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Aurora Institute

A Deeper Dive into the EPIC North Design (Part 2)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

Mr. Dash
Mr. Dash’s Science Class

This article is part of a series of case studies of schools in New York City. Read the entire EPIC North series with parts one, two, and three.

The EPIC North school design is best explained by the students themselves.

Teachers give us guidelines for our projects. We can learn in different ways, including learning from outside of school. We have to figure things ourselves and we have to learn how to do it ourselves. But we are never all by ourselves. Teachers are always there to help us.

Like most mastery-based schools, EPIC is founded on the idea of student ownership, transparency of learning expectations, and demonstrating proficiency before advancing to the next stage of learning. In this case, EPIC embeds the mastery-based structure within a tightly woven culture and programming based on youth development and future focus through CORE and Summer Bridge.

A Personalized, Mastery-Based Structure

Across the three EPIC high schools, staff and students use technology as a means to personalize learning. Students interact with the schools’ LMS (Educate) and relevant Google programs to receive, complete and submit assignments, collaborate, and track their learning progress. Currently the schools are implementing a one-to-one (student to device) program. In classes, teachers use both procured and teacher-generated digital content. In classes like targeted support, students use interactive software to practice and develop their skills towards mastery. As students access material and produce works, staff are available to provide direct support and guidance. However, it is important to note that at EPIC schools, teaching and learning is highly blended. In addition to technology use, students participate in class activities, discussions, and labs that require collaborating with peers and working with teachers.

Harvey Chism, Sr. Director, School Design, explained that the EPIC team selected mastery-based structure for several reasons. “EPIC schools are personalized. We are responding to the needs of our students academically and developmentally, and we need a structure that enables personalization. The transparency and responsiveness of mastery-based systems also enable students to take ownership for their learning. When implemented effectively, a mastery-based approach helps to create a school-wide culture of responsibility and accountability with a commitment to growth and achievement.”

After seeing Shearwater High School’s 21 by 21 structure for competencies, the EPIC team realized that they could offer a comprehensive structure of what they wanted for their students upon graduation through a competency framework. They engaged in a backward planning process that started with thinking about the competencies needed to have success in life, including spirituality, community, relationships, and success in college and career. That list generated sixty-five attainments and nineteen competencies, which they then cross-walked with Common Core and the CASEL social-emotional framework.

One important step in developing the competency structure was to focus on how to maximize the benefits for students and teachers. John Clemente, Director School Design and one of the initial nine ESI fellows, explained, “If it became too granular, learning would be more rote and simplified. We were not getting at critical thinking. We need a structure that was less fine-grained than standards and would enable performance-based assessments for each unit. After narrowing the list of attainments, we worked with the Center for Collaborative Education to develop rubrics for each one.”

The final structure EPIC reflects a combination of academic and social-emotional competencies and attainments. In the EPIC learning environment, attainments are considered discrete demonstrations of ability, while competencies are a set of aggregated skills (such as read analytically; write effectively; evaluate spaces, shapes, and conditions; practice social responsibility; manage my relationships; etc.). It is important to note that as a competency-based school, EPIC requires students to demonstrate their skills and abilities by completing rich performance tasks: multi-part demonstrations of learning that are tuned in advance to ensure certain qualities and components like cultural relevance and real-world transfer.

Harvey emphasizes that these attainments aren’t an overarching structure, per se. Instead, “Attainments are clustered by competencies. I think something worth emphasizing and that meant a great deal to us is that a maximum number of attainments and competencies are trans-disciplinary for all the obvious affordances: teacher collaboration across content areas, concentration on a common set of learning objectives, transparency and accessibility of learning expectations to students and their families, multiple opportunities to revisit and hone skills, and translation of graduation requirements from mere credits to the actual know-how. Student mindsets are cultivated over time to reflect college and career readiness.”

Students Explain the Mastery-based Structure

Even though students had only two months’ experience in the mastery-based structure, they still had a lot of positive things to say about it. One student explained that they work on their own levels, “Our teachers focus on what we know based on what our grades looked like in middle school. At the beginning of the year, teachers looked at what we know. I took algebra last year and showed that I know it, so I’m in geometry. Other students are taking algebra.”

Another explained, “I like knowing what attainments I’m working on. Our teachers give us voice by letting us work at our own pace. We have power to manage ourselves.” Another added, “This school is run based on how we learn. It’s on your pace. If you are struggling, the teachers will help you. You can tell the teachers really care about us, because they care that we are learning.” One student jumped in at this point, “This school is very different from my last one. We were only judged on our test taking skills there.”

Science Class
EPIC North Science Class

The students also recognized the hard work required in this structure. “Our projects are challenging,” described one student. “We have to use metacognition skills to do them.” Another described her science class as, “Mr. Dash (science teacher) has been pushing us a lot. He expects us to do the work and puts us on the spot. The other day he explained the difference between preparing references using the MLA (Modern Language Association) and the APA (American Psychological Association). We have to write a nine-page essay on how the beauty and cosmetic industry shapes our community and the world, and he wants to make sure that we know how to do the references correctly.”

Another student valued getting real-time feedback, “We do a lot of our work on Google. Sometimes we get comments from our teacher as we are writing. It really helps when he adds comments as you can see how to improve immediately.”

Designing the Cycle of Learning

One of the benefits of competency education is that the instructional cycle becomes a school-wide approach. Teachers are no longer alone in trying to meet every student’s need, construct rich learning experiences, and design aligned assessments. Furthermore, variation in how teachers grade and assess proficiency is reduced so that students know what is expected to demonstrate proficiency.

The process of calibrating the understanding of proficiency is often called “tuning.” EPIC schools has taken this concept and broadened it to mean tuning the design of the instructional cycle and content. Adapting from others like High Tech High and Bronx Arena, EPIC recognizes that creating rich learning experiences is a highly sophisticated process requiring teams of people bringing their expertise together. The “tuning criteria” that the ESI team has developed is extraordinary in its ability to help teachers think deeply about how they are designing the cycle of learning.

The criteria are:

  1. Opportunities to problem solve
  2. Opportunities to revise and reflect on work
  3. Opportunities for rigorous, individualized learning
  4. Inclusion of scaffolds
  5. Integration of technology
  6. Mastery-based assessments of learning
  7. Real world transfer of learning
  8. Project-based teaching and learning
  9. Literacy skill development
  10. Integrated domains and depth of competencies
  11. Cultural relevance

Designing learning experiences that incorporate all eleven criteria requires teachers to bring together everything they know. For example, at the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice (one of the three EPIC schools), a history unit explores the theme of forced displacement, covering Native American Removal and Japanese Internment (U.S. History), recent gentrification in local neighborhoods Bushwick and Bed-Stuy (CORE), and makes connections to Rwandan genocide through close reading of the short story “My Parent’s Bedroom” by Uwem Akam (ELA). Attainments for this unit include understanding point-of-view (through A Cheyenne Odyssey interactive game), interpreting literature, and interacting with new media (creating Animoto presentations).

Another great example of this process at work comes from EPIC South. In their “The Things We Carry” unit, students explore internal and external conflict, covering these themes in students’ personal lives: social cliques, gangs, personal tragedies (CORE); the Vietnam War, War in the Middle East, current events such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson (U.S. History); and the exploration of memoir long form with the text The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and short form with student writing (ELA). Attainments include persevering through challenges (discussion of conflict resolution in ROP), articulating complex thoughts in writing (personal memoirs), and valuing diversity (exploration of cultural connections to conflict).

Students noted many of these elements in their conversation. For example, one student commented, “Our projects are interconnected. In science, we ask questions about the impact of community. We write in all of our classes. We are always working on several attainments at a time.”

Structuring School Around Youth Development and Youth Leadership

EPIC North’s theory of action is based on the idea that youth development plays a powerful role in educating students. Below are three of the more systematic ways that EPIC North invests in youth development.


CORE is a daily advisory program for students, where they focus on youth development issues, college and career goal planning, social emotional learning, and general academic advising. Within the context of CORE, students check-in one-on-one with their CORE facilitators/advisors.

While it is possible to think about CORE as an advisory, the richness and intentionality of the design lifts it well beyond any advisory I’ve ever heard about. According to the handbook, “CORE is a tight-knit group of approximately twenty students and two adults who will maintain their group status throughout the EPIC school experience. CORE has the dual goal of creating a comprehensive support system and accountability structure for students within the context of a consistent community.”

CORE is also the time to better understand the attainments, with groups picking a few to discuss in more detail. They go deeper to talk about what the attainments mean, how to know if you were actually attaining and demonstrating the skills, and the relevance to their lives.

Rite of Passage

Working with the dynamic youth program, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, ESI developed a Rites of Passage (ROP) program (perhaps better understood as “a way of life”). ROP provides “youth with an opportunity to explore their ideas, identity, and future among peers, with the support and guidance of their immediate elders.”

In other words, ROP is about students developing their own voice and agency, and they are doing so in the context of a society still battling racism and sexism. ROP is a single gender program that occurs once per week to delve into issues of identity and community among students. It is reserved as a sacred space where students are able to examine contemporary issues, personal takes on different roles, and various cultures, societal practices, belief systems, and expressions of self. One of the students, Justin, explained, “I like ROP. We are separated by boys and girls because we have different things to talk about sometimes. In ROP, we talk about how we become a better person. We talk about history. We talk about the use of language and its power. We learn the history of words and ideas. After talking about the power of words, we don’t use the ‘n’ word and ‘b’ word anymore.”

Another student described ROP as, “It’s a place to learn how to respect yourself, be a man, be upstanding. It’s a place for trust, loyalty, and comfort.”

Summer Bridge

The transformation from middle school kids to young men and women started with Summer Bridge. For two weeks before school opened, students participated in a rich leadership program. This included a college visit, team and community-building activities, and work on two performance tasks (the SELFIE project and the SHIELD to orient students to the schools instructional model, develop artifacts that can be displayed throughout the school, and initiate early personal reflection and self-representation at the start of one’s high school career).

The future focus on college and careers that permeates the entire school was launched at Summer Bridge. One student explained, “I learned that college isn’t a game. If you want to do something, you have to start now and reach for your goals.” Another continued, “All of our teachers are our college advisors. They are always sharing tips. We know that we have to practice interviewing and writing essays to get into college.”

EPIC North stands out among the many schools I’ve visited for its heavy investment in youth leadership. Too often we wait until students begin to have trouble before we create additional learning experiences, and  that, traditionally, has been in the form of academic remediation. It makes much more sense to invest in youth leadership upfront, especially when working with students who are going to have to defy stereotypes, overcome additional challenges, and go beyond their family’s educational experiences.

EPIC North is also staffing the schools so that pedagogues and youth development professionals are paired in classes to comprehensively support students and simultaneously develop, reinforce, and tap into each other’s roles and expertise.

Student Empowerment, Trust, and Respect

As you can probably guess, the students here also had something to say about their relationships with teachers. In fact, every hand shot up when I raised a question about the EPIC North staff.

The responses varied, but followed a definite theme of trust and respect and love.

  • Staff treats us with respect.
  • You feel a bond that you can trust. There is never a dull moment – I like the love they give us. They show us they really care.
  • Even when I had issues with another student, Miss Jones pulled us out and helped us understand each other’s perspective. She showed us that we cared about each other.
  • When I was feeling down, teachers noticed. They paid attention, cheered me up. I felt like a younger brother.
  • We have a lot of free speech. Teachers respond to what we say.
  • An example of teachers showing us love is that they ask us what is working and not working. They try to fix what is not working.
  • Teachers want the best for us. And they want us to be successful.

The EPIC team understands that student empowerment is critical for young people’s development, as well as for creating a personalized, mastery-based school in which teachers are facilitators. You can’t have facilitator-teachers without students being empowered. Moreover, they know that respect begets trust, which begets empowerment. Students have to know that they can count on stability in the environment, be aware of the rules of the game, and be able to get the feedback and support they need to be empowered student. Otherwise, it’s just setting them up to fail.

Another way that EPIC North is building trust is through their restorative justice practices. The traditional disciplinary policies that emphasize zero tolerance and suspending students from school undermines learning and introduces a feeling that students are not valued or belong. Given that disproportionate application of “zero tolerance” to African-American and Latino male students is thought to be one of the driving forces behind the low graduation rates, EPIC North is seeking policies and practices that keep students in school, create learning opportunities, and strengthen the school culture of cultural relevance. A weekly Fairness Committee made up of students and teachers meets to solve the problems of the school, damper rumors, and practice restorative justice. Discussions focus on the events, different perspectives, how it harmed the community, and ways to resolve the issues. When bigger problems develop, teachers prompt the students to “circle up” into school-wide discussions.

Emphasizing and supporting students developing their voice is a constant theme at EPIC. It’s not just having choice – it’s about effectively being able to communicate opinions, shape their environment, and engage in dialogue.

One student summed up the EPIC experience: “We should use this school to change other schools. At other schools, teachers don’t pay attention to the students, they just teach. The problem is that wherever you are, that’s where you stand. At EPIC, everyone pushes you and doesn’t leave anyone behind.”