How does competency education work in small, rural K-12 schools?
When I first started reading about Chugach School District five years ago, I just didn’t get it. After spending much of my adult life in New England, rural meant a small town an hour away from another small town. When I moved to New Mexico, Landon Mascareñaz (now at Denver Public Schools) insisted I join him on a road trip into the northwestern corner to understand the dynamics of serving Native Americans in rural areas. The expanses of land and sky between each town were staggering. So was the realization that rural and remote schools had to balance being deeply community-based (valuing the cultures, communities, and assets surrounding them) with the need to expand students’ horizons.
My personal horizons expanded tremendously about what remote means on my trip to Chugach School District. I first realized that I was on the edge of my comfort zone as I accompanied Debbie Treece, Special Education Director, on a trip to the Whittier Community School (WCS).
Our trip took us through the seemingly never-ending darkness of the one-way-at-a-time Anderson Tunnel (the second longest tunnel in North America) to Whittier. On the snowy day of our trip, Debbie looked at the thermometer in her car and said, “We’ll have to wait here for twenty-five minutes until it’s our turn to drive through the tunnel. The doors to the tunnel are opened only for five minutes at a time when it drops below freezing, because the moose find it makes a warm and comfortable shelter. As you can imagine, traffic is unmanageable when you are sharing a one-way road with a family of moose.”
With that kind of introduction, you’d have thought I’d be prepared for what waited at the end of our journey. But as we entered the harbor town of Whittier, which was an active Army port until 1960, my jaw dropped. The town seemed to end as soon as it started, bordered by Prince William Sound and circled by steep mountains. Eighty percent of the residents live in the one towering high rise. The school, tucked behind the apartment building, has three certified teachers who serve approximately thirty-five PreK-12 students in a town of about 300 (in the non-tourist season).
The concept of a remote school district really took hold when Doug Penn, District Principal, and I flew over the never-ending craggy mountaintops of the Chugach National Forest and then down into the beautiful village of Tatitlek, tucked away in Prince William Sound. Off the road system, Tatitlek is an Alutiiq community of 100, with around ten to sixteen PreK-12 students enrolled at any given time. Due to limited time, and access only via charter airplane to CSD’s school in Chenega Bay, I was unable to visit this time around, but hope to in the future.
CSD also serves homeschoolers who may live in one of the three urban areas (Anchorage, Juneau, or Fairbanks), in the far-away corners of the arctic tundra, on one of the 2000+ islands, or amidst the five cloud-touching mountain ranges.
How Chugach’s Performance-Based System Supports Students and Teachers in PreK-12 Schools
The CSD schools aren’t exactly one-room schoolhouses. There are several classrooms, gyms that double as theaters and community rooms, and laptops for students once they reach Level 4 in all content areas. Yet, the small team of teachers are prepared to work with all students, at all levels, around all the content areas – just like the teachers in one-room schoolhouses.
Why Performance-Based Education (PBE) Makes Sense for Rural Schools
Competency education, or what Chugach describes as performance-based education (PBE) makes sense for small, rural schools because it enables personalization and student ownership. Teachers can become facilitators of learning much more easily when students know what is expected of them and can learn at a pace that makes sense for them.
It also enables creativity in the design of instruction and how students demonstrate their learning, allowing teachers and students to take advantage of place-based learning. The size of rural remote schools can also be an asset, as they can be much more flexible about taking advantage of learning opportunities as they arise. For example, Andrea Korbe, a school board member living in Whittier, described how one day the entire school rushed to the harbor after a fisherman caught a live octopus. Although that may have not been one of the standards students were working on that day, the real-life scenario enriched their experience and could be returned to when students began to learn about biology and environmental sciences.
The Chugach PBE has also eliminated the structure of courses, organizing learning by ten content areas and levels. This also allows more flexibility for teachers and learners, as standards can be easily organized into interdisciplinary projects and units rather than forcing the work across the broader course structures.
Generalist Teachers in a Performance-Based Education System
Chugach School District schools are all designed to be PreK-12, with a small cadre of teachers serving students at all levels. Teachers are generalists, perhaps with a preference or skills in one discipline or another, usually with qualifications for elementary or high school.
Every teacher has a story to tell about how they were weaker in one area or another when they started, and how they’ve been slowly building up their skills since then. In the meantime, they know they can depend on each other for help with this skill-building, as well as for working with individual students who need extra help. Ashley Reeves at TCS remarked, “In your first year, you have to be ready to ask for help and cling to anyone who is willing.” Her colleague, Nichole Palmer, confirmed this. “Your team is key. We capitalize on all of our strengths.”
In a school with student empowerment at its core, being a generalist isn’t a weakness. Jed Palmer, head teacher at TCS, explained, “School culture is important if you are going to have a team of generalists. In our schools, teachers are learning along with the students. We do not position ourselves as experts. In fact, when we don’t know something, it creates the opportunity for us to role model continuous learning by saying ‘let’s go find out together.’”
Doug Penn emphasized, “Once we became performance-based, the teacher retention rates shot up. Performance-based approaches encourage collaboration. It helped us to create the conditions to pursue professional development. We support our staff as they pursue Master’s degrees in special education, become highly qualified in additional areas, and get administrative certificates.” For example, CSD has been expanding the number of teachers that are highly qualified in math.
The teacher/performance evaluation process (referred to as PEP) is designed to reflect the fact that teaching staff are generalists. “Our teacher evaluation emphasizes the process of teaching, not content,” Penn said. Yet, the investment in professional development helps to rapidly expand the skills of teachers. Jed Palmer noted, “No one is going to be a rock star in all areas and all levels right in their first year teaching. Start in one area and get comfortable. I was comfortable with social studies when I started and passionate about math. So I worked on math for two years. After ten years at CSD, I am highly qualified in all subjects.”
The size of the district means that when hiring, superintendent Bob Crumley and Penn think about the whole organization. They ask themselves how they can strengthen the district’s capacity as well as individual schools. Penn emphasized, “We don’t hire teachers, we hire members of a team. We don’t want people to compartmentalize. We want them to work with their colleagues to develop interdisciplinary projects. We want people who value being part of a team.”
Expanding Experiences: CSD has created the Voyage to Excellence (VTE), a variable-term residential school (variable-term is a design that aligns with Alaska Native Culture as opposed to the historical boarding school design that was harmful to Alaska Native and Native American cultures and communities) to create opportunities for students to apply what they have been learning to real-life situations. The program also strengthens life skills (CSD refers to these as Personal/Social/Service standards), helps students become familiar with urban life, enhances career development, and prepares students for the transition from high school to their lives – whether that be in urban areas, in their communities, or in college.
In addition to career certificates earned at the VTE School, students in all CSD schools have opportunities to earn dual college credits. “Today, students who graduate with a diploma ‘plus’ are a step closer to the success they seek,” says Bob Crumley. “Achieving higher graduation rates is an important goal, but providing individual students with opportunities to also earn industry certificates and college credits while they are earning their diploma has become increasingly important to us.”
Stephanie Burgoon, VTE’s head teacher, and Patrick Hecker, VTE Logistics Support, explained, “We use the very same content standards that the schools use. We review where students are in the AIMS information management system before they arrive. We start with where they are in their Personal/Social/Service, Career Development, and Culture & Communication standards. We also look to see if there are specific academic skills that can be applied and bolstered during their time here. As they demonstrate their skills, we use the same processes to assess and determine if they are ready to advance to the next level. It’s seamless for the students and the teachers.”
The program starts with First Trek, a four-day leadership program for sixth to ninth graders. There are then a series of Phases for high school students that range from six to twelve days for ninth and tenth graders, and ten to fifteen days for older students. The Phases are designed around themes such as STEM, career exploration, and skill-building in areas such as culinary arts or wilderness first responders. It’s My Life is for students who are in Level 7 Career Development and Personal/Social/Service (CSD organizes content area standards into levels, not age grades or courses) to strengthen independent living skills such as financial literacy, opening a bank account, developing a career and college plan, creating health plans, living and working with others, and getting a drivers license. VTE has a range of other programming that includes post-secondary preparation, career exploration, and building marketable skills.
VTE is a hallmark of the CSD program as it is designed around the “whole teen” and the comprehensive set of skills students need to be successful after high school. As Penn described it, “We are acting as a slingshot for our students. As they enter high school, there is a momentum of preparing them for lifelong learning. The real-life experiences deepen and intensify to ensure they are ready for the transition from high school to life.” Although it may not be right for every rural district, certainly collaborating with other districts or non-profit partners would be possible to systematically expand opportunities.
Expanding to Course Access: One of the current focus areas for continuous improvement is to create more capacity in the district for students to advance beyond the graduation requirements. In addition, CSD wants to be able to offer more opportunity for students to participate in high interest learning. One example is the partnership with Copper River School District, which significantly expanded access to online courses.
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Penn cautioned, “It doesn’t help to have CSD categorized as remote, as it allows people to say, ‘We aren’t like you, so therefore performance-based education won’t work for us.’ We have to point out that there are fundamental commonalities. We all serve students. CSD just happens to serve students all over the state. Personalized, performance-based education can work in any district.”