with Competency-Based Education Can Support Equity. The report offers guidance for designing balanced assessment systems to support competency-based education’s equity goals.

Competency-Based Education Resources

  • Assessment for Good Podcast LogoThe Center for Collaborative Education launched a podcast, Assessment for Good, that grapples with traditional, and often oppressive, educational assessment practices. The podcast explores designing assessments that help educators understand what students know and can do while ensuring love and compassion are not lost in the process.
  • Phyllis Lockett of LEAP Innovations is writing a terrific series of columns for Forbes Magazine with a focus on personalized learning. Her column Third-Grade Shoes Won’t Fit In 2020 provides powerful advocacy for personalized learning and addresses common misperceptions.
  • In Proficiency Based Learning: Stay The Course, Iterate & Improve, Mike McRaith of the Vermont Principals Association shares thoughtful reflections on why Vermont should continue to deepen its proficiency-based practices and what is needed to “weather expected pockets of concern, and alleviate stakeholders’ fears without knocking the work off course unnecessarily.”


Transitioning to Standards-Based Grading

January 20, 2020 by

Sign on Wall That Says Are You Proficient YetThis is the final post in a series about the Northern Cass School District.

Northern Cass is making an ambitious transformation to competency-based education, as described in earlier posts in this series. They are shifting to standards-based grading over multiple years as the district develops needed policies and learning management systems, teachers develop materials and strategies, and students and parents have opportunities to learn about the changes.

The district’s grading scale is ‘1’ = Emerging, ‘2’ = Foundational, ‘3’ = Proficient, and ‘4’ = Extended Learning. The Proficient level means a student has demonstrated competency, and Extended means they have gone beyond the expected level of competency.

Wall Poster Showing Definition of Level 3Last school year Northern Cass teachers still reported grades on a 1 to 100 scale, and they began implementing standards-based grading to different degrees. This school year all grading is standards-based, and teachers no longer report numeric grades. To reach this point, teachers needed to identify each of their competencies and develop corresponding performance levels and rubrics. For many schools, this is one of the most challenging demands of moving into a competency-based system. (Thomas Gaffey shares Building 21’s competencies and rubrics in this CompetencyWorks post.)

The district also faces the challenge of how to handle students’ traditional grades from previous years of high school. This year’s 9th-graders (the class of 2023) will start and finish high school under the new system, but older students will graduate under a mix of the old and new systems. During the transitional years, each subsequent class will have graduation requirements that come closer to being fully competency-based:

  • Class of 2020 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 80% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2021 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 85% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2022 – 100% of learners get a 2.5; learners must achieve a 3 in 90% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2023 and beyond – 100% of learners get a 3.0; learners must achieve a 3 in all of the standards in a specific class

In short, the more years a student spends in the new system, the more they will need to meet its expectations. Students in the class of 2023 and beyond will need to demonstrate competency (a score of ‘3’ or ‘Proficient’) in all standards. (more…)

Framing Habits of Work and Capstone Skills in Northern Cass

January 14, 2020 by

Organization Capstone Skill DefinitionThis is the second post in a series about the Northern Cass School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Many competency-based schools are working hard to support the development of “personal success skills” or “habits of work.” These skills are well-understood to be essential for life success but are underemphasized in schools. There is no standard approach across schools in terms of which skills are emphasized, what they’re called, or whether and how they’re assessed. That’s understandable, because evidence to guide those decisions is still in early stages of development. One way to build the evidence base and improve practice is to share examples of what different schools are doing and the issues they’re grappling with.

Habits of Work and Capstone Skills

During my visit to the Northern Cass School District, I learned about their strategies with what they call “Habits of Work” and “Capstone Skills.” An elementary teacher told me that grades K, 1, and 2 teachers had developed the following habits of work list, which was posted for students:

  • Effort – Always do your best. Check your work and find ways to improve.
  • Timeliness – Arrive to class on time. Use time appropriately.
  • Respect – Respect self, others, and property. Follow directions/classroom rules.
  • Preparedness – Have items needed for learning. Complete classwork on time.
  • Engagement – Practice active listening. Participate.

The high school was using a similar list, minus the first element (effort). Teachers at all levels said that developing the Habits of Work was still a work in progress. My visit was last school year. The district’s Learner Handbook for the current school year makes it clear that the district has further refined the list to include just three of the elements from last year’s list: respect, engagement, and preparedness.

I’m presenting this evolution rather than just the final list to highlight how each district will likely need to develop and refine their habits of work list over time. The habits chosen have important implications for what teachers will emphasize, what students will consider important, and how habits of work relate to assessment and accountability—more on that a little later.

Northern Cass also has a set of “capstone skills” that students must develop over time. Students do a capstone project for graduation, and their final presentation is organized in part around evidence of these skills. The capstone skills and their definitions are:

  • Organization – Creating and utilizing an efficient system to prioritize time and materials.
  • Leadership – Develops abilities in themselves and others in order to make a positive impact at school or in the larger community.
  • Collaboration – Working towards a common goal with a group of peers while demonstrating respectful interpersonal skills.
  • Accountability – Being responsible for the consequences, both positive and negative, of one’s actions; following through on obligations and commitments.
  • Self-reflection – Processing experiences as a means to deepen, enhance, value, and grow their learning and thinking skills.
  • Critical Thinking – Using a process to solve and reason through complex problems in a logical way.
  • Communication – Effectively convey messages both orally and in written form.
  • Learner’s Mindset – A belief that skills and talents are not inherited but are developed by adapting through adversity, flexilibility, and maintaining forward progress.

Each of the capstone skills is part of the Northern Cass Portrait of a Graduate, shown below. Two teachers mentioned that there is some overlap between the habits of work and the capstone skills, and there have been discussions about possibly combining them to manage complexity and streamline assessment. (more…)

The Evolution of Competency-Based Transformation in Northern Cass

January 8, 2020 by
Three Students, School Ambassadors

Northern Cass Student Ambassadors (Visitor Guides)

“It was either we continue to produce unprepared kids, or we change. And we made the decision as a district that we are done with that and we are going to make the change.

– Kelly Trudeau, Northern Cass Educator

This is the first post in a series about the Northern Cass School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Northern Cass, a rural school district in North Dakota, is making an energetic transition to competency-based education. About half an hour north of Fargo, they are early innovators in what has become a larger movement for change within the state. The district is a single, newly-constructed K-12 school building that emerges after several miles of driving through farm fields. It serves 650 students from a sending area of 925 square miles, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.

Shared Purpose for Change

Their transformation began with a sense of shared purpose, well-stated by educator Kelly Trudeau in the opening quotation above about the need for change. (Northern Cass uses the term “educator” rather than teacher. Also “learner” rather than student.) She added that the Northern Cass School District has always been on the cutting edge, pushing educators to find innovations and best practices. “With this personalized learning journey, we’re really starting to figure out that what has been happening in education just isn’t working for our kids. It’s not preparing them for what life is like when they leave us.”

They knew it wasn’t working because they had students who were strong in school but then struggled in college and jobs. “They’ve struggled to advocate for themselves,” Trudeau added. “They’ve struggled to keep up with the rigor. Our move toward personalized learning is to allow them to learn some of those things that they’ll need to do in college—when they don’t have a teacher right next to them all of the time walking them through things and reminding them ‘This is due tomorrow’ and ‘Your test is on Wednesday’ and ‘Make sure you’re studying.’ In the personalized setting, it’s more on them to take control of that and take ownership of their learning. Then hopefully they’ll leave high school being able to do that in college or being able to be a great employee for whoever they go to work for.”

Educator Christian Thompson added, “It’s really just learning how to learn. Our students were good at understanding concepts if they knew exactly what they needed to know, if they were told when and how to learn it. But when they were thrown into situations where they had to adapt and figure out how to learn on their own, that’s what they really struggled with. And that’s when I realized that something need to change.”

Steps Toward Change

These realizations led the school community to discuss how they could really change. They turned toward discussing resources such as the book Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning from the Lindsay Unified School District. They also visited school districts who were years into their competency-based transformation, such as Lindsay USD in California and RSU2 in Maine.

Once they decided to change, they continued working with outside experts and building their own expertise. They are part of a “Proficiency Competency-Based Learning” (PCBL) cohort of five districts in the state moving toward personalized learning. The PCBL cohort members are working with KnowledgeWorks and the Center for Collaborative Education. Their work is funded in part by the Bush Foundation, which is supporting competency-based transformation in the region.

Master's Program Graduates

Teacher Leader Academy Graduates

Another important initiative has been their Teacher Leadership Academy. Northern Cass partnered with North Dakota State University to develop a program in which 20 educators earned a master’s degree while also advancing the district’s personalized learning work. Their courses and master’s theses included work such as rewriting the school’s policies, strategic plan, and family engagement plan, as well as developing new pedagogical strategies and leading professional development activities to share the new knowledge with their colleagues. Much of the course work and research took place at the school, eliminating the long commute to the college campus.

A Phased Transition

Despite wanting to put their new beliefs and insights into practice rapidly, Northern Cass staff recognized that deep change would require much more than a few days of summer professional development, and more than one or two school years for full implementation. Their frank acknowledgment that they are a change-in-progress has helped them manage their transformation at a sustainable pace and offers a model for other transitioning schools and districts.

In support of ambitious but manageable change, Superintendent Cory Steiner emphasized the importance of having a growth mindset for adults, not just students. “Movement forward has been so fast and good,” he said. “We take deep breaths and celebrate where we are but also keep on improving. It’s the most fulfilling educational work the teachers have ever done, but also the most difficult. At first some people wanted to jump ship, but now they’re on board, and we’ve seen a big jump in the use of competency-based approaches.” (more…)

The Competency Train Pulls Into Kankakee: Common Start-up Challenges and Strategies

December 17, 2019 by

Kankakee School LogoAdapting Arlo Guthrie’s famous lyric was irresistible, but we should also know Kankakee for their devotion to competency-based education. Their session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium on how to plan for common start-up challenges in high school redesign was full of valuable lessons for transitioning schools and districts.

The presenters from Kankakee School District 111 in Illinois were Felice Hybert, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, and Brent Johnston, Curriculum Coordinator. They were joined by two leaders from Building 21—Chip Linehan, Co-Executive Director, and Sandra Moumoutjis, Chief Instructional Designer. Building 21 partners with school districts to design, launch, and operate innovative schools, including a competency-based school in Pennsylvania that was featured on CompetencyWorks in 2016.

Building 21 LogoKankakee has partnered with Building 21 through their affiliate program, which supports schools and districts that are transitioning to competency-based education. Building 21 provides affiliate districts with their competency-based learning management system and data dashboards, technical consulting, leadership coaching, and teacher professional development. The partnership began when the Kankakee superintendent asked Hybert to write a grant application on competency-based education. She came across CompetencyWorks, read the blog posts on Building 21, found helpful resources on their website, and contacted Tom Gaffey, Building 21’s chief instructional technologist.

Kankakee started working with Building 21 in March of 2018 and began implementation with students in the fall of 2018. Each incoming class of 9th-graders will use the new approach, so the transition will be complete in four years. During the first two years, Building 21 has been an essential resource that Kankakee has “called constantly” for consultation. There was a two-week teacher “boot camp” for extensive professional development during the first summer, and now they have a daily 45-minute period (from 2:20 to 3:05 p.m.) when the students leave and teachers collaborate. This is made possible in part by a state waiver of student seat-time requirements.

Here are three sets of lessons learned that Kankakee and Building 21 shared in their Symposium session.

Start with Adults, not Students

Kankakee learned that any meaningful change begins with changing adult mindsets. The teachers’ thinking from their own traditional education got in the way of envisioning change. The rationale for change was clear, because the high school was already a low-performing school, and teachers knew that many students were leaving without what they needed to be successful. Many teachers agreed that the school was “running a credit-recovery factory,” and they knew that the rates of graduation, attendance, and teacher retention were all well below state averages.

Transformation efforts focused on the philosophy and rationale of competency-based education. Kankakee and Building 21 leaders emphasized the need to embrace risk-taking, vulnerability, ambiguity, and an iterative cycle of trying new strategies, experiencing success and failure, and making additional changes. They affirmed the messiness of working through change at the classroom, department, school, and district levels. Staff members were encouraged to adopt a stance that said “I don’t know the answer to that—this change doesn’t come all wrapped up in a binder. Let’s figure it out together.” They discussed the inevitability of meeting resistance and how to avoid backsliding once things got hard. In short, the school adopted a bias toward action and continuous improvement. (more…)

What’s New In K-12 Competency-Based Education?

December 6, 2019 by

What's New ImageAurora Institute News and Reports

  • iNACOL is now the Aurora Institute, reflecting our evolution to focusing on systems change and education innovation through student-centered approaches to next-generation learning. A video and more information are here. CompetencyWorks – which was launched in 2012 with iNACOL as the lead organization – will continue as an initiative of the Aurora Institute.
  • The Aurora Institute published What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition and a companion podcast. The report updates the 2011 definition in many ways, including new elements focused on equity, student agency, and different pathways. It also provides belief statements, FAQs, and resources to contextualize and deepen the definition.
  • The Aurora Institute also published Aligning Education Policy with the Science of Learning and Development. We know more than ever about how students learn best, but education policy hasn’t kept pace with these advances. The report explores research and offers recommendations to align policy with what we know about student learning.


  • In A Path Forward to Educational Equity, Karla Vigil and Emily Abedon of the Equity Institute share a framework they have developed and additional suggestions to guide teachers and leaders looking to become fluent in multicultural education and more culturally responsive in their practice. Also see their Culturally Responsive Walkthrough Tool.
  • The Student-Centered Learning Continuum provides a rich description of the characteristics of high-quality, student-centered learning. A series of rubrics provide clear and measurable ways to assess the depth of the four key SCL tenets—that learning is personalized, competency-based, anytime/anywhere, and student-owned—in an educational setting. The research-based continuum was developed by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the RAND Corporation.

Professional Learning

  • A webinar on Scaling Up Deeper Learning Approaches in Public Schools will be offered by the Learning Policy Institute and the Alliance for Excellent Education on December 11 at 2:00pm ET. Experts from the field and researchers will discuss the challenges and opportunities educators and district leaders face in expanding deeper learning. The Assessment for Learning Project will be holding a National Conference February 11-13 in San Diego with four practice-based strands on formative assessment, performance assessment, exhibitions & defense of learning, and graduate portraits. The goal is to reframe thinking about assessment and enabling conditions while grounding learning in proven practice.
  • Global Online Academy is offering a new online program, “Competency-Based Learning: From Theory to Practice,” in which teachers will work with a coach to create a personalized pathway through five key shifts toward implementing competency-based learning. Other upcoming GOA courses focus on rethinking the roles of students, teachers, time, and place.
  • Jane Szot of Distinctive Schools in Chicago shares her network’s Personalized Learning Innovation Fellows model that supports teachers in leading change toward personalized learning. The fellows pilot new strategies, drive efforts emerging from the network’s partnership with LEAP Innovations, and model exemplary practices in their own classrooms.

Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks. Follow @eliot_levine


Building a District Innovation Ecosystem Accelerates School Transformation

November 19, 2019 by

Four Henry County Students in Matching T-ShirtsThe Henry County Schools, a large suburban district just south of Atlanta, has spent six years transforming their district of 50 schools and 43,000 students toward personalized learning. In a session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium, Henry County personnel and partners discussed reorganizing district functions to create an “innovation ecosystem” to facilitate the transformation.

The presenters were Karen Perry, the district’s Director of Personalized Learning; Aaryn Schmuhl, VP of Program Design and Innovation at the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement; and Jeffrey Tsang, Founding Partner of Building Blocks Education. All three have been deeply involved in the district’s “2020 Vision for Personalized Learning” redesign process and shared many of the district’s strategies and insights from this work.

Building a District Culture of Innovation

District design often evolves organically, but transforming a district requires attending deliberately to the culture of innovation. Everyone needs to hear from district leadership and the school board, “We’re about to about to embark on innovative work that’s intentionally different, and it’s going to be challenging.”

Several conditions are required for this message to take hold. First, the district and schools need to pour resources and efforts into building trust, because engaging in change requires trust. Second, it’s essential to establish and communicate a “north star” and have clear discussions about what’s needed to move toward it. For Henry County, the north star has been building student agency. Many of the district’s innovation strategies have changed over time, but the north star has stayed the same.

Third, decision makers across the district need to be meaningfully included. An inclusive process may slow down change in the short run, but it enables deeper change in the long run. Over a period of years, Henry County often gathered key decision-makers from all departments around a table at the district office and framed discussions as “Here’s a problem we need to solve; how can we do that?” rather than “We know what changes are needed; here’s what you need to do.”

This level of inclusion is essential because adopting an entirely new school model—unlike simply adopting a new textbook—involves every district department. Changes required from different departments could include:

  • Information Technology – Adopting new learning management systems.
  • Communications – Conveying the rationale for reforms to a range of key stakeholders.
  • Student Services – Exploring implications for students with special needs.
  • Facilities – Creating different types of learning spaces.
  • Human Resources – Recruiting new hires with relevant skills, dispositions, and training to build the pipeline.

A Framework for Building the Ecosystem

Henry County developed a valuable framework for building the innovation ecosystem based on three sets of school needs and two sets of district actions. The three school needs are: (more…)

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