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Freshman Learning Community – A Successful Model That Puts Competency-Based Grading into Action

June 1, 2012 by

The transition to ninth grade is challenging for many students. For Sanborn Regional High School students, their transition struggles pointed to several issues in the district. In 2008, the district convened a summit to consider research on the needs of these students and to review the best practices in teaming. The ninth grade teachers decided to focus on a Professional Learning Community model framed by teachers from English, Social Studies, Wellness, and Science.  Over the next three years, the team worked to develop team norms, goals, common grading practices for class work and homework, grading policies, integrated units, performance-based assessments, and communication to parents.  Their work spurred a movement in the Sanborn Regional School District to become a competency-based grading and reporting school district, which the district became officially for the 2010-2011 school year.

In the fall of 2011 under the direction of Assistant Principal Ann Hadwen, the team that had come to be known as the Freshman Learning Community (FLC) took their next big step in development. Working within the master schedule, the FLC created a school-within-a-school model where freshman could be together with their team that had come to include English, social studies, science, mathematics, technology information literacy, world languages, and wellness. The team created an instructional time within the schedule to provide students with a re-teach and enrichment period to intervene and support students and monitor progress. This allowed the team to better focus their work on addressing the four major questions of PLCs that address student learning, which had become the primary focus of their weekly team meetings.

The Freshman Learning Community model is based on some of the latest best-practice research by Doug Reeves and others on the development of high school schedules that include time for flexible grouping and response to intervention. Our research on this topic suggests that high schools:

1. Work with sending schools to create a full transition program.

2. Identify 8th grade students that are likely to fail courses in ninth grade and provide double the contact time in math and English.

3. House all ninth grade classes in a separate wing of the school.

4. Assign the best and most experienced teachers to ninth grade.

5. Create academic teams similar to those used at the middle school level.

6. Make the data visible and use it to drive school improvement.

7. Create an effective and uniform competency-based grading policy, and

8. Frequently monitor students and provide early intervention for students that are failing.

The decision to develop a teaming model for grade nine was based on the idea that teaming allows for increased common planning time, an improved work climate for staff, increased parental contact, increased job satisfaction, and is associated with higher student achievement. Jay Hertzog, in a 1998 NASSP bulletin, writes: “Ninth grade is a pivotal year that can determine which students will succeed and which will fail to finish.”  In 2008, in his book The Linchpin Year, Billie Donegan wrote: “If you want to reshape high school, start by changing ninth grade.

Looking back over the last three years of this PLC journey, the school is proud of the commitment that the FLC teachers have made to the PLC philosophy. Early data shows that course failures have dropped dramatically in courses that are associated with the team. Moreover, student achievement on common school-wide and district-level assessments have increased.

Right from the start the Freshman Learning Community model is making a difference in the experience of 9th grade students.  One statistic that was problematic for this grade level was the number of discipline referrals.  In 2008-2009, there were 295 reported discipline issues for ninth grade students.   In 2009-2010, the number dropped to 190 and in 2010-2011 dropped even further to 129 discipline referrals.  In the academic quarter of the 2011-12 year a mere 13 students have been referred to the office with discipline issues.

Our teachers have also noticed a difference in student engagement as observed by academic performance. The number of course failures for freshman team courses has dropped considerably over the last three years, from 53 students in the 2007-2008 year (this was prior to the start of the FLC) to 19 in 2008-2009, less than 5 in 2009-2010, and 2 in 2010-2011.

In April of 2012, the FLC at Sanborn Regional High School was honored by the National School Board Association and the American School Journal by receiving a Magna Award for innovation and excellence. The team looks forward to continuing its journey as a PLC and as a competency-based institution. They are convinced that it has truly made an impact on student learning for all.

__________About the Author__________

Brian M Stack is the Principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire. Brian has worked for the Sanborn Regional School District for the last six years. He was hired in the summer of 2006 as the Assistant Principal / Director of Curriculum. Brian was named the runner-up for the New Hampshire Assistant Principal of the Year Award by the New Hampshire Association of School Principals in the Spring of 2010. In The Spring of 2012 he was named a “40 Under 40” Leader in the community by the Eagle Tribune Publishing Company and the Merrimack Valley Business Magazine. In July of 2010, Brian was promoted to Principal after the retirement of Gail Sudduth. He is a strong advocate of personalized learning, competency-based grading and assessment, and high school redesign for the twenty-first century.

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