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Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety at Merit Prep

November 10, 2015 by
Sajan George

Sajan George

This post is the second on my visit to Merit Prep as I try to capture a couple of the big huge takeaways. (Click here for an overview of Merit Prep.) I really believe that schools like Merit Prep and Building 21 – schools that are student-centric, competency-based, and exploring how to use technology to support the learning process – are opening the door to models that will work for our most vulnerable students. I believe they are at the forefront of turning around education in communities shaped by a concentration of poverty. We aren’t there yet, but after visiting these schools, it’s as if a path opened up in my mind about where we are going. Being able to climb up and outside of the traditional box is the power of innovation, especially when it is designed around the needs of students.

Catching Kids Up Through Non-Linear Progressions

During my site visit, we had a fascinating conversation about how to respond to students who have huge gaps in their skills when they enter a school or have had difficulty keeping a pace that allows them to complete their work for a course. This is no different than a traditional high school when students enroll with elementary school skills, or when ninth graders don’t achieve all their credits, thereby creating a pool of over-age, undercredited students who need special strategies to help them complete high school.

In a competency-based school, the problem has to be dealt with directly, as we don’t pass students on with Cs or Ds. Our discussion touched on creating forcing functions early in the year so students must complete their work before being able to do something else, creating learning experiences that allow students to “double up on standards,” and establishing “competency or standards recovery” mechanisms that can be accessed throughout the year.

Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, explained that they are making a pivot on how they think about missing standards. Remember, they are a school that is designed to have students working at their own level. He said that it doesn’t always make sense to have a seventh grader who is starting at the fourth grade level to follow a linear path. He suggested that we need to think about non-linear paths that will produce greater growth, be engaging to students (can you imagine being a seventh grader who has to work through three years of standards just to get to grade level?), and be instructionally sound.

Matchbook has been looking at Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards. (Please go to link before reading on.) Baumes has developed a way to visualize the prerequisite knowledge for any math standard and to look at a specific standard to see what other standards are built on that knowledge. When you move your cursor to a standard it turns green. Those standards that it depends on turn blue and those that are dependent on that standard turn red. (more…)

Merit Prep: Where Students Feel Safe to Learn

November 9, 2015 by
Ron Harvey

Principal Ron Harvey

This is the first post taking a look at Merit Prep. For part two, visit Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety.

I am deeply grateful for the time the team at Merit Preparatory Charter School spent explaining their school, the model, their sparkling information system, their school culture, how to accelerate learning for students who have not been previously well-served by public education, and what they are learning about turning around schools. This post will be followed by another with some of my big takeaways.

Thanks to Laura Shubilla, a long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder of Building 21, for joining me on a site visit. Listening to her perspective helped me better understand Merit Prep, reminding me how important it is to do joint site visits.

The Challenge

What is truly amazing about Merit Prep and the Matchbook Learning approach is that they are pushing hard to create a personalized, competency-based, blended model. And they are doing it with the most student-centered starting point…making sure kids feel loved, cared for, and safe. They are also doing it in an area of concentrated poverty in Newark, NJ, where kids face multiple challenges day in and day out. Matchbook began working to turn around Merit Prep last year, thus they are still in the process of reshaping the culture and expectations while simultaneously working to get the design of the school just right.

The Team

I met Sajan George at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit in 2011. I was instantly impressed by his commitment to finding solutions for our lowest performing schools in our most economically challenged cities. Soon after the summit, he launched Matchbook Learning, and I’ve been watching its development ever since. What was interesting in meeting the team of Merit Prep staff (Ron Harvey, Principal and Jason Lewis, Director of Culture) and the Matchbook Learning leadership team (George; Nithi Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology; John Polk, Chief Operating Officer; Laurance Specht and Tiffany McAfee, Directors of Personalized Learning; Al Motley, Chief Technology Officer; and Dr. Amy Swann, Chief Learning Officer) is that the same level of leadership, courage, commitment, and love of children is held by all. It was such a treat to be in a room of warm, brave-hearted people. As I told them, I think they are going to be leading the way to help us transform schools in big, broken-down districts.

Culture of Safety

The Merit Prep team takes culture-building very seriously. They start by ensuring that students feel safe and cared for, and that learning is at the forefront of any decision. Given that they are introducing an entirely new set of values, there is also an emphasis on high expectations and being “firm, fair, and consistent” to rebuild trust and respect. I’ll write more about their school culture in the second post on their school. (more…)

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