Thompson School District: Student-Driven Learning at Work!

September 28, 2017 by

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

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

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

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

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

1. Competency-Based Instruction is designed to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 21, 2017 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from a Vanguard: A Look at Metz Elementary

September 18, 2017 by

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

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

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

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

Principal Claudette Trujillo

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

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

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

(more…)

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 Journey of Discovery at Broadway Elementary

March 30, 2017 by

Bingham with shared vision artifacts

This article is the fifteenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

“When I haven’t done it myself, I call on Bil P.” That’s Scot Bingham, principal of Broadway Elementary in District 51, describing how tightly he works with the professional learning facilitator assigned to his school. Broadway Elementary is a small school with 240 students and seventeen certified staff members. The strength of this size is that decisions can be made together. The weakness is that it is very difficult to free up collaborative staff time. So Bingham seeks opportunities to support learning whenever the opportunity comes up.

As a demonstration school, Bingham and second grade teacher Shannon Morlan were part of the third wave of visitors to Lindsay Unified. (See Building Consensus for Change.) Bingham reflected on how the visit to Lindsay has influenced him, “Broadway Elementary is considered a good school, but I knew we could do better. After Lindsay, I understood how we could do it. What resonated with the teachers during the visit was that students are highly engaged in a performance-based learning school. We didn’t see students sitting in class not understanding, or bored because they already understood.” One hundred percent of the staff at Broadway agreed to go forward and become a demonstration school.

In our conversation, Bingham generously reflected on what he has been learning in this intense year of strengthening culture and climate, introducing effective practices, and beginning to build transparency. Here are a few of the highlights. (more…)

Getting Results in Personalized Learning

March 29, 2017 by

Denver Public Schools has released Personalized Learning: A Journey through Year One, one of the more interesting reports on personalized learning that I’ve seen. Although DPS’s efforts to introduce personalized learning into their schools has not required a competency-based structure, at least one of the three schools – Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (page 13) – has important elements of competency education in place.

The first thing to know is that DPS defined personalized learning as “a holistic approach to learning, teaching and school design” to support “the unique needs of diverse students and develop students’ personal agency so that every student succeeds.” DPS focuses on four personalized learning outcomes: student agency, social emotional engagement, 21st century skills, and academic outcomes. It is important to note that they have placed student agency deeply in the core of their approach. It is equally important to note that they did not start with technology as the driver for personalization. They started with approaching children holistically as the driver.

The research (turn to page 52 of the pdf report, where you an find the early evidence, findings, and implications) is organized around two sets of questions: one on impact and one establishing baseline data on conditions for implementation including school climate, teacher beliefs, and correlations with student academic success. I am so impressed with the richness of the analysis shared in this report, as it opens doors for an inquiry-based approach to improving our schools.

Here are a few examples: (more…)

The Teacher Association Perspective on Performance-Based Learning

March 27, 2017 by

Heather O’Brien

This article is the fourteenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Heather O’Brien started at D51 as a student and has now entered her second year as President of Mesa Valley Education Association. She is aware of the demands of supporting MVEA in making the shift from a traditional union to professional association within a district going through a tremendous transformation. She is also humbled by these demands.

O’Brien explained that the educators at D51 value their professionalism and want to further expand upon it. “We use the language of association, not union,” she said. “We want to shift into a professional association. We don’t serve customers the same way other labor unions do. We have relationships with students and their families. Our focus and the focus of district leadership is on student success, not a bottom line of profit.” She explained that when educators think of themselves as teacher leaders, an association will provide more opportunity. She noted that the Colorado Education Association is also making this shift to a professional association.

On top of that, all 1,325 teachers in the district are beginning to learn about a new educational paradigm. “The most exciting part is that both P-BL and the changes at MVEA are about empowering teachers,” O’Brien said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our educators.”

She herself is very enthusiastic about this shift to performance-based learning. “This is a pedagogy and a philosophy I’ve been trying to create in my own classroom for the last ten years,” she said. “Performance-based learning is right for kids and it’s right for teachers. But you can’t do it alone. You have to have the full system, the gradebooks, and a collaborative effort among teachers. P-BL is what I’ve been searching for as a teacher.” At the same time, she’s also cautious about how others are approaching the change. “I’m a phoenix. I need change. I like to go in totally new directions. But other people don’t. So I need to pay attention to how other people are experiencing the process of introducing P-BL. I need to always be open to authentic concerns.” (more…)

R5 High School: Abuzz with Learning

March 23, 2017 by

This article is the thirteenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

One of the reasons I believe D51 is going to be successful in implementing performance-based learning is that they already have a 100 percent strategy in place, with four alternative schools designed to make sure that every student, even those who left school and want to re-enroll, have options. It means they are putting resources toward serving 100 percent of the students. Even more so, they have demonstrated that all learners are valuable by co-locating two of the alternative schools, Summit and R5, in a brand new building (many district-run alternative schools I’ve visited have been in portable classrooms, old buildings, and very dingy basements).

D51 has thought strategically about the mix of high school programming that is needed. In addition to the four comprehensive high schools, there is Summit (a transitional program for students who do best with more support and structure); Valley High School (a small school model); the Career Center; and R5, an early stage performance-based high school designed for students who need flexibility and opportunity to advance more quickly than traditional course-based schedules will allow. R5 High School, which is based on Respect, Responsibility, Relevancy, Readiness, and Relationships, is the only high school of the seven demonstration schools in District 51.

Observation and Inquiry: Is having strong, comprehensive multiple pathways to graduation that ensure students can take a “leave of absence” and return to school at a later date to complete their diploma an indicator that districts are committed to helping all students reach proficiency? Will those districts that have expanded alternative schools to be better able to reach out and, when needed, re-engage 100 percent of their students (as opposed to maintaining a one-way door out of school) be better positioned to implement strong, continuous improvement efforts? Should we create formal leave of absence policies so that there are triggers about what this will mean regarding when students might graduate?

(more…)

Performance-Based Learning in a Dual Immersion School

March 20, 2017 by

DIA1This article is the twelfth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

The Dual Immersion Academy (DIA) is not one of D51’s performance-based learning demonstration schools – it’s one of the schools that is going forward and building the effective practices because it simply can’t wait. Bil Pfaffendorf, a professional learning facilitator, and I made a quick stop to learn about how the efforts in building the effective practices were going. I am so glad I did, as I realized that the deep conversations about teaching and learning are rippling throughout the district – not just in the demonstration schools.

Principal Monica Heptner outlined the structure of the school: Of the 285 students K-5 that DIA serves, approximately 50 percent are English Language Learners and the other half are there to learn Spanish. Language is an intentional set of skills developed at DIA, with students building their skills in both languages. There are two language progressions, and students are tracked on both. Students come to school with different levels of familiarity with each of the languages. Students receive literacy in both languages, with math and reading in English and science and social sciences in Spanish.

Heptner provided examples of their progress in incorporating the effective practices, some of which had been previously used in the school to some degree: (more…)

Lincoln Orchard Mesa: What Did You Notice?

March 16, 2017 by

LOM1This article is the eleventh in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

What I noticed at Lincoln Orchard Mesa (Lincoln) is that every teacher in every classroom I visited would at some point or another engage a student with the question, What did you notice?

What did you notice about the drawing of the sheep in the book? What did you notice about differences in the charts on how we are doing learning words? What do you notice about the words in the sentence? The constant reflection is aimed at building meta-cognition, one of the Habits of Mind needed to become a self-directed learner. The question wobbles right next to its shadow question, What weren’t you noticing? When prompted, frequently reflecting on what you are noticing (or not) soon helps you become very intentional about where you are directing your attention.

Background

Leia Kraeuter

Lincoln, serving 380 students in the mixed income neighborhood of Orchard Mesa, is one of the seven demonstration schools in D51. It’s a “title school” with over 50 percent of the students on Free and Reduced Lunch. As Principal Leia Kraeuter escorted us from one classroom to another, she would point out the strategies being explored by different teachers: This teacher is experimenting with flexible seating. This teacher has co-created an expectation rubric with students to guide their behavior, such as what it means to be on task.

As in all the demonstration schools, teachers are learning the effective practices needed for personalized, performance-based learning to take root: a classroom that includes culture, transparency, and a learner-centered environment. Personalized learning has a variety of meanings, ranging from online learning and differentiated instruction and support to engaging students by increasing relevance and student agency. At D51, their vision for a personalized, performance-based system starts with organizing the learning environment to help students build the skills they need to take ownership of their learning. Transparency is one of the keys to unlocking student agency. (more…)

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