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Aurora Institute

A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them.

Since then, Eminence has created a layered approach to student agency that stretches from participation in governance to charting their own course. Students are members of site-based decision making with full voting privileges. The district uses student voice surveys, teachers work to develop interest-based courses centered on student interests as well as their own, and students have opportunities to design and even lead courses. Every student has a SPARC team of students, parents, and advisors to reflect on student work and ensure students are making progress. Starting in third grade, there are student-led conferences where students describe how they are progressing in terms of academics, as well as E3 levels, which are examplars of the different expectations at Eminence, such as philanthropy and college & career explorations.

The other lesson learned is that they found it was hard for students and educators to envision a different type of school or a different way to learn. One of the first tasks of leadership was to find a way to help people in the district think differently about their jobs and how school might be organized.

Surprise and Delight: Berry explained that he has been heavily influenced in creating a culture of innovation by the design thinking advanced by John Nash and the team at dLab at the University of Kentucky. This has started by creating a “yes, and…” orientation rather than the “yes, but…” we know all too well in school reform. Berry also wants to systemically embed a primary design principle, Surprise and Delight, into every nook and cranny of the district (unfortunately, the acronym is SAD). In watching the interaction between Berry and staff and staff and children, you can feel this culture of Surprise and Delight. During this conversation, I began to realize that for some schools, design thinking may be a way to reach that sense of empowerment that we have identified as one of the new values driving competency-based systems. This is a great way to create more intentionality and a belief that educators can shape and re-shape their environment and their classrooms.

measuring fractions eminence
Measuring Fractions

With the spirit of Surprise and Delight, Eminence moved forward with a plan for 1:1 devices until they had 1,200 devices for 850 students. For both the educators and the students, they needed the opportunity to explore what was possible with educational technology before they could make a plan for how they would use it to strengthen learning opportunities. They are increasingly using technology to support blended learning opportunities and greater differentiation through the use of adaptive software. They have also developed a set of next generation skills including coding and computer-aided design. These skills start in kindergarten—to advance to first grade, the little ones have to demonstrate they know how to have a video conference.

They also took the call for more advanced coursework to heart by establishing a partnership with Bellarmine University. They have organized a program in which students can complete at least one year of college. With so many students being first generation college-goers, this has been instrumental in lifting up expectations. Right now about forty students a year are taking advantage of this opportunity. An interesting insight they’ve gained is that the more students who pursue higher level courses, the less valuable the ACT becomes. Students have already demonstrated in real life that they can get an A or a B in college level courses so their understanding of the ACT as a gatekeeper is much less.

Buckle Your Seat Belt: Berry recognized early on that the minute the district shifted to personalization in which students would be taught based on where they are on the learning continuum and not the age-based curriculum that the district scores based on, state accountability exam scores were going to drop. Knowing that about 75 percent of students enrolled were not prepared yet for the transition to kindergarten, he prepared the school board, teachers, and parents for the turbulence of becoming accountable to students—not to a curriculum.

And indeed “test scores tanked” at the elementary school level, with the district around the lowest 5th percentile. However, Eminence is finding that by middle school, they are eliminating gaps with their schools in the 50-60th percentile. By high school, their students are performing at high levels, reaching the top 5th percentile.

They currently use an approach referred to as ICE to create more differentiation in instruction and support, asking questions such as, “Do students need more intervention, more connection, or more enrichment?” However, with the increase in enrollments, they are getting 400 new students per year at all different grade levels. Thus, finding a way to talk about student progress from where they start and the rate they progress, and finding additional ways for students to get more instructional time will be important.

Use a Compass, Not a Map: Berry explained that when they started out on the path to personalization and an innovative culture, they wanted a map they could share with other districts. However, in the same way that our GPS systems on our phones mean we don’t need to do MapQuest before starting out on a road trip, Eminence discovered that maps don’t work too well for transforming schools, either. School systems are just too complex, and trying to use the same map for different districts doesn’t work, as there are too many variables shaping the context.

Berry now subscribes to a metaphor of using a compass instead of map. He explained, “When we know our end point, when we get blown off course, we use a compass to re-adjust our course to get us back on track.” Drawing on a metaphor of a ship bouncing along in the sea, leaders in districts and schools have to hold a very clear picture of the end point, constantly monitor organizational progress, and build a team that is willing to work together to get back on course.

A Mastery Model of College and Career Readiness: Eminence is putting together the pieces of a competency-based system that includes organizing teachers to meet students at their level, not based on their age-based cohorts; establishing expectations for graduation that are based on skills and developmental benchmarks, not just time-based credits; creating a form of standards-based grading that emphasizes “B or better”; and promoting advancement based on “defense panels” to demonstrate students are ready to advance at kindergarten and grades five, eight, and twelve.

As is the case with all competency-based schools, there are challenges. For example, scheduling so students have opportunity for project-based learning, integrated learning, more intervention, and opportunity to pursue college-level courses hasn’t been easy. The initial schedule they developed didn’t work out as they had hoped, so they are moving back to a more traditional schedule…but with dedicated time for two “passion weeks” in the fall and spring. Their hope is that students will be able to pursue high interest projects while also providing substantial time for students who need more intensive support. Of course, the challenge here will be to make sure those students who have the greatest academic needs still have opportunity to pursue the enriched projects, as well.

They are also currently trying to figure out how to think about what it means to be competent within their grading scales. Their goal is to get all students to a three or four in a four point scale. If a three is competent, what would students need to do beyond it to get a four? It’s these types of conversations in districts that indicate to me they are on the direction to competency education, as this is one aspect of the calibration conversation that helps to create highly reliable schools that consistently help students learn.

They are also trying to figure out how to balance the use of adaptive learning with other instructional approaches. Currently, they are using Dreambox, Lexia, and Reading Plus. They’ve seen that for many students, these are highly engaging and are helping with fluency. For students who enter without many skills, the support of adaptive software allows most to “catch up” to grade level by the end of third grade, gaining up to an extra .5 academic levels per year. However, they also know that more is needed to ensure students are able to transfer those skills to other situations.

At Eminence, all classes are fully inclusive. Berry suggested that RTI is consistent with the mastery-based approach and is helping. They are also finding that focusing on mastery is forcing more conversations about accommodations. It’s possible that a mastery-based model, with its highly personalized approach, may mean that fewer students are classified as special education while still getting the support they need.

What’s Next: There is a lot of innovation happening at Eminence. This year, they are beta testing the Competency Collector App, or COCOA for short. It’s an iPad application that will allow teachers to quickly capture student progress on standards, linking to evidence such as data from adaptive software, an audio of an interview with a student, or picture of a project. It will then monitor based on binary model (yes or no) to determine proficiency. The data will be transparent and dashboards will be available to monitor by student, by classroom, by teacher, and by school.

The hope is that it will also organically create the need for teachers to calibrate their understanding of what proficiency means. For example, if a fourth grade teacher finds that a student marked proficient by the third grade teacher doesn’t actually know how to round numbers to the nearest 10 or 100 (one of the Common Core math standards), they could go back to look at the evidence and begin to dig into those conversations about how proficiency is determined, whether or not students been able to transfer the skill to new situations, and what the expectations and strategies for retention of skills are.

As students and educators get more comfortable with the competencies and standards, they are also hoping to explore new ways for students to provide evidence of their learning. For example, could students on an athletic team keep a journal to document issues such as building new skills, what helps them to learn, situations where they had to persevere or overcome doubt in themselves, and an analysis of the rules of the game for physical education credit?

It’s safe to say that we should all stay tuned to be surprised and delighted by more innovation at Eminence.

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