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Aurora Institute

A Visit to Cornerstone Charter School (Detroit)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

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In the northwest corner of Detroit, Cornerstone Charter Schools opened Health High School in response to the beliefs, challenges, and dreams of the community. HHS is a new school in its second year of implementation and a good example of blended learning.  The elements of the school that are personalized or competency-based, reside in its rapid response to help students stay on track and complete their courses. Below are several of the design elements:

Character Education:  In the halls and classrooms you see reference to the traits that HHS expects the adults and students to demonstrate. Citizenship, patience, kindness, self-control, gentleness, goodness, faith, peace, and love.  The school is rooted in these values, weaving them and life skills across all content areas.

Designed Around Relationships, Relevance and Rigor: Teachers are called Rigor Managers using the face-to-face (F2F) time to supplement and expand on learning. Relationship Managers stay connected to what is happening with students in school and out, providing coaching and advocacy as needed. Students have a daily class called Relevance that is inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, and connected to the real world. The ninth grade this year is looking at how to address vacant land in Detroit, drawing on science, government, and writing. Another way HHS builds relevance is through a broad career theme offering low-income students access to powerful career development opportunities. HHS was developed in partnership with Detroit Medical Center and Beaumont Hospitals.

Blended Flex Model: HHS combines individualized instruction, blended learning, and real-world experiences. They use a Flex approach, with 40-60% of the time in the “pod” (a computer lab) working on APEX, and the remaining in face-to-face instruction (F2F). HHS is using APEX to help kids become proficient in basic skills (think Level 2 in Webb’s depth of knowledge), and then F2F to create opportunities for the deeper level of learning (Level 3 and 4 in Webb’s).

Meeting Students Where They Are:  At HHS, students are assessed when they enroll. On average, 2/3 of the students are reading around 6th grade levels and the average math skills hover around 4th grade. Approximately 20% of the students are in special education. Teachers created a non-credit course to help students build up their foundational skills. They bring resources to this task including ACHIEVE 3000 and a reading specialist.  The online environment can also be very “print rich” so that students get more practice in reading.  HHS is finding that over 5 weeks they can see increases of a grade level for most students.  About 10% of the students stay in the foundation course the whole year.

Pace and Progress:  Michael Griffie, Principal of HHS, explained that they are constantly looking at pace and progress. APEX has been helpful as it can help teachers determine progress and retention of knowledge.  It also has let students know how they are doing, with green showing where a student is on or above pace, yellow indicating that things are due, and red showing that they are slipping behind. He emphasized that the data from APEX helps leadership look at pace and progress by opening the door to dialogue and understanding. For example, the data could allow questions such as “Why is it that one teacher has a class with 80% of class on track in one semester and 50% the next semester?” or  “What is going on and what needs to be done to improve the situation before students fall even further behind?” The team at HHS is very focused on inquiry and problem-solving so that students get the support they need when they need it.

Griffie also suggested that students entering at grade level often soar through APEX. Some students entering behind grade level may start to flounder and need more structure and encouragement. He emphasized that “the real value is in deeper learning, not going through the curriculum faster.”

When Students Struggle:  HHS operates with a “growth mindset” which recognizes that, with appropriate support, students can conquer challenging material. HHS has a formal trigger for teacher intervention. When a student fails three quizzes on APEX, it won’t let them move on to the next unit and the teacher is informed that the student needs help in understanding or performing the task.

Griffie explained that initially they were pulling students out in groups when they were struggling, but that with large numbers of students it might take 2-3 days to schedule before students got the help they need. As he explained, “Three days is an eternity if you are a student that is stuck.” After the first quarter, if students are behind in two or more questions they are expected to commit more time to their learning by participating in afterschool studies two days per week.

How Do Students and Teachers Know When a Student is Proficient?:  There wasn’t the level of transparency or emphasis on performance tasks/assessments that are seen in highly developed competency-based schools.  However, HHS knows that one method to determine proficiency isn’t adequate and uses APEX end of unit quizzes, a teacher developed final exam or project, and Acuity by McGraw Hill for a summative exam.  They use a traditional grading system with the final grade based on how they do in the Pod and in the F2F class. They don’t get a grade for the Acuity assessment, but it is used as a gatekeeper that prevents students from moving on to the next course if they haven’t passed.

My Thoughts: As Julia Freeland wrote in a post, learning about blended or competency-based models takes a lot of time. It’s a bandwidth issue. HHS is getting the kinks out of their blended model. As they continue to explore competency education, the question of “how do students and teachers know what proficiency looks like?” is likely to generate great conversation about rigor, depth of knowledge, transparency and co-design.