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Aurora Institute

Casco Bay High School: Tips and Takeaways

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

Casco Bay HSThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the first of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Tips and Takeaways (Part 1), Learning as Exploration (Part 2), The What and HOW of Learning, and We Will Shape our School by our Learning (Part 4).

I am so glad I had a chance to visit Casco Bay High School. I learned so much, and there is so much more to be learned from the incredible set of educators. I know the visit will continue to influence my thinking and understanding of proficiency-based learning along the way. Thanks to all the staff and students for sharing their stories and insights.

Two Big Takeaways

1. Putting it All Together: One of the things you can’t help asking yourself while visiting this school is, “How do they do all of this?”

I think the answer can be found in a few things. First, they are very clear about what they want for students and the strategies that will work best to get them there. Everything feels intentional and driven by clear principles. Second, there is a strong culture of learning. As one staff person said, “We are always under construction. We are always trying new things.” Third, there are strong rituals. Those rituals reinforce the culture, reinforce values, and often contain a number of activities wrapped together. Fourth, principal Derek Pierce uses a distributed leadership model. He is very comfortable engaging others in decision-making. A teacher remarked that few decisions are made by Pierce without substantial input. In fact, when they started the transition to proficiency-based learning, all the teachers were part of the leadership team. Now that they are operational, the leadership team is smaller, with one representative from each of the teams and one at-large representative. However, they still use protocols to make decisions that ensure input and participation. Finally, they all share in the joy of learning.

2. The Power of the HOW: Casco has created a balance of a number of principles that have contributed to a sophisticated use of HOW (habits of work). Just think about it – Habits of Work are HOW we learn. First, they are dedicated to making sure students can participate (a good principle for anyone interested in creating an equitable culture). Second, they want to make sure students have ownership over their learning and have the skills to succeed. Third, they want to make sure everyone succeeds.

In ensuring students can participate and get more time for learning, they each have to demonstrate a 3 on the Big 3. The focus is on making sure students are putting in the effort, not whether they have mastered every skill or standard.

This got me to thinking: The GPA is supposed to be a powerful predictor of college success because it indicates that students put in the effort. It’s not much of an indicator of what you know, as schools have offered such a wide variety of content in their courses. Couldn’t we replace the GPA with the HOW? Couldn’t a 3 or more indicate that you have built the necessary skills to be an independent learner?

Eight Helpful Tips

Staff were so generous with their advice, recommendation, and insights. A group of schools were visiting from Chicago, and I tried to capture a number of the tips that were shared throughout the day.

#1 Embrace Your Growing Pains

The teachers had a lot of valuable advice for getting started in building a proficiency-based system. It was repeatedly emphasized that the growth mindset is just as important for teachers as it is for students. Create an open door culture so teachers can visit each other’s classrooms. Celebrate learning and small achievements along the way – like designing an interdisciplinary course or a new rubric for a HOW. Principals have a key role in making sure the culture is safe for learning – teachers need to know that no one is out to “get them” and that they will not be penalized for making mistakes. One staff person said, “Be ready to embrace your growing pains. Everyone is going to contribute along the way. We are going to try things and it isn’t the end of the world if they don’t work.”

#2 Start with the Target

Principal Derek Pierce said that the proficiency-based system starts with setting learning targets. They have four type of learning targets: long-term (course or year), short-term (units), daily, and HOWs. They think deeply about the long-term targets so that they are highly engaging students. Short-term and daily targets need to be concrete enough for students to understand what is expected of them and how they will be able to demonstrate their learning. It’s as much science as a fine art to craft the learning targets for a course. Pierce explained, “Targets have ramifications for teachers and students. They represent the rigor you are hoping to see. We focus on targets every class every day. Targets will always gets you moving in the right direction.”

#3 Learn to Use Rubrics, not Write Them

Kevin Murray, a long-time teacher at Casco, strongly emphasized that when a teacher spends five years writing rubrics, it is an “Intellectual culture gone wrong.” What is important is to learn to use them and to help students learn how to use them. He suggested to pick one to start with so teachers can build up their skill in how to use them. As teachers better understand how to use them, it will be much easier to write along the way.

#4 Verbs Matter

A related issue is that as a school builds up their capacity in proficiency-based learning, they will soon realize that verbs matter. The Expeditionary Learning coaches remind teachers, “Don’t put the verb in the rubric unless you are really going to assess. If you say analyze, then make sure you are assessing that.”

#5 Make the Net Tighter

There were lots of conversations during the day about how to provide adequate support to students. Casco has students transferring in with big gaps and missing credits. They have students who are refugees from Africa and students with huge challenges in their lives. One staff person described their strategy as, “Sometimes you need to make the net tighter. The higher the challenges and the risk that students are going to stumble, the tighter the net.”

#6 Hire Good Colleagues

Casco pays attention to the strength of the community of the staff as well as that of the students. They spend time on team-building and creating a baseline of collaboration and trust. As one teacher said, “The silly games we play remind us that we are all fallible. It reminds us that our goal is to teach kids. We aren’t always going to be experts.” Other staff explained that when they hire new staff, they look for people who love students, who love teaching, and who are going to be good, collaborative colleagues.

#7 One Paper at a Time

Casco has a strong humanities focus with lots of interdisciplinary courses between social studies and ELA. Teachers said that calibration starts with “swapping one paper at a time.” Just beginning that process, of seeing how different teachers would score a paper and the powerful conversation afterwards, helps to build the schoolwide understanding of proficiency on the way to college and career readiness.

#8 Deadlines Matter

Just as pace matters in proficiency-based learning, so too do deadlines matter. One teacher at Casco explained, “If you say, ‘when you are ready, you will submit your work,’ the kids will say, ‘that means never.’” We have deadlines. Students need them to be able to organize their work. However, if a student doesn’t meet a deadline, they don’t lose points on their academic grades. What it does do is opens up a conversation about the HOWs and/or whether a student needs more support in their learning.

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