Category: School Models

Building a Powerful School Culture at Four Rivers

April 23, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Walking into the high school building recently at Four Rivers Charter Public School, an EL Education school where I used to teach, the first thing I saw was this sign:

Note on WallThe sign epitomized the thoughtfulness, caring, and powerful teaching around school culture and social-emotional learning that run deep at Four Rivers. It helped students understand the impact of actions that they might not have considered. Writing “Tina” rather than “the custodian” highlighted that everyone is an important member of the school community. The sign was visually appealing, consistent with the school’s strong culture of quality and aesthetics. Notably, it hadn’t been torn or defaced. The wording was polite, not authoritarian, surely a more productive approach for encouraging student reflection and ownership.

Four Rivers was founded in 2003 as an Expeditionary Learning (now called EL Education) school, a national model that strongly promotes competency-based practices. Located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in the state’s rural northwestern corner, the school has 220 students in grades 7–12, drawn from Greenfield and many surrounding towns.

One of EL Education’s five core practices is “school culture and character,” a practice that Four Rivers focuses on intensively. Promoting a school culture of growth, empowerment, safety, and belonging is also essential for shifting to high-quality competency-based systems. The Four Rivers Student and Family Handbook says, “School culture is shaped by the accumulation of thousands of day-to-day interactions.  How students are with each other, how teachers are with students, how students are with teachers, and much more all contribute to creating culture.” Four Rivers has many strategies to build school culture and character; two of them—community meetings and restorative circles—are described in this article. (more…)

Project Example: Mobile App Design at Urban Assembly Maker Academy

April 16, 2019 by

Students Working on Laptops at UAMAThis is the fourth post in a series about the Mastery Collaborative in New York City. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Whether you’re already deeply engaged in competency-based learning and assessment or just starting, it’s helpful to see how other teachers who are doing this work are structuring their units. After our recent visit to Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a Living Lab school in New York City’s Mastery Collaborative, the design teacher shared one of his unit plans and student work. This blog post discusses the unit and aspects of the Definition of Competency-Based Education and the Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education that it illustrates.

The unit plan on mobile app design from Teacher Gerry Irizarry’s prototyping course is here. This course is part of UA Maker’s digital media sequence, one of their two approved Career and Technical Education pathways. The unit plan begins with naming the design outcomes (here called “standards”) that are being assessed, such as:

  • I can demonstrate the application of the design process to define and solve design problems.
  • I can demonstrate purposeful arrangement of text and image for a creative layout: size, shape, location, and resolution.
  • I can demonstrate an understanding of a target audience.
  • I can demonstrate the ability to give constructive criticism & feedback.

Mobile App Design Project Components

The project summary section of the unit plan describes an “entry event” intended to increase student engagement by personalizing it to their experiences and interests. First students write a list of their favorite mobile apps, then the group discusses the lists together. This leads to a discussion of the most popular music apps and the pros and cons of each, and finally a more general discussion of what makes apps successful and popular (or not).

With students’ knowledge about apps activated and deepened, the work becomes more individualized, with each student selecting profiles of at least two target buyers (based on factors such as (more…)

Diversifying the Student Body and Personalizing Student Schedules at NYC iSchool

April 3, 2019 by
NYC iSchool teacher Evelyn Baracaldo, Principal Isora Bailey, and Assistant Principal Michelle Leimsider

NYC iSchool teacher Evelyn Baracaldo, Principal Isora Bailey, and Assistant Principal Michelle Leimsider

This is the second post in a series about the Mastery Collaborative in New York City. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

NYC iSchool in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan is one of the Mastery Collaborative’s eight “Living Lab Schools” that serve as models in New York City and beyond. The iSchool emphasizes that it “is designed to offer students opportunities to engage in meaningful work that has relevance to them and the world, [and] choice and responsibility in determining their high school experience.” Two areas in which the school has developed strong practices related to competency-based education are creating a diverse student body against headwinds of the selective schools process and enabling students to select courses based on their interests.

Deliberate Steps to Recruit a Diverse Student Body

As NYC iSchool developed a strong reputation during its early years, its applicant pool grew and its student body became less representative of the school district, as shown in the figure below. Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch fell from 43% to 27% (compared to 74% district-wide) and the percentage of white students increased from 35% to 48% (compared to 15% in the district). (The two groups overlap, because some white students are from low-income families.)

Graph of NYC iSchool Student Demographics Before Policy ChangeThese disparities were inconsistent with the iSchool’s goals to disrupt systemic inequities and serve a representative student body. They responded by taking advantage of a city policy to help them reach this goal.

The disparities were likely a result of both district and iSchool recruitment processes. With more than 400 high schools in New York City, applying can be bewildering. Students need to submit a ranked list of up to 12 choices, taking into account their odds of admission at the many “Specialized” and “Screened” high schools. Doing this systematically requires considerable research and often involves multiple school visits and supplemental application components. It has much in common with selective college admissions, but for 8th graders. (more…)

In Real Life: How do CBE systems support all students to reach mastery?

February 20, 2019 by

Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal, Noble High School, ME

This article is the seventh in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Since learners are met where they are in CBE systems and are supported to reach mastery at their own pace, what supports are needed to ensure everyone succeeds?

To better understand this question, I sat down with Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine.

A rural school, Noble High School serves roughly 1,100 students across three towns up to an hour bus ride away. Its students often come from rural poor backgrounds, influencing how the school has structured its student support system. Noble High’s proficiency-based system was profiled in a CompetencyWorks blog post in 2015.

(more…)

In Real Life: How do CBE systems manage differences in pace?

February 11, 2019 by

Mallory Haar, English as a New Language Teacher, Casco Bay High School, ME.

This article is the sixth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems meet students where they are and support them to master a pre-defined set of learning targets at their own pace. Managing a group of learners who are at different places in their learning might seem doable if their paces are similar, but what about students who deviate widely from the class norm or “teacher pace”? Are there limits to how quickly or slowly students are allowed to move through the system?

To better understand how competency-based systems reckon with these questions, I sat down with Mallory Haar, who teaches English as a New Language and English Literature at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine.

(more…)

In Real Life: How feedback loops and student supports help ensure learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated.

February 6, 2019 by

Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor, MC2 Schools, NH

This article is the fifth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems define competencies and learning progressions to make learning expectations more transparent and accessible to students; but such transparency can be prone to the unintended consequence of creating a “check the box” mentality that compromises depth and relevance.

To better understand how competency-based systems balance the desire for transparency with the need for depth, I sat down with Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor at Making Community Connections (MC2) Charter Schools in New Hampshire.

(more…)

The Best Academic Schools in Tennessee Feature the Best Character Program in the Country

December 14, 2018 by

This article originally appeared at Education Week on December 11, 2018. It was posted on Vander Ark on Innovation.

“Teaching has to change. If I never tap into your truth, if I never validate your truth, I’ve failed you as a teacher,” said Valor College Prep HS teacher Matthias McNeal. About the morning meeting, McNeal adds, “Circle is getting to the root of what makes you so special.”

The best academic secondary schools in Tennessee feature the best character development program in the country.

Valor Collegiate Academies has been in the top 5% of Tennessee schools on growth and achievement every year since it started in 2014. But we visited Valor (seven miles south of the Country Music Hall of Fame in suburban southeast Nashville) because of the well regarded Valor Compass, a holistic human development program. (more…)

Updated: Competency-Based Education Across America

September 25, 2018 by

Updated: September 2018.

We recently updated the map of competency education because so many states  have taken steps forward for state policies to enable and invest in competency-based education. In reflecting upon how competency-based education is developing, we pulled together all the “case studies” we have done based on site visits and interviews in seventeen states. As soon as we can, we want to visit Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Vermont. We should probably swing back and visit some of the places like Maine and New Hampshire to see what they are up to as well in the leading districts.

For those of you trying to learn more about competency education, we are hearing that some districts are using the case studies as discussion tools. Everyone reads about one school and then talks about what is challenging, how their understanding of the traditional system is changing, and what ideas they think might be valuable. It’s just a warm-up to embracing the values and assumptions that are the roots of competency education. (more…)

Leaving Single Cell Behind: Moving from Isolation to Flexible Collaboration

September 3, 2018 by

Denise Airola and a team of educators from Arkansas traveled to New Zealand to learn about their educational approach. Here are a few of their highlights. (Originally posted at Office of Innovation for Education on December 6, 2017.) 

I ended my last blog by introducing the New Zealand term for a traditional classroom–single-cell. The adjective evokes images of isolation for a teacher. For the learner, if the teacher/student match is positive it isn’t so bad. On the other hand, we’ve all had that teacher in our lives, the one with whom we’ve spent a year feeling like we’ve been sentenced to jail, stifled by the lack of creative expression or extreme power differential that makes taking a restroom break an act of piracy. As a parent, I’ve waited with baited breath for the class lists to get posted the Friday before the start of the school year, praying my girls would be matched with the right teacher for their learner dispositions because single-cell is just what it sounds like for the most part—a school year sentence to a single space with a single teacher. New Zealand’s ministry of education is moving away from that industrial-age concept. I’ll elaborate on how they are doing this as I describe our visit to Glen Eden Intermediate School. (more…)

A Visit with the ‘Westies’–Day 2 in New Zealand

August 30, 2018 by

Denise Airola and a team of educators from Arkansas traveled to New Zealand to learn about their educational approach. Here are a few of their highlights. (Originally posted at Office of Innovation for Education on November 17, 2017.) 

Disclaimer: When you are in the southern hemisphere it is easy to get your sense of direction a little confused, especially if geography isn’t your strong suit. That sense of confusion can be exacerbated by changing seasons as well–from fall in Northwest Arkansas to spring in New Zealand in the course of a 13 hour plane ride. Given the upheaval, my sense of place, time, and context was a bit out of sorts by the second day of school visits in New Zealand. (more…)

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