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Aurora Institute

Chasing Competencies at KM Perform

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the sixth in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Image from the KM Perform website

When Kevin Erickson, now the Director of the KM School of Arts and Performance (or KM Perform for short), and his colleagues started the school six years ago, they wanted to start an arts school. They weren’t thinking about competency-based education. In fact, they hadn’t even heard about it. “We wanted to have interdisciplinary seminars, so we started thinking about organizing them around learning targets or completion targets. These are now what we call competencies,” explained Erickson. He also said, “We started thinking about learning targets as standards and have ended up thinking about them as how we engage students.”

KM Perform, now serving 160 students, is one of three thematic charter schools, each with a different school design, housed on the Kettle Moraine High School campus. KM Perform is organized around the arts with four options for focus areas: art, music, creative writing, and theatre.

The school is organized around the “Big 5” pillars:

  •      Interdisciplinary
  •      Career exploration
  •      Building leadership
  •      Academic excellence
  •      Portfolio

Erickson mentioned that most of the academic domains have embraced these five teaching and learning principles. However, math continues to challenge everyone regarding how to integrate the Big 5 into math seminars and how to integrate math into other seminars.

KM Perform uses a continuum of learning targets to organize learning, not courses. Students participate in three different types of learning experiences that provide opportunity for learning new content, application, and performance.

  • Seminars: Each interdisciplinary seminar runs 4-6 weeks and is used for core academics and the arts. Many seminars end with a performance that is open to the public.
  • Studio Day: Once a week, students have time to work on individual projects and meet with staff, as needed.
  • Workshops: These are short 1-2 week learning experiences on very specific artistic or academic skills. Community members or guest artists are often engaged to work closely with students.

Each of the seminars has a number of learning targets. The accrual of learning targets is how credit is awarded. If students have completed 5 of 11 targets, they have earned a half credit. Complete all 11, and you have a full credit. The demonstration of competencies and and credits is how pace is measured. Erickson emphasized, “No one talks about grades at KM Perform. It’s just about red, yellow, green to indicate progress. Competencies have become the currency.” A student explained, “We focus on what we have learned. Each of us moves on when we complete a competency. On any given day, one student might be finishing a course (a set number of competencies or learning targets) and another student might be starting a new one.” Erickson chuckled when he said, “We’ve created a culture of chasing competencies.” Erickson has created the My Learning Collaborative (myLC) information system to monitor progress in completing learning targets in seminars and credit tracking. Final grades are entered into Infinite Campus.

Click Image to Enlarge

Seminars are structured to be interdisciplinary. Erickson mentioned that 60 percent of the ELA competencies were awarded by non-ELA teachers. The team at KM Perform emphasizes the disciplinary literacy used in each branch of the academic domains.  

Students can develop their own seminars based on internships or traveling. Students can also take non-linear approaches to completing all the competencies. However, there are periodic pre-requisites. For example, students might be able to take an AP Literature seminar without having completed all the earlier competencies in ELA. However, being awarded full credit for an AP Literature course may require students to have completed earlier competencies. They submit their evidence to be scored by teachers.

Erickson also mentioned that they are challenging the idea that one teacher teaches one class. They are looking for staff with unique strengths who can be engaged across their seminars and workshops. They seek out community and artists to be guest teachers.

Evidence of Learning

It’s important to point out that KM Perform’s model doesn’t rely on rubrics. Three years ago, the team at KM Perform decided they wanted a structure that expected students to submit evidence of their learning and skills. History and English requirements are demonstrated through written, musical, dramatic, and/or visual arts-based performances. Evidence of learning in math and science may include structural projects such as sculpture, 2D drawings, or music demonstrations. This approach led to the use of portfolios for both their academic and artistic products. Using a scale of 1-5, the responsibility rests with the teacher to indicate what a 4 or a 5 looks like. Student work that is awarded a 3 isn’t considered proficient. Teachers have a bank of evidence located in Canvas and will show exemplars to use in discussion with students about the level of performance that is demanded.  

Reflection: I’ve heard of similar practices in other very small schools. However, it seems to me that larger schools do need more formal rubrics and processes to calibrate proficiency for performance levels vertically within a school. Or perhaps the future is made up of micro-schools?

Personal Habits of Success

A discussion with three students, Lauren, Emily, and Kate, highlighted the emphasis on goal-setting and helping students build habits of success. The young women explained that ninth graders work closely with staff mentors to help them build this skill. The year starts with goal-setting. What credits are they focusing on? What do they expect to accomplish in the week? What types of supports are they going to need? As students become more adept at goal-setting and implementing the practices that allow them to reach their goals, they begin to focus on short-term and year-long goals.  

Competency-Based Education and the Arts

The art department, with its four mediums, has moved to competency-based education. Whether it is theater, writing, music or art, students are pursuing a pathway that starts with entry level skills and then moves to the foundational level and then to creating an advanced portfolio or AP course, if available. They learn to critique and refine their work. They are continuously revising their work to become proficient in a variety of skills.  

On Legacy and Charter Schools

Erickson raised the point that there were many activities that were similar between the legacy high school (i.e., the traditional comprehensive KM High School) and the personalized learning charters. He explained, “Everyone is using standards and targets. Everyone is looking at assessment to ensure it is aligned with standards. Everyone is thinking about how and when to re-teach when students aren’t mastering the content. However, there is a big difference in who owns the process of learning. In the legacy model, the teacher owns the process of learning. In the personalized learning schools, the students take on substantial ownership, with teachers facilitating, coaching, and periodically providing more instructional support regarding specific skills or content.”

Suggested Resources

Read the Entire Series: