Personalization and Positive School Culture at Del Lago Academy

February 19, 2020 by

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

Student Team-Building Activity

A Student Team-Building Activity

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

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

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

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

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

Pillars of Excellence

Daily Staff Circle

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

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

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

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

In Real Life: How Can CBE Systems Ensure Learning Is Deep, Ongoing, and Integrated?

January 30, 2019 by

This article is the fourth 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.

Long before she had GPS on her mobile phone, my mother would navigate for our family road trips using turn-by-turn directions printed out from the American Automobile Association. While my father drove, she would call out the next set of turns so that he always knew where he was headed and what to do when he got there.

In much the same way, growing numbers of educators across the country are building competency-based systems designed to help students navigate the learning journey ahead. Such systems define learning targets or competencies that serve as guideposts for what students should know and be able to do as they progress through their learning. Many systems also sequence competencies (although not always linearly) into instructional learning progressions and utilize technology to display students’ progress in real time.

The goal is transparency: students need not wonder what is expected of them, but instead have a clear roadmap for the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they are expected to master next.

At the same time, some question whether such transparency has a downside of reducing learning to a shallow check-list of tasks that students race through to complete. After all, if we improve highway visibility, won’t cars be prone to speeding? (more…)

A Decade On: Lindsay Unified’s Personalized Learning Journey

October 17, 2018 by

A young reader at Lindsay Unified’s Kennedy Elementary.

This post originally appeared at Education Week’s Next Gen Learning in Action blog on September 21, 2018. All images are courtesy of Lindsay Unified District. 

When educators tell the story of what galvanized them to embrace next gen learning, they often point to a watershed moment, a realization that so fundamentally shifted their thinking that it divided their career into “before” and “after.” (more…)

RISE (Revolutionary Individualized Student Experience)

June 20, 2018 by

This is the third in a three-part series on Da Vinci Schools in California. Start the series here.

Da Vinci won a $10 million XQ ‘Super School’ grant to create RISE, a competency-based school for homeless students, foster youth, and other diverse learners in connection with a national competition to reimagine high school. It’s designed around four themes: care, connect, challenge, and create. (more…)

Conversations about Learning at Da Vinci

June 11, 2018 by

This is the second in a three-part series on Da Vinci Schools in California. Start the series here.

“Fail forward, fail fast.” That seems to be the mantra of Matthew Wunder, co-founder of Da Vinci Schools, about designing and running schools. This phrase popped up several times in our morning together, “Failure is a chance to reflect, a chance to get to know students better, a chance to improve a project or instruction.” (more…)

Innovation in the Air at Da Vinci Schools

June 6, 2018 by

This is the first in a three-part series on Da Vinci Schools in California.

Innovation is in the air at Da Vinci Schools. Da Vinci Schools is now five schools, with the newest designed for students who are poorly served by typical high school models underway. However, Da Vinci isn’t in the business of creating an ever-expanding scalable network. They want to create proof points and learning labs for others to come and explore what schools can be when we let go of the traditional model and open our minds to new ways of organizing learning.

The Da Vinci Model (more…)

Multiple Measures Data and Reporting in Vermont and California

March 13, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on February 14, 2018.

In personalized, competency-based education, schools should have far better data to support student learning, provide greater transparency and analyze and continuously improve on their practice through data and reporting with multiple measures. Likewise, states can consider how to present multiple measures of student learning and school quality with advanced data visualization to provide families with rich, easy to understand information.

What States Are Using Multiple Measures for Reporting Data and Continuous Improvement?

This post highlights how Vermont aligns multiple measures to the state’s student-centered learning priorities and to guide continuous improvement. This post also highlights California’s multiple measures dashboard as an example of providing information to different education stakeholders in the state. (more…)

Telling Our Story

November 9, 2016 by

I am feeling really good that we are finally filling the gap of videos that communities can use to learn about competency education and launch conversation about setting a new vision for education in their own schools.

Lindsay Unified School District has produced a 30-minute video about why we need to change from a traditional system to a performance-based system that you can use in your communities to generate conversation. The video is Superintendent Tom Rooney telling the stories of different Lindsay learners with people in the Lindsay community acting out the stories. As always, Tom speaks from his heart – even though I had heard him tell some of these stories before, several brought me to tears. In many ways, the video also helps to challenge bias that we may hold about our students and families. For example, the last story about a young man who wants to go to college even though his father’s expectations are that he would join him in the fields is told with stereotype-busting respect.


Hire for Mindset

September 28, 2016 by

stairsHuman capital. It’s not one of my favorite terms, as thinking of people as capital seems to be a dehumanizing place to start talking about creating an empowering culture of learning where individuals feel safe and respected. So I’m just going to go back to the old stand-by of human resources.

No matter what you call it, human resources is a major issue for districts and schools that are converting to competency education. First, there is the effort to help the current set of educators make the transition and start on a personalized pathway toward skill building – organizing personalized classrooms with empowered students, increasing assessment literacy, instructing based on learning progressions, enhancing cultural responsiveness and de-cluttering the mind of bias, coaching habits of work, preparing units that provide student more choice and voice, etc. The list goes on.

Districts then find they need to upgrade their teacher evaluation to reflect the new set of values, assumptions, practices, and skills. (See article on Windsor Locks Public School District.) Some are also building personalized, competency-based professional development that builds upon the evaluations so that teachers are becoming learners as part of their job. (See article on Charleston County School District.)

Hiring practices need to be upgraded as well. Virgel Hammonds, Jaime Robles, Deanna Sinito, and Brian Stack have all spoken about the importance of hiring. They seek candidates with the same set of beliefs, value those who want to work collaboratively, and have created more intensive hiring practices. However, it’s tricky, since just because someone says they have a growth mindset or that that they value collaboration doesn’t mean they really do…or at least in the way we think about. So how do you assess within the hiring process that a candidate has the beliefs and dispositions you need in your school? (more…)

Blast Off with the Assessment for Learning Grantees

April 19, 2016 by

AfLWith ESSA upon us, we are all hurrying to get our heads wrapped around what is possible in terms of how we think about ensuring that our districts and schools are meeting needs of children and what state policy might look like to create the conditions, systems of supports, and appropriate expectations to drive dynamic, active learning experiences for students while improving services to historically underserved populations of students. It’s a huge opportunity and a huge challenge.

One resource that hopefully will help us along the way is the Assessment for Learning project developed by Center for Innovation in Education (CIE) at the University of Kentucky in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) at EDUCAUSE. The AfL project has been designed to explore:

  • How can assessment support a broader definition of student success?
  • What assessment practices most effectively empower students to own and advance their learning?
  • How can we most effectively build educator capacity to gather, interpret, and use evidence of student learning to enhance instruction?
  • How does assessment for learning inform broader contexts of accountability, policy, and system design?
  • How can we pursue equity through assessment for learning?

AfL has announced their twelve grantees, and I thought I’d bring to your attention a couple of the projects that are positioned well to help us understand what a personalized, competency-based system of assessments might look like. They are tackling issues such as grades (letter and age), habits of success, performance-based assessment, micro-credentialing, competency-based approaches to helping teachers learn about performance-based assessments, and student agency. We are about to lift off on a huge new wave of learning! (more…)

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