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Aurora Institute

Boston Day and Evening Academy: A Learning Organization

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the third post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the first and second posts.

This final post on Boston Day and Evening Academy(BDEA) offers some of the big takeaways and lessons learned from my site visit.

Beatriz Zapater & BDEA student

Process for Designing Competencies: Beatriz Zapater, Head of BDEA, explained that “We always start with the curriculum frameworks. In Massachusetts, the standards feel like a telephone book with long lists of what we expect students to know. We can’t teach a phone book—we don’t have time. So we go in search of the most important ones. Common Core offers anchor standards so that makes it easier.” Alison Hramiec, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, continued by saying, “We ask ourselves three questions: 1) What is essential for all students to know and be able to do in each section of the Common Core?  2) What are the essential components of those skills and knowledge we are asking students to demonstrate?, and, 3) How can we scaffold this learning through the scope and sequence?

Zapater further suggested that “Schools develop a framework of common language around the language used in rubrics (BDEA uses not yet competent, competent, and highly competent), scope and sequence, and extra support. Otherwise it becomes a Tower of Babel, and you risk focusing on things other than student learning.” (See definitions used at BDEA on the wiki.)

Pacing Matters: Zapater was adamant: competency-based education does not mean that students learn at their own pace. She emphasized that, “Kids need structure, accountability, expectations. They need help.” BDEA has weekly check-ins and reports on student progress. They pull together a team from academic review committees, advisors, student support teams, and reading and math specialists as needed, if there are signals that a student needs help regarding attendance or progress. If there are problems, they begin to redirect resources and engage the family and the student.

Another thing about BDEA that truly helped me change is the competency-based system of education. It gave me a chance to work at my own pace and not stress over grades. As I shed the anger and stress, I began to find that I truly liked learning. In history class, as I learned about racism, slavery, and the U.S. Civil War I began to understand my own history.– Alexis J. Small from Fall 2010 Newsletter

Attendance:  Zapater explained that they changed their policy about attendance a few years ago. At first, the school had an assumption that students had complicated lives and that a policy of “drop in/drop out” provided necessary flexibility. Over time, they began to question this policy as it relieved the school of financial and moral responsibility.

So, a new policy was put into place regarding attendance. In the first year, 70 percent of students rose to the expectations and the remaining 30 percent were placed on academic leave. Zapater said that it allowed the school to really hone in on what was going on with the students who had chronic absenteeism. “It was a signal to us that they needed more help. Some needed help in accessing stable day care; some had such deep levels of depression that they weren’t functional, so we found them counseling; some were working so much they were exhausted; and some really just wanted a GED and to be done with school. This helped us strengthen our student support services and told us we need to create more options—so we expanded the online capacity. We now can serve fifty students through our online program.”

Now teachers and students share an understanding that coming to school  (or participating online) is part of building the skills for the future, as well as how teachers are able to assess learning.

Continuous Improvement: BDEA embodies learning. There are signs of people finding joy in learning everywhere. All of the students I spoke to could talk about their transformation in seeing themselves as students and valuable members of a community, their strengths and weaknesses in different subjects, and the challenges they face in reaching their goals (everyone mentioned trying to find money for college). Teachers are proud to be at BDEA; the fall newsletter highlights what they did and what they learned during the summer, and it displays their humility in how they want to be even better.

Hramiec captured the quality at BDEA by saying, “What is unique here is that we are responding to student needs. Innovation comes from constantly responding to the staff and the students.” An example of this can be found in the scope and sequence of Algebra 1. Originally they had four modules, until they realized that they were teaching middle school geometry. So the math team came together and increased the modules in algebra and in geometry, to make sure that students were being fully prepared.

One technique BDEA uses as a mechanism to trigger school-wide reflection is through a vibrant instructional leadership team comprised of lead teachers and student support staff.  The ILT is responsible for leading three retreats a year to look at school data and discuss ways to improve practice.  In addition, each year BDEA selects an essential question for staff to learn together, revisit the curriculum, and engage their creativity. Essential questions have included “How does evidence influence the way we think?” and “What does it mean to stand for something?”

Experiential Learning: There are multiple options to integrate experiential learning into a school. BDEA is very strategic in how it draws on experiential education through the Symposium, Capstone, and classroom projects. In the spring 2009 newsletter it explains that “At BDEA, experiential education is one of the foundations of our competency-based system. All teachers work to include students in the experience of learning in all of their subjects, including Math and Technology. With a committed teacher who understands the importance of awakening the students to the habit of learning, finding experiential opportunities is limited only by the imagination.” (BDEA Spring 2009 Newsletter)

Built-In Transitions: We know that we lose students during transitions—transitions to new schools, transitions to new courses if students have gaps in skills, and certainly in transitions to post-secondary work and education. BDEA knows this and has built-in points and processes to ensure effective transitions. It starts with an in-depth orientation and transformative seminar. Teachers create flexibility at the end of each semester to review benchmarks and determine how to help any struggling students. Transfer windows allow students two weeks to complete all work if they want to progress to the next course. Those that don’t are not enrolled in the next level course so that they can focus on mastering the skills. Additionally, BDEA offers nine-month transitional support to students to help them balance college, work, and family responsibilities.

Student Support Services: As described previously, BDEA is designed to help the staff to get to know and understand their students. This is consistently applied to educators, as well as to the student support team. The student support team members become acquainted with the new students during orientation. They facilitate gender groups, and they stand ready to address any issues that may arise.

Building relationships with students is particularly important because so many of the students have experienced traumatic events, as in many schools across our nation. Zapater explained how they approach shaping a trauma-informed school culture. “It is important to have clear structure and fairness. For example, if a student is showing signs of substance abuse, they are sent home. However, we also offer to help them manage situations and get the help they need.  We focus on developing new habits and ways to adapt to threatening situations. We create an environment where they can be aspirational. We want to activate resiliency and prevent them from internalizing when they are struggling with something. Paying attention to how students are coping with challenges is part of our school culture.”

I’m working on Algebra right now. They gave me credit for Algebra A because I had learned it before. So I started with B in class. Then I tested out of C because once I started doing B, I remembered more of it. Then I did Algebra D online. I’m working on Algebra E now —sometimes faster, sometimes slower. —J.C.

Student support isn’t just about social-emotional issues. BDEA organizes its staff to help students who are struggling with skills and to provide transitional support. Numeracy and literacy specialists are available and are working with those students who are entering with elementary level skills immediately. A transition coordinator starts working with students in their last year and stays in touch for the following nine months after graduation.


BDEA has designed a powerful learning pathway for students. Every student I spoke with referred to what they learned in Seminar.  Each one spoke about how competency education made it “easy” because it was so clear what their next steps are for their learning. Most importantly, each student had a clear sense of efficacy as a learner.

You can find resources from BDEA at the wiki.


Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.