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Aurora Institute

Raising the Bar at Sanborn Regional High School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field


This is the third of three blogs about Sanborn Regional School District. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

“We weren’t getting traction in any of our academic improvement initiatives. Competency-based education helped us to get traction. Parents saw the value of the model. Students value the transparency – they no longer have to guess at what teachers want. It’s allowed us to focus in on the most important things to do to support our students.”

Sanborn Regional High School Principal Brian Stack explained that the most important change has been in the nature of the relationships. PLCs have more meaning as they focus on student progress. Students are taking more responsibility, even holding teachers more accountable by asking, “Am I passing all my competencies? What do I need to do to make sure I meet the expectations for proficiency?”

SRHS is a work in progress, as are all competency-based schools. However, it stands out as one of the few places that I have visited that has taken the time to draw on best practices of highly effective high schools, taking into consideration what students need to keep them in school as well as prepare them for college and careers. Below are just a few of the highlights of structures for learning Sanborn has put into place, as well as insights gathered during the visit. 

Structures for Learning

 The Competency Framework and Grading System

At Sanborn, teachers are comfortable with the competencies – the expected skills and content to be mastered in a course. They emphasize Level 3, Extended Thinking in Webb’s Taxonomy, by expecting students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate. Each course usually has about five competencies.

Sanborn has six competencies described as 21st-Century Learning Expectations. They are: to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage their learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community. A schoolwide rubric is used to assess how students are doing in demonstrating these expectations.

Students are expected to demonstrate proficiency or “pass” all of their competencies for a particular course in order to receive credit for that course. Formative assessments are used by teachers to measure student progress of learning, but it is the summative assessments, which carry a weight of at least 90% of a final course grade, that ultimately impact what students will receive for a grade on their transcript.

Sanborn has constructed its grading system around standards in each course. Student progress is tracked as limited progress, in progress, meeting expectations or exceeding expectations on each standard. One teacher emphasized the importance of committing to using standards in grading. “If you are going to be rubric-based, then you have to have a rubric grade. Trying to marry the 100-point scale to rubrics doesn’t work. The 100-point scale just has to go away. It’s a hindrance.” For the 2014-2015 school year, Sanborn Regional High School will remove the 100-point scale for all courses and replace it with a rubric scale.

Students can “pass” courses if they demonstrate limited progress. Those who do not have a 65% (basically, didn’t provide enough evidence of learning) are expected to do competency or credit recovery. Recovery plans are personalized to meet the needs of each learner and can include reassessment of course work, additional course work, or completion of online competency modules. Although referred to as competency-based grading, Sanborn’s grading policy is essentially a standards-referenced grading system that allows students to continue to the next course even if they haven’t met the expectations for proficiency. In the 2014-2015 year, when the school eliminates the 100-point scale completely, this policy will adapt for a rubric scale, but the result will be the same – students will be able to “pass” a class by demonstrating minimal proficiency but may be required to complete additional competency or credit recovery.

Final grades for each course are translated into numbers for GPA and class rank. The report card emphasizes how students are doing in terms of meeting expectations. Sanborn also is trying to lessen the emphasis on class rank while maintaining academic distinction by offering special graduation titles of summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude.

Freshman Learning Community

Stack opened our conversation with the assertion, “In a competency-based school, the bar is getting raised. For the first time, we expect students to understand and be able to apply the curriculum. At first, teachers were worried about a higher failure rate. But that doesn’t happen because of our design to provide intensive support to students during the ninth grade, the combination of students taking more responsibility for their learning, and structuring adequate level of supports into the school day and year.”

It’s an important point – if you are going to have all kids reach proficiency, then you have to put the structures in place to support them. As Rose Colby constantly reminds me, “Districts have to design around the students Not Yet Proficient!”

The 750 students at SRHS enter through three feeder schools. And just like at other high schools, they enter with a range of maturity levels and different sets of skills, as well as gaps in their knowledge. SRHS decided that they needed to draw from the best practices used in high schools by creating a Freshman Learning Community (FLC) that views ninth grade as a transitional year. The FLC is broken into two teams. Each freshman team is comprised of five teachers representing the following core subjects: Global Studies, English, Wellness and Science. (There is one time in the day in which all students are in their grade-based math class.) Additionally, FLC teams work closely with a literacy teacher, a world language teacher, and a special education teacher. The team of teachers, operating as a separate PLC, work with approximately 80 to 100 students. This creates the structure that allows students and their teachers to form strong relationships.

The FLC uses advisories to help students develop the habits or 21st-century skills they will need to be successful in high school as well as college and careers. They have developed the GUTS Program, with students reflecting on how they are doing in demonstrating the seven characteristics of success: Grit, Zest, Optimism, Social Intelligence, Self-Control, Gratitude, and Curiosity. Again, this is a best practice used in some of the best schools designed for students who are over-age and undercredited. It is based on a theory of learning that we can actually accelerate maturity by making the desired behaviors explicit and creating room for ongoing reflection. (I’ll be writing more about this in the description of the visit to Making Community Connections Charter School.)

The teams of teachers in the FLC operate as a PLC, with a great deal of autonomy to center their own small learning community on the needs of their students. Each of these communities operates with great independence. They focus on data about student progress to make sure that students are getting what they need to be prepared for the transition to high school. When students aren’t making progress, teachers immediately intervene to find out what is happening. Essentially, SRHS has created a structure in which a team of teachers is responsible for ensuring that each and every student gets off to a good start when they enroll in SRHS.

Since the inception of the FLC program at Sanborn, the school has seen its percentage of students who have failed one or more courses in their ninth grade year decline dramatically, from 23% of students in the 2010-2011 pilot year to just 10% of students in the 2012-2013 school year.

Flex Period

All students at SRHS have access to a flex period or intervention time every day for “reteaching , reinforcement, and enrichment,” or for extra help with any of the standards that they are having difficulty in mastering. It is also a time that students who are working on honors projects meet with their teachers about their projects. (Sanborn has just created the capacity for students to work on honors projects in regular classes as the schedule for honors classes was too often an impediment.) At Sanborn, how students spend their flex time is overseen by each Professional Learning Community team of teachers, who work most closely with those students.

I know this seems so basic, but I visited other schools in New Hampshire that didn’t schedule this time, only to have real problems getting students the help they needed. Furthermore, I was in a school in Denver that was forced by the district to eliminate its intervention time to ensure that there were 300 instructional minutes a day. A daily flex time really needs to be a non-negotiable in competency-based schools.

Literacy In Every Classroom

Another best practice that SRHS has integrated schoolwide is literacy across the curriculum. Stack emphasized, “Students have opportunities to build literacy skills in every classroom, every day, including the welding class.”

Insights and Lessons Learned

Flipping the Switch to Learning with Transparency

Principal Stack confirmed what I have heard over and over from competency education innovators: “Competency education has helped the entire school and students get on the same wavelength. With transparency in competencies, conversations focus in on learning. Transparency allows for an entirely different type of relationship between students and their teachers to form.”

As SRHS develops an understanding of the power of these types of relationships, they are “beginning to treat our kids like we treat our colleagues.” Stack continued, “We are creating a culture of learning, eliminating the punitive responses that are found in so many high schools.” One teacher emphasized, “When the competencies are laid out in front for you, you can just get on with the learning. Everyone has a shared vision of why we are in the classroom together.”

How Competency Education Supports Interdisciplinary Learning

One concern about competency education is that it can lead to a narrow, linear, even worksheet-oriented education. Stack explained that the very opposite is true. “The competencies target our learning for us and help us see how we can connect learning,” he said. For example, one team in the Sophomore Experience created a unit on epidemics. They read The Hot Zone as part of their English Language Arts, looked at the government’s role in crisis for social studies, and built knowledge on viruses for science. They then tied it all together by producing and presenting an emergency response plan.

Setting Time-Based Expectations in a Competency-Based Environment

“One of the biggest controversies we encountered was eliminating the use of the zero in grading,” Stack said. “To get through it, we had to look at the research.” Sanborn eventually did eliminate the zero in grading, which means students have to do the work of showing teachers evidence of their practice and learning. At one point, this meant some students had “insufficient evidence” in the gradebooks at the end of the semester. So they sought a way to respect that some students need more help with the importance of meeting deadlines. Students have the opportunity to do competency recovery up until a certain point after the end of a course. After that point, they have to take the entire class again.

Special Education

Like most of the schools I visited in New Hampshire, Sanborn is finding themselves on new turf when it comes to special education. Competency education allows teachers to focus on the specific standards that students aren’t successful in mastering. This allows special education case managers to work with teachers in a targeted way. The conversation around standards, differentiated instruction, and accommodations for assessments has become much more clear and intentional.

Stack wrote about how the explicitness of the competency framework changed the nature of the Individual Education Plan meetings. Instead of focusing on a student’s problem behavior, IEP meetings focus on learning and what needs to happen for students to continue to progress.

However, a competency-based diploma does raise the question of whether students who enter high school substantially behind grade level or need longer to conquer the Common Core standards will be willing to stay in high school longer, even until age 21, to reach proficiency across the curriculum. Many students want to graduate with their cohort; perhaps districts will start to invest in more ways to extend the school year or create alternative pathways for students who are off-track for a four-year graduation or create transitional programming that blends academics, work and college experiences. Sanborn is a school that has started that kind of work for its population.

Sanborn Regional High School Principal Brian Stack is a frequent writer at CompetencyWorks, sharing his insights and reflections on a number of issues including reassessments, deadlines still matter, grading and transcripts, teacher evaluation, and individual education plan meetings. I have the deepest respect for Stack’s candor, comfort in saying that they don’t have it all worked out yet, and constant focus on doing what is right to support learning. Once I visited Sanborn Regional School District, I realized that Stack’s leadership style is part of the collaborative learning culture in which Stack and his colleagues engage constantly in reflection on the hard questions so that they might better support student learning.