This article, the second in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series, is about how the district has built the consensus for change and is engaging their community. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.
One of the more challenging processes for medium to larger districts (as compared to the small ones that have led the way to competency-based education) is engaging the broader community in building the consensus for change. In general, when it comes to shifting course or introducing new reforms in larger districts, buy-in tends to be the most common strategy used; there is a single or big meeting with community members, presentation of the new idea, opportunity to react – and then it moves quickly into implementation. Engagement means that there are continued opportunities for community members to shape the “what” of competency education and that there are ongoing structures and processes for two-way dialogue. D51’s Superintendent Steve Schultz explains, “We want to move from a ‘decide and defend’ mentality to one in which we gather information to inform a decision before it is made.”
Below are highlights (and we know there is much more to the story than recounted here) of how D51 is building consensus and shaping community engagement.
A Bit of Background
Schultz had been guiding D51 toward personalization since 2006, when the school established three diploma pathways (normal, distinction, and individualized) with the district expanding the number of options and instructional pathways (IB, concurrent enrollment, STEM, Key Performance Program to demonstrate learning through capstones and presentations, and four alternative education programs). The emphasis was on helping students excel just as much as it was on increasing pathways for students who were having problems earning credits, were confronted with challenging life experiences, or had left school for a period of time to complete their diploma.
In 2013, when Schultz began to engage his team in learning about competency education, the communities within the Grand Valley were still challenged by the Great Recession. A region shaped by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry, Grand Junction and the surrounding towns were having difficulty climbing out of the bust. Vast ideological differences had led to relationships becoming increasingly strained between the teachers’ association, administration, and the school board. Schultz remembers, “It became clear to us that we needed to focus on building relationships and finding common ground in order to move the district forward.”
Then two things happened.
From School Board to Learning Board
School boards are the strength and the weakness of our public education system. Public education is rooted in local accountability. Board members live within the communities that the district serves, are (hopefully) in touch with their constituencies, understand the challenges of public education, and are constantly seeking to develop effective high-level strategies to guide their communities. However, we also know that they can be the first step for many with political ambitions or those with representation diminished by the election rules, as well as a place where our nation’s ideological battles can take place.
Recounted to me by Darren Cook, I began to understand that the D51 school board election of 2011 opened the door to creating a “learning board” where members worked together to do what is right for D51 learners and were open to learning from each other’s perspectives, shaping a vision that was beyond any one single political ideology. In this election, what had previously been a board sharing one ideology now became a group of board members bringing together a mix of ideologies. Board members found that they needed to be more collaborative. It wasn’t that the new board members had a better or stronger ideology – it was that it shook up the hold of one way of thinking and opened up opportunities for board members to engage with each other. If we use our color-coded political system, you would describe the board as two reds and three blues all willing to think about shades of purple if that was going to be best for kids.
Cook, then the president of Mesa Valley Education Association, described his first meeting with Jeff Leany, a more conservative board member who had retained his place on the board. Leany understood that the dynamics of the board had changed and emphasized that he did not want to be marginalized. As a business owner and a parent, he cared deeply about his community and public education, and wanted to make his contribution even if the overall strategies for improvement took a new direction. Cook described Leany as “awesome” in his dedication and openness. “I realized Leany also wanted what’s best for kids, but he starts from a different place and a different ideology,” he said. Together, the two began a small study group, giving each other different readings that reflected their views about education, followed by discussion.
It wasn’t just Leany and Cook who were learning. The five board members began a formal study and reflection on how the world was changing. They began to ask themselves, How are we as a community preparing our students for a rapidly changing world? They came to terms with the fact the public education system isn’t broken, it’s obsolete. The internet has made knowledge and information easy to get and find any place and anytime. Jobs are being automated, and the opportunities are in technical occupations. Technology is making the world more customized. It’s opening up new ways to personalize. The global economy is increasing competition for the good jobs. We can’t tolerate our children simply getting through the system; they need to be able to demonstrate mastery so they are fully prepared for college and careers.
The focus of the board shifted from what it thought government shouldn’t do to what it can do.
A Trip to Lindsay
Superintendent Steve Schultz sent a party of four – Cook, Leany, another school board member Greg Mikolai, and Chief Academic Officer Tony Giurado – off to Lindsay, California to see personalized, performance-based learning in action: a model he hadn’t seen himself. I continue to be a bit shocked by this story until I remind myself that this is one of the ways that one demonstrates and builds trust. He trusted this team to be learners, to share and listen to each other’s perspectives, and to bring back their insights without bending them around their own agendas.
Cook, a middle school social studies teacher, recounts his experience. “It was eerie,” he said. “I visited an eighth grade classroom where all the kids were working and engaged. It was hair-raising. I had never been in a classroom where 100 percent kids were on task. There was no behavior to be managed. Every kid could tell me what they were learning and why, how they would know if they had mastered it.” After classroom visits at Lindsay, Cook described Leany’s reaction: He spoke personally about his daughter, challenged by special needs. “This is what my daughter needs,” he said. “This would change her life.”
All four returned from Lindsay and other site visits inspired and excited. After subsequent visits to Lindsay by other teams, Steve Schultz was amused to learn that some board members wanted full implementation by next fall. “Of course the board members wanted to do it now, next year. How do we go about implementing this? I knew we were facing a transformation, not an add-on program. It couldn’t be done next year. We had to set realistic expectations.”
As Schultz jumped on a steep learning trajectory about how to implement performance-based learning and helped the board and district manage expectations and set timelines, it became clear that “everyone was all in.” Two more trips to Lindsay were organized. One had a broad representation of the community, including representatives from Colorado Mesa University (CMU), the owner of the Daily Sentinel, and directors of the Grand Junction Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce. The final site visit was organized for the seven demonstration schools. Over two days, the seven principals and seven teachers were able to engage with peers at Lindsay.
Cook, in reflecting upon this point in time, explained that he was concerned about how to get 1,325 teachers to make the transition. “We’ve all experienced the enthusiasm that accompanies the new educational panacea that is supposed to turn everything around,” he said. “And then the new panacea is introduced the next year. We had just created a high degree of trust between teachers and the school board, but did we want to spend the entire cache right now on performance-based learning?” He continued, “I felt that this time it was going to be different. I knew we were going to have to weather cynicism in public and from people whispering behind our backs that this would never work. I knew that this placed all of us in a vulnerable position. But there wasn’t really any choice after we had seen performance-based learning in Lindsay.”
I’ve heard this phrase before, of not having a choice but to go forward, during other site visits. Often it is described as “moral urgency.” I asked Cook about it. He explained that after visiting a district that had been trying to balance teaching students at their performance levels part of the day with grade-level curriculum the other half (as far as I know, this was a failed experiment, so don’t try it at home) he realized that trying to do P-BL in baby steps, small chunks, halfway, or as hybrids wasn’t going to work. “There are many who don’t realize that delivering grade level curriculum day after day to kids regardless of whether they are learning or not is based on an archaic pedagogy,” he explained. “Many students are harmed by this – they end up thinking that they aren’t smart or give up on school. We know so much more about how students learn today, and our schools should be shaped around it. But if they don’t know that they are doing something harmful, are they really responsible?” He continued, “Once you see personalized, performance-based learning in action, you face a moral question. Are you going to be like Thomas Jefferson who knew that slavery is wrong but kept doing it anyway? Or once you realize that there is a better way to help students learn, are you going to do it, even if you bump up against other parts of the system?” He emphasized, “As a school system, we need to be clear – are we chasing students or test scores? Or trying to do both at once?” (You can listen to Darren Cook yourself on this video.)
The Visioning Process: Respectfully Engaging the Community
Currently, D51 is in the midst of an intentional community engagement process to create three important design nodes (ideas that guide the development of the system and intersect with other ideas and frameworks) for the performance-based system by the end of 2017. First, they are creating a graduate profile that captures the hopes and dreams of what the community wants for their children when they graduate. This profile will be used to help shape the graduation competencies as well as inform the pedagogy and mix of learning experiences students will need over time. Second, they are creating a shared vision that includes embedded metrics that will guide the district. Third, a set of guiding principles will be created that will be used for decision making. This set of work, graduate profile, shared vision, and guiding principles, establishes one of the hallmarks of local control: mutual accountability. The school board is accountable to the community through elections; however, the shared vision creates mutual accountability.
The first set of community engagement sessions, initiated in 2016, invited parents of seventh graders as well as the broader community to respond to the following questions in order to create the graduate profile:
- How has the world changed in 30 years?
- What skills will the future workforce require?
- How well are we preparing students now?
- What can the district do to improve?
D51 built on the Colorado policy requiring districts to establish graduate and workforce guidelines. These sessions were followed by meetings at the high schools with educators, students, and parents and outreach to the Rotary, Chamber, and other community organizations. As we have come to expect, parents and the community are focused on the skills young adults need for life, not just for college or careers. Although still in process, the D51 graduate profile will include social and emotional skills and 21st century skills as well as the important academic skills. Leigh Grasso, Executive Director Academic Achievement, explained, ”Once the graduate profile is completed, it will be a touchstone for everything else we do in designing the performance-based system and learning experiences.”
D51 wanted to make sure that these sessions were respectful and designed to provide the safety community members may need to voice their opinions. Thus, people from the community, such as the Peter Booth, director of the Museum of Western Colorado, were trained as facilitators by Central Mesa University. Schulz explained, “If district staff did the facilitation, the power differential could easily come into play, even if it was only a perception.”
In developing the vision and guiding principles, D51 has brought in Colorado Education Initiative to help facilitate. The vision and mission of the district hadn’t been updated since 1999, so D51 is taking this opportunity to also create a planning process that involves the community throughout the year. In December 2016, the draft vision was presented: Engage, Equip and Empower our learning community today for an unlimited tomorrow.
The first cut (remember, D51 is in the middle of the process) on a graduate profile includes:
- Focused on learning
- Financially literate
- Technology literate
- Competitive in the workforce
- Collaborative, respectful, and willing to share their knowledge
- Contributors to the community
- Learners for life and know that failure is part of life
- Willing to know themselves, have self-awareness, and advocate for themselves
- Courageous and resilient in their pursuit of their goals
- Academically prepared and able to apply their learning for their next pursuit
- Locally and globally aware of cultural issues
- Appreciative of cultural diversity
- Adaptable to constant change
- Able to collect, analyze, and understand data
- Able to critically think and solve problems
At D51, each of the seven demonstration schools are also engaging their community in creating their school’s shared vision. New Emerson Elementary School’s principal Terry Schmalz explained, “It is a powerful process when community members and parents and educators come together to create a shared vision for a school. It took us a year because we wanted rich participation. We don’t do buy-in, we do shared leadership.”
Ongoing Community Engagement with Experiential Learning
Community engagement isn’t simply asking the community to come to district-sponsored meetings. It also requires an ongoing commitment to reach out and go into the community. I attended a meeting with the board of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership where Schultz and members of district leadership explained why there was a need to change and the vision for performance-based learning. There were, of course, the Power Point presentations and the question-and-answer sessions. A highlight was a video developed by D51 students reviewing all the changes that are demanding that we upgrade our education system, ending with a poignant, Who is preparing me to create, thrive, survive, lead, adapt, navigate in this world?
However, the enduring takeaway was the Backwards Bicycle and what it can teach us about the growth mindset. Jacob, a student from R5 High School, an alternative school in the first wave of schools to become performance-based, introduced the growth mindset to the board through the Backwards Bicycle. He pointed out, “The bike looks just like any old bike, but when you turn it left it goes right. When you turn right, it goes left. You have to re-learn everything in order to ride it. Just like when we learn, you have to never give up. It takes a lot of effort to learn to ride it. You think you learn it, then there is a bump in the road, and you forget all that you learn, and you turn the wrong way. It takes weeks and weeks of practice. I can’t ride it…yet. But I will learn.”
Beautifully done, this five-minute presentation included one of the foundation board members saddling up to give the bike a try. Schultz helped us to understand that the growth mindset is an individual practice as well as an organizational one. He explained that in order to move to performance-based learning, “Everyone at D51 is in the process of re-learning. We get locked into certain ways of thinking, but we need to be able to learn how to do it differently.” The Backward Bicycle reminds us that there will be bumps in the road and there will be swerving in the wrong direction periodically when they revert to traditional routines. (Here is the video that introduced D51 to the Backward Bicycle.)
Schultz and his team wanted to make sure that if the foundation board members took away one idea, it would be the power of the growth mindset. One of the board members, a parent, shared her observation, “The growth mindset is changing my daughter’s classroom. They aren’t as hard on themselves. With less pressure they are doing more, trying harder. Teachers are seeing immediate results.”
It’s safe to say that this meeting helped to strengthen support for P-BL in D51 as well as served to catalyze interest in surrounding districts on the Western Slope.
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