This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks on January 7, 2016, and it is part of the Maine Road Trip series by Chris Sturgis. This is the second post on her conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned.
During my visit to RSU2, we stopped off at Richmond Middle and High School. It was a glorious fall day, perfect for the middle school students to do a bit of pumpkin pitching with the catapults to culminate their study of Newton’s Laws and simple machines.
Richmond serves 260 students in grades sixth through twelfth, of which 40 percent are FRL. The size of the school means each academic department is approximately two people. This allows for ease in collaboration. For example, ELA and social studies are starting to explore how they can be integrated.
As we stood out on the field watching pumpkins soaring over our heads, Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond, emphasized that the induction process is vital to the success of the school. In the summer, he brings new hires together for a full day to talk about the philosophy of personalized, proficiency-based learning. During the school year, he meets with the new teachers every other Wednesday. Lavoie explained, “I bring an agenda item and the new teachers bring agenda items that feel pressing to them. We look at issues in the context of their work. As they become comfortable with work in a proficiency-based school, we begin to have meetings as needed.” When there is only one new teacher, other teachers join in this process so the new teachers always have a cohort of support.
Lavoie has noticed that students are talking more about their GPA and going to college. “The conversation about what it means to be academically successful has lifted the expectations that students hold for themselves.” At some schools I’ve visited, the competitiveness surrounding the GPA has created an environment in which students want to re-assess to get higher scores. Lavoie explained that hasn’t been a problem at Richmond. “We stay focused on helping students reach proficiency and always do their best. Students can go back and finish things they didn’t get done. They can go back to things they didn’t learn well to strengthen their skills. But wanting to increase the scores on the GPA is not a reason for re-assessments. We want them to do their personal best the first time around.”
Like many competency-based schools, Richmond has moved from an honors track to honors performance. Any students with 3.75 are designated as honors. Lavoie emphasized, “We want to reward students for performance.” Another example is that if a student in an AP course gets a 3.25 in class and a 4 on the AP test, their final performance score will be a 4.
In an exciting new partnership, University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI) is sending new teachers to Richmond to understand the personalized, proficiency-based system. Seven student teachers visited RSU2 in the fall. The first day was focused on gaining an overall perspective on proficiency-based learning; the second day, teachers were fully immersed in the classroom. The partnership is also opening up experiences for students, as well. Last year, thirteen students took an online course offered by UMPI. College-going confidence skyrocketed when students realized they were doing as well or better than some of the college students.
Areas of Continuous Improvement
Proficiency-based schools are constantly seeking ways to improve the learning experiences for students. Below are a few of the things Richmond is focusing on:
Expanding Learning Opportunities: Richmond wants to be able to offer more opportunities for students to pursue their learning in other environments. They are beginning to expand their internships and want students to take advantage of electives to be able to pursue their passions. Lavoie explained, “We want to make sure that internships or service learning are tightly aligned with learning targets and that students are fully supported. This takes a higher level of coordination than we have done in the past.” Another area to be developed is expanding the number of college-level courses available. Students can advance to higher-level work at Richmond, but the school or district is going to need to partner with institutions of higher education to expand options for twelfth graders.
Meeting Students Where They Are: As described in the first post on RSU2, there is a strong concern that it doesn’t make sense to continue to structure schools and teaching around grade level curriculum rather than around students’ needs. One of the big issues is fluency in reading – when students are reading well below grade level or need a lot of help to access grade-level text, everything slows downs. A second issue is students not having the prerequisite or foundational skills they need for grade-level math. And finally, students’ background knowledge varies significantly, with some needing help to find a solid starting point to tackle the sciences, social sciences, or content in ELA. (See tomorrow’s post for a longer discussion on this issue.)
One of the ideas they are thinking about is redesigning middle school with a stronger emphasis on making sure students have strong foundational skills in math and ELA balanced with a stronger focus on applied learning (projects, real-world, and inquiry-based). The plan is to strengthen capacity by having literacy and numeracy workshops (60 minutes each) followed by Applied Learning time (120-135 minutes). To help students learn to write, Richmond is planning on using the work on learning progressions developed by Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College. (For more on learning progressions, see Achieve’s briefing paper.) Lavoie described this as “batting practice followed by game time.” Students will be grouped (and regrouped) based on their skills and what they need to learn next.
The Applied Learning Time is being designed to make sure every student has opportunity to “get deeper.” The district is planning on having Doug Finn help them build up the capacity for high-quality applied learning. Their current thinking is that Applied Learning will be based on four elements: driving (and really engaging) questions; clear and transparent learning targets; output or product development that can be used to demonstrate learning; and reflection. Bill Zima, Superintendent of RSU2, described that the most important step in getting the driving questions well-constructed is that “the process to develop or discover the answer makes meaning for students.” They are already thinking that any driving questions, most likely in the context of social studies or science, will require foundational knowledge. Teachers will assess the degree to which students have the foundational knowledge at the level of recall and comprehension, and build resources to support students, including mini-lessons, videos, and direct instruction.
Ongoing Professional Development: Learning is the heart and soul of competency education for students and teachers alike. At Richmond, there is a multi-tiered focus on professional development. Lavoie explained that they never stop building the culture of the classroom, where “shared vision, codes of cooperation, and standard operating procedures provide students with a strong sense of belonging and respect.” They are also focusing more effort on improving instruction by working with Bea McGarvey. Lavoie emphasized, “Our superintendent Bill Zima encourages us to think creatively – ‘I wonder…’ or ‘What if…?’ These phrases need to be at the tip of our tongue at all times. We are in a good place to continue improving the learning environment. We can’t stop. Our growth needs to continue just as it needs to continue for our learners.”
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It feels like Richmond Middle and High School is getting ready to take their personalized, proficiency-based model to the next level.