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Aurora Institute

A Visit to PASE Prep at Southeastern High School (Detroit)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 2.41.53 PMAs we all know, competency-based high schools raise two issues you don’t often see in younger ages:

  • Wider differentiation in academic levels, with some students entering with elementary level skills; and,
  • A perceived need to differentiate academically in order to compete for the best colleges. In other words, having a high GPA for college admissions.

What we haven’t talked about much is the opportunities that become available once a school begins to be mastery-based. PASE Prep Academy, a school within Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit is a good example of what is possible.

After one year of implementing the Education Achievement Authority’s Student-Centered Learning  model at Southeastern High School, a group of teachers started asking questions:

  • What would happen if we moved beyond the bell schedule so that students could vary the time they spent on each topic, rather than spending the standard 50 minutes per day on each course?
  • What does it mean to have student-centered learning and blended learning in high school? Rather than rotations across stations, are there ways we can use blended learning that is more developmentally and academically aligned with where students are?

The result is PASE Prep Academy.

The first two things you notice walking into PASE is that students are all on task within a college library-like atmosphere. It’s a huge room — they’ve refurbished the media center (it was originally the gym when the school was first built), with long studying-is-serious desks and bookcases around the side.  Students are sitting independently, in teams, or in larger groups, working quietly on adaptive software available through Buzz, the EAA learning platform, reading books, writing, or tucked into a corner settled into bean bags working together on a project. Outside of this main room are study rooms, lecture rooms, and offices for teachers. That’s right – no regular classroom. Students take all their core courses in PASE and take two electives at Southeastern, including science labs.

Southeastern is piloting PASE with 10th-12th graders as they wanted students already familiar with Student-Centered Learning.  Students have to apply to PASE, but that doesn’t mean only the best students get in. The key characteristic they are looking for in a student is that he or she has a well-developed ability to self-manage in an individualized environment. In fact, one of the reasons some students apply is that they need more time to become proficient in one subject and find other subjects much easier. PASE allows them to spend the time during the day where it is most valuable to them. I spoke with one student who was way ahead in the sciences, but lagging in others. He also was the one student that didn’t like using ALEKS for math instruction so would organize a SLO (scheduled learning opportunity) with a teacher when he was starting a new unit.

Not everything is individualized. Teachers organize lectures and groups around how students are progressing. PASE also brings all students together every Monday and Friday. (This is also a technique for helping students from challenging home/community environments prepare for the transition to and back from the weekend).

PASE has 85 students, with approximately 9-10% of the students in special education. They use a full inclusion model and structure student schedules so that regular teachers co-teach with paraprofessionals. In addition, teachers provide special assignments within Buzz to individual students as appropriate.

PASE uses standards-based grading. Students have to have scored at least a 75% on an exam or on a rubric to move on. Ashley Ogonowski, Dean of Instruction, emphasized that students do a lot more work under the 1-4 scale than when they get graded, and they learn to do it right the first time.

Here are a few of my take-aways from PASE:

PASE and Staying On-Track Becomes All Important in High School:  Making sure students are at teacher pace or above is always important.  That’s different from the challenge of getting back on track if you started behind. In high school, this becomes all the more important because the end is in sight. The teachers at PASE talk about PASE, and pacing oneself, a lot with the students and are always looking for new ways to help students learn how to manage their time and effort well, an essential college-ready skill.

There have been challenges. At first, attendance was a problem, until they started using an “exclusionary response,” in which students can’t work at the PASE “campus” if they are late.  Another issue is that some students just start slipping behind because of what is going on with their lives, needing more structure, support and time with teachers.

When to Apply and Assess:  Like all teachers in the SCL environment, teachers plan units, not lesson plans.  Ogonowski suggested that, as students get older, teachers have to think carefully about when to have students apply learning.  It’s less important at every learning target, more important at the end of a unit, and even more important to think about how to assess specific skills when students apply their learning within interdisciplinary, complex problems. Ogonowski explained that, in math, they generally wait until the end of a unit for the assessment.

Voice is Not the Same as Choice: In discussions with teachers, the issue came up that providing choice in Buzz isn’t enough.  In order for students to be college-ready they need to be able to analyze and present ideas – and that requires forming opinions. Yet many of the students are scared to take a stance. They want yes or no questions that allow them to know what is right and what is wrong. Casey Burkhard, an English teacher,  described it as “not having efficacy about the big ideas.” Thus, the school is searching for ways for students to begin to use their own voice. It can start with phrasing learning targets as “I can” statements, and using journals to do daily quick writes and dig into complex issues.  One group had just completed a project on “grit” with readings, TEDTalk videos, surveys, and focus groups. Another teacher was looking at the American Dream, reading Nickled and Dimed, and synthesizing the dynamics of Detroit to its relationship with the inner-ring suburbs.

High School Is About Production:  In a quick and robust conversation with Burkhard, I gained a number of fascinating insights into how Student-Centered Learning changes for older students. She explained that high school English is about production, whereas earlier grades are often about very specific skill building. She is changing the way she works with students and how she uses Buzz to help them learn the skills they need to be strong writers.

  • Becoming Computer Savvy: Students are cellphone savvy, but not computer savvy. Burkhard explained that students need keyboarding skills including the shortcuts in programs (using caps locks for every capital letter instead of shift caps lock, for example), and teaching them various other tech skills, such as how to use Google Drive, Dropbox and the edit capacities in Word.
  • Understanding Where Students Are: Every student keeps a journal. Burkhard herself writes in one to model this behavior to students. After watching a video or reading something, she asks for quick writes, and then the process of revision begins. This helps her see at what levels student’s skills are and how ready they are to use their own voice to express a personal opinion.
  • Word and Peer Review: She has reduced editing and revising student work explaining she would have “bags under my eyes” if she edited every paper every time. Instead, she is teaching students to use Word (think squiggly red lines to denote a misspelled word, and the thesaurus function to build vocabulary) to help them strengthen their work and build better peer editing skills.  When they use track changes, she can see how their skills are building and how their ideas are being refined.
  • Listen and Learn: Conferences with students are about listening. She has students write or explain their writing so that she can see exactly where they are getting tripped up.  The more she learns about what is going on with the student, the better able she is to provide constructive feedback that helps them get to the next level in their skills and development.


Explicit Use of Habits or Professional Competencies:  Whatever you want to call them – non-cognitive, lifelong, habits-of-mind, college-ready or professional competencies–  PASE is thinking hard about integrating skills and dispositions such as respectful, organized, astute, responsible, as well as the concepts of integrity, teamwork, determination, leadership, and strong work ethic into their culture.  They are using badges, or using these concepts to create projects, where students explore the meaning of these competencies.


Compliance Audits Undermine the Innovation:  Ashley Ogonowski, Dean of Instruction, remarked that trying to have the necessary record-keeping to monitor where students are studying, their attendance, and other compliance requirements is challenging. They don’t have bells or concrete schedules. Students are on task but managing how and where they study.

PASE is highly individualized. It definitely reminds you of the schools-without-walls model.  Yet the clear learning progressions made up of explicit standards in a course is a balancing factor, as is the urgency to graduate and get into college. Teachers do organize lectures and group time – it’s a weekly schedule that changes dramatically week to week. It changes in response to student needs.