Category: School Models

Iteration in Action: PACT Academy

August 8, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 30, 2017. This is the third in a series on iteration in school design. 

If you ask one of the 200 students at PACT High School about grades, one of the first things you’ll hear is “we can’t fail here.” That’s because this high school is designed to foster positive youth development through strong relationships between students and adults.

It’s also because PACT does not give failing grades. Instead of an “F,” students receive the designation “not approaching proficiency.” This remains on a student’s transcript until they master the content in their course, which they can continue to work towards throughout their high school experience. This mastery-based approach means some students can be working to master standards from their first year after they’ve already moved onto their second year coursework. Others are able to skip ahead—in courses like Health, math, and science—using one of several available tech tools and with teacher supports. In the words of one student, “if you don’t get something, you work on it until you master it.”

Positive relationships to support mastery-based learning.

PACT opened in fall 2014 as part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s participation in Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design Initiative, and has since nurtured a strong culture of mastery-based learning supported by positive relationships between students and adults. This approach permeates the school, from everyday interactions to instructional policy. At PACT, students have an active voice in shaping both their learning path and the school’s design. For example, at the end of its first year, students expressed a desire to reorganize the instructional day to achieve a better balance between hands-on projects and online learning. Principal Reynolds and his team listened to students’ concerns and, beginning in the school’s second year, retrained teachers to give students more voice and choice in choosing and participating in projects.

In addition to giving students a voice in their education, PACT has a laser focus on ensuring students are college and career ready. On any given day, students can be seen working on a variety of projects: running cars down ramps to measure velocity and friction, or creating a multimedia presentation about a “turning point” in their life for their English class. In each project, students are measured based on how well they have mastered problem-solving, communications, and presentation skills that will truly prepare them for college.

The PACT team is committed to helping each and every student succeed, despite challenges they face academically and personally. For example, the majority of PACT families make less than $20,000 a year, and many students care for younger siblings and extended family members. Principal Reynolds says that the pressure of street affiliation and gang violence is ever-present, particularly for young men in the community.

Knowing this, the PACT team works hard to create an environment where students can open up about their concerns and responsibilities. In the words of one student, “I have a voice here. I joked my way through sixth and eighth grade, but this school and its teachers changed my view of things.” PACT hosts several after-school activities geared toward giving students choice and agency, including theater, astrophysics, and a girls’ empowerment club called “Cover Girl.” The school’s staff has cultivated an awareness and responsiveness to challenges students face. Teachers like Mr. Hurt, an English teacher for first-year students, realize that, “for many kids, their day starts after they leave school. My goal is to give them something positive to think about when they leave us, and hopefully to help them make good decisions.” (more…)

Iteration in Action: Eagle Academy

August 3, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 11, 2017. This is the second in a series on iteration in school design. 

At E3agle Academy, a public high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, students support one another in mastering rigorous, college-ready standards. With a personalized approach and a focus on social justice, students are encouraged to connect classroom content to their experience in the real world, and to move at their own pace along a sequence of clear benchmarks.

Principal Lennox Thompson describes the school’s approach as fundamentally student-centered. “I want to give students benchmarks so they can track how they are progressing. This lets them stay on top of their work so they don’t fall behind and then get overwhelmed,” he says. To facilitate this, E3agle places students into groups of 10-12 to form “advise-aeries” (an aerie is an eagle’s nest). Advisors deliver students’ personalized schedules, and serve as a hub for messages to and from students’ core subject teachers.

On a recent visit, students were learning about proportions in a co-taught immersion math class. A teacher was leading a lesson on body image, anchored in an activity measuring Barbie’s body proportions. Students broke into groups and measured their own body proportions before presenting on their findings: How do normal body proportions compare to Barbie’s, and what does that say about body image? The activity gave students an opportunity to develop mastery of math and social studies skills—first in a group setting, and then individually.

E3agle’s underlying belief is that young people—even those who are entering high school with significant gaps in skills and knowledge—know themselves and can be trusted to make positive choices about how they use their time and energy. Teachers and administrators understand that for many students, the structural mechanisms of promotion between freshman and sophomore years must be more fluid, and that some students will take more time to finish courses than others. For students, the awareness that mastery of content—rather than “seat time”—is what matters has compelled them to take charge of their learning like never before.

Supporting mastery-based learning

To drive home the message that learning—rather than class standing—is what matters most, E3agle combines freshmen and sophomores in some courses like English and Social Studies, where the gradient of skills is more fluid. Recently, on a recent afternoon in an English class, freshmen helped sophomores analyze song lyrics to find evidence of characterization. When asked, nearly every student could articulate the exact competencies they were working toward. They knew the end goal and how they would work toward it.

English teacher Eleanor Salzbrenner describes a student named Marco*, who struggled in his first year, to manage his time and coursework. This year, says Salzbrenner, with attention and support from his teachers—and lots of opportunities to continue to work toward his mastery goals in each of his classes— “he’s almost chasing [us] down the hallway, saying ‘I need to get this done!’” (more…)

Iteration in Action: Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design

August 1, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 11, 2017. This is the first in a series on iteration in school design. 

On a typical day at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), groups of four or five students are reading different novels in ELA class. They discuss the characters and plots of their books, record standards-based observations and respond to questions on their Chromebooks. One group is predicting a protagonist’s next moves, and another is using context clues to infer the definitions of key words.

The curriculum, designed by English teacher Stephanie Price, allows students to move through the course in two distinct, yet intertwined, paths—some are in AP English and others are in Intro to Lit (the equivalent of a standard ninth-grade English curriculum). Students can opt into whichever path they want, and rather than being in the same path for an entire year, they have an opportunity to move between them at the beginning of each trimester. If a student wants more of a challenge or is improving quickly, she can opt into AP English after just a few months. To read more about Ms. Price’s classroom design, see here.

Student-driven design decisions

When DSISD opened, it didn’t feature this kind of deeply integrated differentiation. Originally, students spent the majority of their time working individually to master online course material. The curriculum was mastery-based, but—according to students—it wasn’t engaging. Alex, a student who chose DSISD for its emphasis on student agency, thought there should be more time for direct instruction. So Alex, along with a few other student leaders, took action. As Alex describes it, they “held the principal captive” to discuss “how students are learning. Not necessarily what they were learning, but how.”

Principal Daniel Medved remembers the conversation differently. Because his team had designed a space for student leaders to share their feedback on the model, they were comfortable articulating their desire for more direct instruction. In response to their concerns, Medved adjusted DSISD’s model to support teachers in rewriting their lessons to incorporate more direct instruction alongside personalized projects. The shift gave students the tangible instructional benefits they asked for, but it also sent a powerful message: As one student said, “if you [have feedback] and you talk to Principal Medved about it, and it’s reasonable, then he will do everything he can” to make a change.

DSISD students feel that they’re part of a dynamic community that responds rapidly to their needs and gives them room to grow. According to another student, “I used to have the mindset that once I turned in a paper and got a grade, it was done. The greatest thing about this school is that you can always make yourself and the grade better.” (more…)

A Conversation with Teachers in Cleveland

July 24, 2017 by

Image from the JFK E3agle Academy Website

This is the last of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

One of the highlights of the school visits in Cleveland was a conversation with teachers at PACT and E3agle High Schools. The conversation was wide reaching – here are a few of the highlights.

What it Takes to Meet Students Where They Are

When asked what was different in teaching in a mastery-based school as compared to a traditional one, it was nearly unanimous that mastery-based learning requires teachers to think ahead and design substantial scaffolding. Teachers described having to do unit planning for at least ten weeks (based on 10-week curriculum maps) ahead in case students started advancing quickly while also planning for scaffolding that would help students who might be four or five grade levels below to build up their skills. (See project-based learning planning template.)

Tim Hurt, a literature teacher from PACT, emphasized how much mastery-based education demands differentiation. “When you are managing twenty different learning plans, it totally pokes holes into what we thought teaching was about. In a traditional system we felt like we were rock stars. The only way to be successful in a personalized, mastery-based model is to work with students and stay focused on learning…both student learning and our own.”

Almad Allen, also an ELA teacher from PACT, added, “It took a while to get unplugged from the traditional model’s focus on right and wrong. Now my job is to identify when a student’s understanding is incomplete to focus on pacing, and I’ve had to learn to differentiate on the fly. I can’t create lessons the night before anymore. I think through units with the end in mind about how I’m going to make sure every student is successful. I have to anticipate where there are going to be misconceptions or difficulties. If students get lost, they can’t move on. My job is to think through the different places they might get lost and how I’m going to help them move forward. I’m the one who has to have the map in my head to respond to the day-to-day changes in students’ learning.”

Nicole Williams, a PACT intervention specialist, described that she is now thinking intentionally about how to teach and re-teach in her unit planning. “Before I present the lesson, I’ve already thought about the needs of specific students and where the lesson might go,” she said. “I’m thinking about what they know, what they don’t know, and possible misconceptions.” She also said that conferencing with students and goal setting is particularly helpful in addressing student gaps.

Hurt explained, “My grading has become more fluid. In the traditional model, you gave a D or F if students didn’t do well. There wasn’t any next step. Now we think about what it will take for a student to be successful. There are a lot more interventions on the part of general teachers. Quite honestly, we are delivering better instruction because we think beyond just delivering it. We think about whether students will actually learn.” (See English Competency Map.)

Anthony Carbone, an intervention specialist at E3agle, was enthusiastic, “The best part of competency-based education is the ability to meet students where they are in their learning. (more…)

Hiring: The Very First Step to a Flourishing School Culture (Part 3 of 3)

July 20, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 22, 2017. It is the third of a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

MY ADVICE TO THOSE SEEKING TO ESTABLISH A THRIVING CULTURE IN THEIR SCHOOLS AT THE SAME TIME THAT THEY PROMOTE HIGH ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT FOR OUR MOST UNDERSERVED STUDENTS: HIRE WELL.

Transforming the adult learning community isn’t all that difficult when you hire adults who aren’t afraid to be human with youth, and when you create working conditions that nurture collaboration, creativity, trust, and respect.

That may sound obvious, but when you put “connection” and “sincerity” at the top of your criteria, you read resumes differently. Hiring at BDEA involves two steps.

First, the interview team (different for each position) conducts a 30-minute meeting with each of the top 10 candidates. The interview is an opportunity to make sure all parties see this match as a good fit. In this initial meeting, we’re determining whether a candidate is philosophically aligned with our mission, and the extent to which he or she knows the content. This process usually yields three to five really great candidates, such that picking one over the others is close to impossible. So we’ve added a second step.

Step two requires each candidate teach a 15-minute demonstration lesson, followed by Q & A, to a small group of BDEA students. We think this is the ultimate, foolproof step for hiring the right person for the position. No matter how crunched for time, we never skip this step, because it’s here that we can assess perhaps the most important quality: a candidate’s ability to connect with students and colleagues.

(more…)

Creating a School Culture Where Students and Teachers Both Flourish (Part 2 of 3)

July 19, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 20, 2017. It is the second of a three-part series. Read part one here.

ENCOURAGE AND PRACTICE BEING HUMAN WITH ALL OF YOUR STAFF

Simple, right? Maybe not at first, but we’re all human, in this work for a reason, and it’s worth examining our hearts and minds at the beginning of each day to make sure our students’ interests, equity, and a healthy community are our priorities.

To accomplish this, I offer the following prescriptions:

  • Be humble, acknowledge when you make a mistake, publicly reflect, and practice conflict resolution: colleague to colleague, adult to student, student to student.
  • Be empathetic. Take the time to learn more about your staff, what motivates and energizes them. Don’t make assumptions. Try to learn what might be behind a student or staff’s behavior or inconsistent performance. In most cases, they are struggling with bigger issues outside of the workplace.
  • Create structured time and flexible protocols that foster collaboration, communication, and accountability. Encourage staff to share best practices and new ideas. Create unstructured time for them to take care of their professional responsibilities.
  • Create a culture that celebrates diversity, student success, staff accomplishments, and birthdays. Encourage whole-school field trips where students and staff are put together on teams and can engage with one another in playful ways.
  • As leaders—and staff—listen more, talk less.

In my next post, I’ll describe the very first step toward attaining these goals:
hiring the right people.

See also:

About the Author

Alison Hramiec Alison Hramiec has spent the last 15 years re-defining what school looks like for Boston’s most at risk high school population. Her tenure at Boston Day and Evening Academy began in 2004 as one of the founding science teachers for the Day program. In 2008 after completing her principal training and being mentored by the BDEA leadership team she was hired as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Through her leadership, she has helped bring clarity to the school’s competency-based program methodology, helping it become known nationwide. Alison is the lead designer of BDEA’s summer institute, REAL (Responsive Education Alternative Lab), which provides educators from around the country the tools to transform student learning to ‘student-centered’ learning. As of July 1st 2015, she is BDEA’s new Head of School.

The Crucial Factor in School Success is School Culture (Part 1 of 3)

July 18, 2017 by

Alison Hramiec, Head of School, Boston Day and Evening Academy

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 16, 2017. It is the first of a three-part series. 

School reform is more than incorporating tech tools, being competency-based, or implementing student-centered practices. It’s more than opening the walls or focusing on core competencies. School reform starts by transforming school culture, and reforms flourish when we allow adults to be creative and compassionate human beings.

At Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), we’re lucky to have a regular flow of visitors interested in learning about our unique student-centered, competency-based, trauma-sensitive learning model, and are eager to share their own best practices with us. While it’s our model that initially intrigues visitors, the conversations inevitably shift to what they see and hear in the building. They remark first on how happy the students appear to be, then on how calm the learning environment is, and finally on the respect adults and students convey to one another.

Visitors also know these are not your traditional motivated, happy, independent learners. Our students often have a lifetime of reasons to be angry, depressed, and disengaged. Before enrolling at BDEA, 97 percent of our students had already dropped out of high school or were at risk of doing so. Almost all are living in an ecosystem of poverty, food and housing insecurity, mental and physical health challenges, and suffer from various forms of violence, abuse, anxiety, and other traumas. Seventy percent of our students were suspended at least once in their previous schools. It’s no surprise, then, that many struggle to build healthy relationships, bridge gaps in their learning, and make healthy life choices that lead toward graduation and adult opportunities. But once at BDEA, students tell visitors they feel safe, respected, and free to be exactly who they are without judgment.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHY ARE THE STUDENTS HAPPY AND LEARNING?

(more…)

E3agle and PACT: Insights from Two New Competency-Based Schools

July 17, 2017 by

This is the fourth of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

John F. Kennedy High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has been reorganized as two small schools: PACT Problem-Based Academy of Critical Thinking and E3agle Academy. These two schools were part of the effort to develop competency-based schools through the Opportunity by Design Initiative (funded by Carnegie Corporation and supported by Springpoint Schools). Positioned one above the other, PACT and E3agle offer a helpful perspective of how a common infrastructure of transparent competencies and standards provides different designs and mix of pedagogical strategies.

For example, they have different design themes. PACT is organized around developing critical thinking skills using the practice of problem-based learning. Real-world problems are used to engage students to develop and apply skills in ways that connect to their lives. E3agle Academy is organized around a theme of social justice. Principal Lennox Thompson pointed out that current events have proven to be an effective way to personalize the learning experience by connecting student concerns with justice issues in their community and the broader world. Students often feel passionately about the topics, and ELA teachers are using a number of ways to build skills and connections such as organizing debates, research, surveys, and inviting people from the community to speak on topics. Students are learning their rights as well as the laws that might land them in front of a judge.

Highlights

Here are a few of the highlights from our conversations with Lennox Thompson, principal at E3agle; Richard Reynolds, principal at PACT; Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model; Kristen Kelly, Mastery Learning Specialist; and students and teachers from both schools.

Start with Pedagogy Before Introducing Technology-Enabled Learning

When E3agle and PACT first started, they relied heavily on Edgenuity as the primary way to deliver instruction and for students to demonstrate their learning. They immediately realized this was a mistake – it wasn’t engaging for students, it didn’t help establish relationships for students, and it didn’t create opportunities for deeper learning. They did a mid-course correction and since then have been building out the range of learning experiences for students, although Edgenuity remains as an option. Edgenuity continues to play a role when students need more instruction and for addressing incompletes. The lesson learned is that it is important to clarify the pedagogical philosophy first. Then it becomes clear when and where technology-enabled products can be beneficial.

Reynolds, principal and founding member of PACT, explained, “When we began the design process, the concept was around blended learning and mastery-based learning. The ten principles were aspirational. But when the kids walked in the door, suddenly the rubber meets the road. We learned quickly what wasn’t working. There was a lot that didn’t work the way we had imagined it.” What they learned was that a 50/50 mix of online and face-to-face instruction didn’t work well. “We needed to invest in relationships,” Reynolds said. “The students wanted engaged teachers. We needed to develop an approach to instruction that emphasized and nurtured relationships.”

Once they introduced problem-based learning that emphasized critical thinking, everything started to work better. Through discussion, students and teachers began listening to each other and getting to know each other better. Reynolds continued, “When done right, problem-based learning can engage students and develop their critical thinking skills. They turn on to learning. The key to doing it right is planning – you have to be clear on what you want kids to know and be able to do. It is often much more than you expected. We’ve developed our ability to do backward design, starting with the targeted competencies and content and then building problems around it.” For example, an ELA teacher used the Sandra Bland case for students to build their argumentative writing skills. They brought in a lawyer to talk about what makes an effective opening statement and then they each wrote an opening argument. They learned about pathos, ethos, and logos and then demonstrated each in their arguments.

As always, students open doors to better understanding how schools operate and how they are changing. In speaking with students from PACT and E3agle, they raised up many of the issues related to the original focus on using computers to deliver instruction to the much more blended approach being used now. There was a strong feeling that the school gets better and better the less they have to use Edgenuity. (more…)

Getting to Know Students’ Business: A Conversation at Lincoln-West’s Schools of Global Studies and Science & Health

July 10, 2017 by

This is the third of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

Lincoln-West is a large comprehensive school being redesigned into two smaller schools: the School of Global Studies and the School of Science & Health. These two schools are being designed as mastery-based schools. Both schools had only six months under their belt when we visited. They have used the same design principles and design process but have created cultures, learning experiences, and established community partnerships that reflect their themes. For example, students at Science & Health spend time learning in a hospital, and Global Studies offers an array of service learning opportunities. Below are conversations with principals and teachers at the two schools.

A Conversation with Principals

Christopher Thompson, principal at the School of Science & Health, said, “We’ve learned that it is important to be very intentional about onboarding veteran teachers. They’ve learned and worked in traditional schools all their lives. Resetting their orientation and mindset takes time.” Irene Javier, principal at the School of Global Studies, emphasized that the growth mindset is important for students and teachers. “We took advantage of the design process for all of us to reset our mindsets,” she said. “We used the process almost like a meditation so that each person was able to see their new roles and how they could contribute. It’s important to celebrate how much is being accomplished in such a short period of time.”

The process of hiring came up several times. The principals emphasized that attitude is equally important to skills. It’s important to make sure that teachers understand what they are signing up for. Thompson noted, “We found that we needed to look for a specific set of qualities. Teachers need to have a growth mindset for themselves, expertise in differentiation, a positive attitude toward learning and building relationships with students, and strong knowledge of instruction and assessment. Oh, and they need to know the standards.”

Javier expanded, “This looks daunting at first, until teachers understand that there are lots of supports to this structured way of teaching and learning. Essentially we are staging the learning curve. We are intentional about what we want students to learn with clear plans balanced with flexibility because students shape the learning process as well. What’s most important is to always celebrate what teachers bring to the learning process and their accomplishments in expanding their skills.”

Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model, explained, “Principals play a critical role in instruction at any school. However, at a brand new school it is particularly important for principals to be engaged with teachers.” Javier continued, “We have 75 percent brand new teachers and 25 percent veterans. They have different issues. The older teachers struggle because they feel less confident than they have in the traditional system. But they are already saying that the change has been worth it to see students so engaged.” The district has also been helping with building the educator capacity by offering professional learning before the opening of the new schools, much of it introducing and role modeling the new practices.

One week of professional learning was offered in May for the staff of the new schools. During that time they worked together to create curricular maps with their peers. For example, a team might include one ELA teacher, two interventionists, and two bilingual paraprofessionals so that important strategies for serving students with disabilities and those learning English are embedded into the curriculum. Javier smiled in recalling this process, “Teachers can conquer the world when they collaborate.” The curricular maps went through two to three reviews to improve the quality, make connections with the themes of the schools (service learning for Global Studies and hospital internships at Science & Health), and ensure they were organized for students with different sets of skills to be able to make progress. Advisory also created its own ten-week map, including introducing students to learning within a competency-based structure. (more…)

Amidst Opioid Addiction, Plummeting Morale, One Elementary School Reinvents Itself

July 6, 2017 by

This post and all photos originally appeared at EdSurge on June 19, 2017.

When you enter Parker-Varney Elementary School, you are immediately struck by the relaxed atmosphere. Make your way to the office to check in, and you’ll see students walking by and waving, moving in and out of community spaces with confidence and ease. There’ll be a buzz of excitement in the air, the mark of students highly engaged and doing work that is important and relevant to their lives.

It wasn’t always this way. Four years ago, in 2013, Parker-Varney was listed as a “School in Need of Improvement.” The school had seen five principals in six years and achievement scores, morale and attendance were sinking. Local families were struggling economically, with 72 percent of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch, and across the district, we were battling an opioid crisis (a problem that continues today, with six parental overdoses at Parker-Varney this year alone).

Rather than crumble, however, we chose to embrace change and focus on what mattered most: whole child development. We honored student needs with multi-age classrooms and competency-based projects. As principal, I encouraged the staff to take risks and to rekindle their passion for teaching and learning. Teachers identified problems of practice and prototyped solutions, and focused on what could be done rather than what couldn’t.

At Parker-Varney, we have a saying: “Learning can be messy, and we must work through the mess.” Today, although the walls of the building are the same, the “spirit” and sense of collaboration have transformed.

Here are a few key ingredients to our success. (more…)

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