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Aurora Institute

APEX Academy: A Diploma Plus School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

173339Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit with Alfonzo Paz, Assistant Principal at  Academic Performance Excellence Academy, better known as APEX Academy.

APEX is co-located in a large high school in East Hollywood with 330 students from a mostly Latino community with pockets of Armenian, African-American and Asian families. APEX is a Diploma Plus (DP) school, a model developed over 15 years ago. Interestingly, APEX, a charter school, started as a district-run school, but budget cuts began to impact the quality of their school — not so much because of reduced resources but because they ended up with teachers that didn’t share the vision of competency education. The underlying issue was with union policy that gave teachers the right to teach the way they want. How could they have a competency-based school if teachers refused to be competency-based in their instruction, assessment and grading?

I first learned about competency education when I was a program officer at the Mott Foundation during a site visit to one of the earlier DP schools (you can read more about Diploma Plus in Making Mastery Work). So I was thrilled to learn about how Diploma Plus had advanced during my visit to APEX.  DP is designed to work in a variety of educational settings depending on the focus, mission and need of the school or program. I’ve seen it mostly in alternative schools serving over-age and undercredit students.  However, APEX is what I call an “inclusive” high school – it is set up as a regular four-year high school but enrolls students no matter what their educational experience, including re-enrolling after dropping out. Here are a few of the highlights of my visit:

Structure: The DP model doesn’t have age-based grades. Instead it has three phases –  Foundation, Presentation, and, Plus. The Foundation phase is focused on getting students skills up to 10th grade level as many start with gaps in skills as far back as 4th or 5th grade.  Paz explained that APEX had split Presentation Phase into two sections as students were coming from so far behind and needed a sense of progress. Presentation is focused on helping students build up a portfolio of the work emphasizing performance tasks and assessments. Students in the Plus Phase participate in internships, college courses, and community action projects in order to support their successful transition to life after high school.

Personalized, Individual Paths to Graduation: APEX, like other DP schools, is a highly personalized model that takes into consideration where students are in terms of their skills and credits and creates individual plans to help them advance and graduate based on a pace that is meaningful to their lives. Some students take longer than 4 years (California provides funding but doesn’t include extended graduation rates in their accountability system). Others take shorter amounts of time. Paz mentioned that each year several girls graduate in less than three years because they feel obligated to start working as soon as possible to support their family or from a desire to get out of situations that aren’t safe for them.

Four Essentials:  The DP model has ‘four essentials” that are woven together:

Performance-Based System: At DP schools students learn at their own pace and are placed, promoted and graduate based on demonstrated learning rather than seat time. Paz explained that in designing APEX they selected DP because of the competency-based approach, “It allows me to have a dialogue with kids in a way that I have never had before.  They can show me their knowledge.”

  • Knowledge Taxonomy: DP uses the Revised Bloom’s taxonomy to target the depth of knowledge.  Most students are working to catch up, building up skills to mid-level ranges on the taxonomy, then working on projects in each course to apply that learning more deeply. APEX organizes lots of opportunities for students to apply the learning in the community, allowing them to develop leadership skills, extend their networks and horizons along the way.
  • Scoring and Grading: DP’s scoring system recognizes five levels on the way to demonstrating proficiency — advanced, proficient, bridging, emerging, and no evidence.  Paz emphasized that students demand transparency once they are introduced to a competency-based system, asking for the competencies and rubrics when they start new courses.
  • DP Net: DP has created an extensive information system that supports professional development, aggregates competency-based curriculum and rubrics, and provides the information system for tracking student progress.  Students can submit assignments online as well as manage their e-portfolios.

Supportive School Culture: DP schools have an extremely supportive culture that is developed through relationship-building activities and deeply-rooted school norms that nurture diversity and inclusiveness. APEX expects its teachers to have relationships with students, organizing kickball tournaments and once a month student-teacher lunches to make sure the ice is broken and stays broken. The relationships are forged around a commitment that “we are not going to give up on you.” Tutoring is available every day between 3-4 pm and parents can come in as well any day to talk with teachers.

Mr. Paz embodied this culture with his huge heart and absolute love and respect for the students. Students at APEX know they can walk up to any teacher for help. They also have advisers who are the go-to person for students in academic or personal distress.  APEX manages multiple relationships with social service organizations to make sure they can access more intensive support and interventions for students when they need it. Pax told me story after story of how APEX stretches itself to support students including one student that at age 18 with a juvenile justice record who wanted desperately to go to college. He had tried to enroll in five other high schools without success before finding his way to APEX.  Two years later he has been promised a full-ride to Emerson on the condition of finishing two years of community college.

Future Focus: Diploma Plus schools stress post-secondary awareness, career development and civic engagement. APEX builds much of this into the Plus Phase, however, students begin their planning for the future they minute they enter the school. Mr. Paz described how he transitioned from middle school to high school because it was so important for students to have “a college dream.” Resources are dedicated at APEX to provide support for 4 years after graduation to students as they navigate the labor market, higher education, and increased demands from family.

Effective Supports for Schools: Diploma Plus schools emphasize support to students, teachers and principals. DP offers a range of services that helps schools more easily manage converting to competency education. DP offers its schools a well-developed competency education system including structure, knowledge taxonomy, curriculum, grading systems, and an information system. Paz described the benefit of the DP network in helping APEX accelerate the development of teachers so that they are comfortable, or should I say proficient, in competency education. It also provides a quality control mechanism in which DP coaches review performance tasks and assessments developed by teachers before they are implemented.


I really can’t capture all of what Mr. Paz taught me in those three hours in a blog –It’s a conversation that has stayed with me to this day and I’ll be forever grateful.