Category: School Models

The Five Pillars of Teaching and Learning at KM Explore

December 11, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the third in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Kettle Moraine School District has introduced personalized learning into the elementary school level. Of the four district elementary schools, one is fully personalized and one is beginning to make the transition. We visited KM Explore, a charter school chartered by the district to create innovation space, sharing a campus with Wales Elementary. There are currently 148 students K-5 and 6 teachers.

The KM Explore team made the transition to personalized learning in 2015 after having invested in building their capacity in formative assessment for four years with Shirley Clark. They established a new mission and vision:

Mission: The mission of KM Explore is to engage a community of learners through authentic learning experiences by empowering them to be self-motivated thinkers, creators, and collaborators.

Vision: The vision of KM Explore is to customize student learning through an integrated learning framework that fosters authentic collaboration, engagement and reflection.

They then organized their approach to personalized learning with five pillars related to teaching and learning:

  1. Generative, Interdisciplinary Curriculum
  2. Multi-age Learning Community
  3. Habits of Mind
  4. Place Based Learning
  5. Collaborative Teaching and Learning

This approach is based on the idea that personalized learning and deeper learning experiences can be fully integrated, with students working at different levels, receiving differentiated support, and building lifelong learning skills.

Generative Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The discussion about generative, interdisciplinary curriculum was fascinating, as it suggested an entirely new way of organizing learning. KM Explore explains generative curriculum as the understanding that students, community and teachers work together to develop or create “in the moment” learning experiences.

  • Encouraging voice and choice in learning topics
  • Learning in a flexible manner, which content areas are interconnected throughout the day
  • Generating an experience that empowers a learner to question, engage and build community based on class initiatives or individual student interests
  • Growing learning pathways organically

Place Based Learning is the belief that learning takes place inside and outside of the “school walls” and that the community and its members are all part of the anytime/ everywhere learning environment.

Redefining learning spaces outside of the classroom walls

Using the community as resources, including students, community experts, and family members sharing their expertise with our learners.

This term was new to me, so Director Laura Dahm described the popcorn project. Earlier in the year students had a site visit to a farm where they had talked about plants, including corn. This site visit had been selected as a way of implementing another of the KM pillars of teaching and learning: place-based learning. From corn, the student interest then jumped to popcorn. So they learned about different kinds of corn and which ones were for popping. They then began to learn about the science of what made corn pop. Next, they created a small business to sell popcorn to high school students. The teachers could never have anticipated that the site visit to the farm was going to end up with a small business selling popcorn. KM Explore is designed to be highly responsive to follow student interest and prompting questions that would lead to multiple sets of knowledge and skills being taught. (more…)

Waukesha STEM Academy’s Journey from ABC to the Learner Continuum (Part 4)

November 27, 2017 by

Image from the WSA website

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the fourth in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha. 

The transition of Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) to a personalized, proficiency-based system didn’t happen overnight. Principal James Murray and the team at WSA started down this road in 2010, moving through four stages of implementation.

The first stage was moving toward blended learning and incorporating educational software. Murray explained, “The programs provided a lot of data, especially in math. We had to learn how to use it. We had an innovation dip, and the student data plateaued before finally starting to shoot upward. However, we realized there were problems. We were giving students choices. We thought the gamification would be engaging. But we weren’t teaching students the really important skills of how to collaborate, create, and innovate; we were still somewhat stuck in the consumption game and we wanted to transition to the production side of town.” Murray emphasized, “We started to understand that there was a strong and often overlooked nuance between getting something done compared to mastering concepts and owning the ability to contextualize these skills. We realized that students could never get to mastery solely by using adaptive educational software. You simply can’t do it all online. There are definitely powerful supplemental resources for students, but not the core instructional strategy. We never wanted these programs to supplant great instruction and varied modalities and, more importantly, the application of the skills being developed needed to be the keystone of this process.”

So WSA took a big step back. They began to repurpose. Murray explained, “We started thinking about the endgame. We have to put students on a playing field in life. We wanted our students to know how to learn, make progress, demonstrate their learning, and own their education. We needed to think about how we could prepare our students for that.”

In stage two, or STEM 2.0, WSA focused on what it was going to mean to use STEM to help students build higher order skills. They reorganized the campuses so there was now a K-5 and a 6-8 with 850 students enrolled overall. The next step was moving to 1:1 netbooks, expanding the project-based learning to disband projects tied to grade-levels and add in student-proposal projects, and building a platform to support monitoring students. During this stage, they narrowed grading to A-D with the idea that no student should ever be failing a course.

The third stage, referred to as STEM 3.0, introduced standards-based grading (using standards and committing to every student meeting all the standards). Murray pointed out, “We were focusing on proficiency and mastery. We had an adult mental model in which we kept telling students, “You need to do this or that. You need to reach proficiency. Our feedback on behaviors emphasized compliance.” At this point they started understanding that grade-based standards were adult-driven based on what we expected but not where students really were. The standards were transparent but the expectation was that students were all learning the same standards and at the same pace. They also realized that they needed to shift the orientation to learner-driven so they were helping students begin to own their education and their progression.

In the fourth stage, WSA created their own learner continuums that were informed by standards and learning progressions, organized courses to meet students where they were, increased transparency for students about learning expectations and progress, invested in more coaching and reflection in developing personal habits of success, and created the information system to support it all. The vision was finally staring to take shape and people were beginning to really notice the difference in production, engagement, and excitement for learning. This brand new concept of a school had started to grow its sea legs and was now beginning to transform the educational system as we had always known it into a program model that functioned much like a blend of a start-up company and a think-tank, woven into a technical college type-campus.

Use of Technology to Support Students and Teachers

Murray explained, “In order to make the personalized, proficiency-based system really work for students, teachers, and parents, we needed a really good LMS. It needed to operate as a fully-accessible digital file cabinet so that teachers, students, and parents could have access to real-time data and resources.” As every school shifting to competency-based education knows, that’s not so easy to find. “We didn’t just want to build a system and then let it collect dust, as the teachers were the keepers of knowledge. We wanted our most important customers – our students and parents – to be able to access these tools whenever and wherever they pursued their learning. (more…)

Waukesha STEM Academy: Rethinking Space, Time, and Reporting (Part 3)

November 20, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the third in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha.

“Once you get a new iPhone, you can’t go back to a flip phone…it just doesn’t feel right,” remarked Waukesha STEM Academy principal James Murray. We had been discussing the power of creating a transparent learner continuum and the implications for other parts of the instructional and school design.

Use of Time

One change just led to another, and there was no way to stop or back up because the value to students was so apparent. Murray likened it to climbing a tree, branch by branch. “Eventually, you look down and realize how high you have climbed. We were so far beyond the norm that we weren’t going to turn back and climb down that proverbial tree.” For example, in rethinking the learner continuum, Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) also started rethinking the structure of time and how it impacted learning. Instead of a semester or a school year, they began to think about how they would use the 540 days of learning students had while at STEM and then stretch the learning experience into the summer and vacation months. They are now pushing to see how they might provide a year-round model with more learning during the summer through seminars.

One of the principles they used is Do less so you can do more. They reduced core courses from eight to three per day.  The WSA considers the schedule a framework (scroll down to see this week’s framework), as it is something that guides but can be changed if needed. The first fifteen minutes of the day is spent for a transition to learning spaces. The idea of transition is that students check in with whom they need to, grab the resources they need, finish up any work they need to, and find their way to their learning space. The schedule is then a mix of four core courses each day with times aimed at supporting students and openings in the day, when students are able to work on focus areas respective of their individual and personalized learning goals.

Twice a week, students have FLEX where they go to whatever teacher and course they need extra help or extra time with to complete their projects. Homework Club is available three times a week for extra help after school, with students working in a math lab or literacy lab as needed. Murray noted that 98 percent of the students who need the extra help stay after school. In addition, twice weekly Advisory has formal reflection time for students to think about how they are using the time in the day for their learning, as well as to focus on personal success habits, digital citizenship conversations, ACP lessons, and other types of training and coaching.

CONNECT happens at lunch every day, with students touching base with staff as needed or as requested. This is a very unique approach to lunch, because 100 percent of students are on, all at the same time. No one tells students when they need to eat or where they need to go. In this hour, students choose when they eat and which teachers they will go to connect with. At first, there were conversations about schooling this concept and telling groups of students when they needed to eat and where they needed to go. This quickly fell by the wayside when the mission of this time was looked at closely. “We wanted to help our students build skills in time management and ownership of their day,” Murray adds. “When you do it for them and tell them when they can eat and where they need to sit, and make them raise their hands to throw their trash out or excuse themselves from the table, you have removed the ability and need to develop that sense of growth. Our goal was to build independence, not dependent students who didn’t need to think for themselves.”

When students first join WSA, they are offered a four-week Bootcamp during CONNECT to fully understand the proficiency-based system and the information management systems that support it. Students only exit the Bootcamp when they have demonstrated that they understand the necessary components to be successful at WSA. They learn how to use Google Docs and the information management system For All Rubrics; they are introduced to how the schedule is organized; they become familiar with the learner continuums and rubrics; and they learn how to use FLEX, CONNECT, and Homework Club to best support their learning. Once they demonstrate mastery in these areas, they are released into Gen. Pop. and are “pushed out of the nest,” so to speak, and show that they can be successful. If, after a few days, it is observed that a student still needs some support, they are reeled back in to Bootcamp so they can further develop the skills they need to build up.

Rethinking Space

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Waukesha STEM Academy: Personalizing Instruction and Learning Experiences (Part 2)

November 13, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the second in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha. 

Many people describe WSA as a STEM school or as a project-based learning school. Murray quickly pointed out, “I couldn’t really make a blanket statement that we are a project-based school or not. It really depends on the student and how they learn best. For some students, hands-on learning and projects all day work great; for others, not so well. We organize the instruction and learning around what works for students.” He continued, “We started out as a project-based school until we discovered that not every student is ready to do hands-on learning the day they walk through our doors. We failed forward and learned by doing and not doing. Now we ask and discover through conversations with our students what the best fit is for them and roll from there. What does the student need? What type of environment do they like? What type of modality fits their learning habits best? What type of seat do they like, even! Maybe their best fit is direct instruction from a teacher, possibly a slide-show or presentation, maybe it is to watch a video so they have some control and can re-watch, or maybe what they need to do is create a video to teach other students.”

Instruction

The shared pedagogical philosophy at WSA begins with making learning visible. This starts with an agreed-upon workflow process that has students able to access ‘playlists’ or the resources they need for the unit or progression of skills, followed by students planning for and engaging in learning. The next stages are skill building and practice tasks and experiences with formative feedback, which is then followed by summative work where students submit artifacts that demonstrate their proficiency for a specific level of skill and demonstrating mastery. Finally, the learner continuum is used to monitor and share student progress to help support a competency-based learning system. And the cycle begins again.

As emphasized above, the specific instructional strategies vary based on a combination of student needs and the teacher’s professional judgment about what will be most effective delivery and modality for students. There are different instructional modalities, including direct instruction, complementary and adaptive educational software, Socratic seminars, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. There is an emphasis on students applying their learning through the design process, innovating and creating things, capstones projects followed by gallery walks, and project-based learning. Murray explained, “It really feels unique and pretty real when you walk down the hallways and into learning spaces here, because you don’t see just STEM at WSA, you actually have to step over it.”

WSA knows that teachers need time for planning. Given the high degree of interdependence of math skills, with students needing to access prerequisite concepts and processes, the math team has 80 minutes [together] every day for planning and strategizing for providing support to all students. “When we sat back and reflected on our schedule for about the hundredth time in Year 3,” Murray laughs, “we recognized that we truly needed to be responsive to our teacher’s needs and not just our students’, or burnout was sure to follow.  Similar to how a teacher would ask a student how they learn best, I asked our staff how they would work best, and they gave some amazing feedback and a vision. This vision blended with our students’ needs and brought upon our new daily and weekly framework, which is quite fluid to support needs of all learners in the school.” Feedback was then gathered from students, staff, and parents to continue to grow the best possible framework for optimal learning and teaching conditions.

Mix of Courses and Educational Experiences

Before WSA made the transition to personalized, proficiency-based education, there were eight core courses and transitions a day. “With that many transitions and classes came that much less time to learn and time wasted moving between classes,” Murray says. “What if we didn’t have bells, reduced the amount of transitions between classes, and built up the amount of time that students were able to spend on experiments, projects, and collaboration? What if we just gave students more time to apply their learning and opened up the pacing a little bit?” It seemed to be the switch that needed to be flipped, because engagement and performance skyrocketed, and WSA currently organizes their day into four main COREs, as they’re called. Murray insists that the day isn’t a block-schedule and there is evidence to prove it. “When we visited other schools or teams come to visit us, they quickly ask if our schedule is a block schedule when they see it and I show them the past two, three, and four weeks that we have just experienced. Every single week this year has been different for the most part, based on what took place each week – which trips were built in, which mentors and partnerships came to visit, when Advisory took place, and when we felt the need to build in a FLEXible afternoon, where students created their own schedule for half of the day. Folks aren’t sure how to take that, but it excites them when they see that it’s possible.” Murray shared that at WSA, they even run mornings and half days where the students are able to visit Passion-Project Seminars based on their own interests and, at times, the students are the ones who are running the seminars. (more…)

Creating a Learner-Driven System in Waukesha (Part 1)

November 8, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

I arrived early at Waukesha’s STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus (WSA). Entering the front door, one immediately steps into a relatively open space carved into smaller areas by bookshelves, desks, and a variety of seating options. The place was humming. Students streaming in, unpacking backpacks, clustered in corners talking, some wrapping themselves in chairs with a book or a computer. A film crew from a local station was set up in another area to interview two young women who were winners in a regional Toy and Game competition. (See for yourself in A Day in the Life or virtual tour videos.)

I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was having difficulties taking it all in. Especially the five-foot-long Ball Python in principal James Murray’s office, which luckily hadn’t had his coffee either and lay there peacefully. (I later learned that a parent, who was ready to pass on the snake to the next caretaker, had dropped it off at the school.)

WSA serves over 300 students in a middle school, all of whom are selected through a random lottery and without any criterion to enter. Jokingly, Murray points out the irony in the lottery process, because even though the school is a one-to-one technology school, full of 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC routers, saws, drills, and a flurry of digital learning platforms and 55” TV’s lining the walls like posters, the lottery is conducted through a process that uses an old-school Bingo hopper. “We want all students, “Murray points out. “We don’t want to go out and hand pick our students…we want students…period.” He shares that, “we have the 1st through the 99th percentile in academic readiness and the 1st through the 99th percentile in behaviors when they come through our doors. After Day 1, it’s a whole new ball game, and we help foster caring, compassionate citizens who end up becoming great students. One is the byproduct of the other, and I honestly don’t feel that these can be grown in isolation, nor should they be.”

He also quickly disposed of the idea that middle school simply means grades six through eight. “On paper, this campus is grades six through eight. That’s about where that antiquated theory ends, though. Students enter our school with skills that stretch from second grade and extend beyond tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Basically, we’ve eliminated grades based on your age… here is no born-on date for progress and success. We help students own the fact that when they arrive here, they are on a 540-day journey, with each student entering at a different place and moving at a different pace. We are, simply put, a competency-based school.” Although we at CompetencyWorks have anticipated schools thinking this way, to date it is few and far between. I didn’t even need my coffee anymore. I was alert to make sure I didn’t miss any of the details about how WSA had developed.

Theory of Action

WSA has a clear theory of action that drives how the school is organized and the culture of the school. (more…)

Blair Elementary School

November 6, 2017 by

This is the third post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

After my tour of Flight Academy in the school district of Waukesha, I was able to swing by for a quick conversation with Aida Cruz-Farin, principal at Blair Elementary School. Cruz-Farin’s career had taken her to the Milwaukee office of New Leaders for New Schools, but she missed the daily interaction with children. She was attracted to Blair because it was a school struggling to meet the needs of its students, of which 90 percent are FRL. Another way to think about Blair is as a beautifully multicultural school with 70 percent Hispanic students and fifteen spoken languages. But one thing was for sure: Expectations were low. Ten percent of students were proficient in reading and 12 percent in math. There was more pity for the students than expectations. There was only one place to go, and that was up. In less than four years, the school went from low-performing based on Wisconsin’s accountability system to exceeding expectations.

Blair’s Mission

To educate all students in a loving environment while maintaining high standards for academic excellence and character. We are committed to equity, diversity, bi-literacy, innovation and collaboration. Five key practices make our success possible: college focus; team teaching; innovation and diversity; maximizing instructional time; and communication with families and community partners.

Operating in the context of Wisconsin, where it seems that much of the strongest efforts around personalization have been in middle and upper income communities, Cruz-Farin brought a commitment to providing personalized learning to the students at Blair. Cruz-Farin said that the first stage of the transition process was creating a strong mission and vision with personalization at its core, establishing a high level of expectation, and building a culture to support the new vision.

Beliefs

The change at Blair Elementary School started with changing beliefs. Introducing a college-bound focus, every classroom adopts a college and learns about it. Students are referred to as scholars. Connections to college are constantly made throughout the school. The discussion about beliefs is transparent. The Blair team is instilling the values of believing in oneself as well as agency. Cruz-Farin explained, “We can open doors for students but they need to walk through them. We want them to understand that they are the ones who hold the keys to their future.”

Believe in yourself and you are halfway there – Theodore Roosevelt

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FLIGHT Academy: Magic Happens When Kids Come Together

October 30, 2017 by

This is the second post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

The School District of Waukesha in Wisconsin sits about twenty-five miles west of Milwaukee. The district has created innovation space for schools to move toward personalized, proficiency-based learning. A district administrator explained this spirit of innovation as, “If you can say yes, then say yes.” The result is that there are at least three schools that are transforming themselves: Waukesha STEM Academy was the first to make the transition; then a school-within-a-school programmatic approach called Flight Academy at Horning Middle School took the plunge; and now Blair Elementary School has started the process.

Waukesha has not created a system-wide transition strategy, and it’s unlikely they will do so in the near future. They share a belief that the transition has to come from educators in the school. However, there are elements of their policies and operations that support personalized, proficiency-based education. For example, Gallup’s Hope survey is used to get a read on engagement and school climate. They are also working with the Institute for Personalized Learning (director Ryan Krohn was an assistant superintendent before he went to IPL) on developing a better understanding of agency, empathy, and perseverance. What do they look like? How do they develop? And what can schools do to support their development?

FLIGHT Academy

FLIGHT is actually an acronym: facilitating learning through integration, guidance, high expectations, and technology. They’ve made a video (found on this page) to explain the vision.

Developed by two teachers, Krista Krauter (a teacher at Horning for eighteen years) and Jeffrey Taege, FLIGHT is a program within Horning Middle School designed as a multi-age, personalized learning pathway that focuses on collaboration, technology integration, and 21st century skills. A student’s core classes (science, math, and humanities) take place within the academy as interdisciplinary seminars. All elective classes (music, art, technology education, business, foreign language, REAL, and phy.ed.) take place in the general Horning classes, with students in their age-based grade. Krauter explained, “When I had my own kids, I realized that we had to do something very different in schools. I didn’t want my kids sitting through school day after day just listening to a teacher. There had to be a better way of designing learning.”

FLIGHT Academy is now in its fifth year, with seven teachers and 160 learners. This is a similar student to teacher ratio as the rest of Horning. Below is a high level description of their program.

Focus

Flight Academy organizes the learning cycle around three questions:

  • What are you going to learn? Flight’s core courses are organized around state standards. The student learner profile has been designed to monitor progress.
  • How are you going to learn it? Students have choice and voice about how they are going to learn the standards. All core subjects are organized as interdisciplinary seminars which students schedule on a six-week rotating basis.
  • How will you show it? Students also have choice and voice about how they demonstrate their learning. Student-led conferences with teachers and parents are used to reflect on what they are learning, their progress, and pace.

Space

The FLIGHT academy team designed the space around personalization. There are multiple options for seating in one large community room with smaller rooms for studios, Socratic seminars, and conferences. There is also a lounge that is a designated quiet space. (more…)

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

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