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Author: Nina Lopez

Thompson School District: Student-Driven Learning at Work!

September 28, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51, DSISD, and Westminster Public Schools for more insights. 

Conrad Ball Middle School sits on an unremarkable street in Loveland, Colorado. Other than its claim to fame as the nation’s “Sweetheart City,” Loveland is similar in many ways to other small- to medium-sized cities across the nation. However, across this school district, something truly different is happening inside its classrooms.

Conrad Ball Middle School (or “Con Ball” as it is referred to by district staff) is one of several schools that are leading implementation of Thompson’s vision for personalized, competency-based learning. Thompson’s vision for competency based learning is described this way.

“The teachers and staff in TSD are dedicated to working with students and families to design a personal learning pathway for each student based on their passions, strengths and needs. We care about students having more meaningful learning that is not based on seat time and gives students more choices in what they want to explore at a deeper level. Teachers are committed to providing specific feedback to help students transfer and apply the skills they gain during their learning to foster growth and inspire students to excel. We are committed to ensuring that every student is prepared for success and is college, career and community ready.”

Thompson’s competency-based structure is founded upon four core areas of teaching and learning:

1. Competency-Based Instruction is designed to:

  • provide flexibility to students in demonstrating proficiency within personalized learning/personalized learning pathways,
  • ensure acquisition of knowledge and skills essential for success in higher education, careers, and adult life (state standards),
  • afford equitable access to education,
  • support communication that helps students learn more effectively through better feedback, and
  • foster ownership of the standard and the scores accessed through open gradebook.

2. Competency-Based Scoring: Students, parents, and teachers build understanding of what each scoring level looks like for each standard in each content area.

3. Competency-Based Assessment: Formative and summative assessments that are identified prior to the learning, aligned to standards, criterion referenced, and authentic to student learning.

4. Competency-Based Reporting: Consists of quarterly progress monitoring reports that are designed to be links within a year-long chain of evidence toward end-of-year expectations, and one final report card at end-of-year.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about classes at Conrad Ball is how actively students are leading their classroom experience. Walk into Mrs. Steele’s eighth grade math class, and students are leading discussions at each of the tables scattered around the room. Student groups are re-distributed daily rather than remain fixed in static ability groups. Mrs. Steele rotates around the groups to offer guidance, answer questions and check in on progress. Meanwhile, any student can go at any time to the “Help Table” where other students sit doing their own work, but ready to be interrupted at any time to help fellow students. Outside of class, Mrs. Steele uses an online platform to review student work, provide individual feedback and make adjustments for students. (more…)

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD): Competency-Based by Design

September 21, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51 and Westminster Public Schools for more insights. 

Few public-school leaders outside of the charter sector have the opportunity to design their school from the ground up. In 2013, Danny Medved was invited by Denver Public Schools (DPS) to do just that. With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design Challenge, Medved worked alongside staff from DPS’ Imaginarium to design a new, competency-based high school in Denver. This type of “in-house innovation” is unique within large urban school districts, and it provided an opportunity to draw upon the district resources and expertise while still enjoying the benefits of school autonomy and a fresh start.

Mr. Medved looked directly to iNACOL’s 2011 working definition of competency-based learning to design the school. As any good innovator would, Mr. Medved borrowed from and built upon existing innovations and the experiences of others. As he explains, “we did not want to create from scratch what already exists but did want to use them in a way so as to have an individual school identity.” Other resources that directly informed the school design included Summit Public School’s Base Camp and Tony Wagner’s discussion of Play, Passion and Purpose. The ability to build upon the efforts of early innovators enabled the school to focus its creative energies upon the core beliefs and purposes of the school, and select the tools and resources that supported them. Core elements of the school’s competency-based model that ultimately emerged include:

  • School structure organized around iNACOL’s working definition of competency-based learning
  • Academic and socio-emotional competencies aligned with DSISD’s four Qualities of an Innovator domains (Personal Academic Excellence Domain developed by Summit Public Schools)
  • Instruction organized into six-week blocks, each focused upon a set of “power standards”; curriculum scope and sequence spirals throughout the year so that skills can be re-taught in the context of the next six-week sequence
  • Personalized learning platform from Summit Public Schools
  • Use cross-content standards to develop Student-Learning Objectives
  • Deliver instruction using something similar to a rotational model that is differentiated using the modalities of minimal direct instruction, small group direct instruction, collaborative group work, and asynchronous learning time, with an emphasis upon project-based learning experiences embedded throughout the academic year and used to deliver cross-disciplinary content
  • FLEX block included in students’ weekly schedule that allows for both acceleration and remediation opportunities as well as elective classes, such as art
  • Clear set of teacher competencies; explains Mr. Medved “you can grow people to teach in this environment, but you need some rock star anchor teachers.”

With support from DPS, Mr. Medved was able to hire teacher leaders during the design process. Together, they completed the school planning process, including the build out of the school instructional plan. This distributed leadership model was an intentional part of the school design, which places an emphasis upon building the leadership capacity of other leaders within the school.

After two years of focused planning, in 2015, the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) welcomed its first students, a class of 100 ninth graders. Like any new school leader will tell you, you plan the school you envision, but the school isn’t established until the students arrive, testing the strength of a school design and forcing the school to determine what is fixed and what might need to change in response to what students and families bring with them to the school community. That first year was a learning experience for DSISD as much for the school’s faculty as for the students. A summary of lessons learned during that first year have been previously captured in a report by Denver Public School’s imaginarium, and you can read about them here: Personalized Learning: A Journey Through Year One (2016). However, a few lessons are worth calling out here with regard to the implementation of DSISD’s competency-based model. Some of these were identified by students and faculty at the school and others are offered by the author. (more…)

Lessons from a Vanguard: A Look at Metz Elementary

September 18, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51 for more insights. 

Westminster Public Schools is accustomed to being in the spotlight. In 2008, Westminster became one of the first public school districts in the nation to adopt a competency-based model. In 2000, Colorado was one of the first states to adopt a school report card system. Based primarily upon standardized test results, the new law also put into place mandatory state interventions for schools and districts with persistent low performance. As the district website recounts, “after years of declining scores on the Colorado Student Achievement Program, commonly known as CSAP, the Board of Education decided the academic success of its students was too important to address through small curriculum shifts or a subtle tweaking of its programming. Instead, the district needed to radically change the way it educated students.”[1] Already looking for a more effective way to serve the districts’ rapidly changing student needs, district leadership made a bold move. Rather than pursue “drill and kill” strategies designed to quickly boost test scores, the district chose instead to implement a competency-based education model with the intention of honoring students and supporting deeper learning. This was a bold move and reflects an ethos about students and educators that continues to this day.

Metz Elementary was the first school to pilot Westminster’s new performance based system. Beginning in 2009, the school abandoned its traditional system of age-based learning to focus instead on what they wanted for students – deeper learning and performance. The school serves approximately 340 students in grades K-5, most of who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Borrowing from Chugach School District in Alaska and other schools across the country that had made the move to a performance-based system, Westminster Public Schools introduced a personalized learning approach that was all its own.

Claudette Trujillo, the principal at Metz, grew up in Westminster. After a few years teaching in a neighboring district, Ms. Trujillo ultimately returned to Westminster, where she has served in multiple roles at multiple schools. When she arrived at Metz in 2013, the school had returned to a traditional structure. Despite the district’s continued commitment to competency-based learning, a series of circumstances resulted in a lack of consistent implementation at Metz. Changes in leadership and staff have resulted in teachers relying on what they knew best, more traditional models of teaching and learning.

Principal Claudette Trujillo

Four years later, Ms. Trujillo has solidly re-established competency-based learning at the school. Teachers and students alike are invested in the structure and the enthusiasm is palpable throughout the school. Ms. Logsdon, a Level 4/5 teacher, describes it this way. “[Adopting competency-based learning is] absolutely the right thing for kids and it is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.” When asked what lessons she has learned in the process, she offers the following reflection, “leadership for competency-based systems has to be there, and [leadership] has to believe in it.”

Today, thanks to the leadership and dedicated teachers and students at Metz Elementary, the school has implemented a dynamic system that is very much home-grown. The district’s brochure How Personalized Learning Works outlines the key components of the system at work in Metz Elementary. Core elements of the district’s approach include:

  • Clear learning targets that determine each student’s performance level in each subject
  • Ongoing assessments that inform student pathways and provide opportunities to demonstrate proficiency
  • Promotion to the next performance level as soon as a student demonstrates they are ready
  • Transparent reporting systems that allow parents, students and educators to log on any time and see where a student is and what’s next

(more…)

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