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Aurora Institute

Chugach School District’s Performance-Based Infrastructure

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments, Learn Lessons from the Field

2 hydroponics class
Students in Chugach School District

This is the second post in the Chugach School District series. Read the first post here.

I’ve noticed that in the first year of transitioning to a competency-based system, schools often dive headfirst into creating the competencies and rubrics without thinking about the pedagogical platform upon which the entire infrastructure is going to rest. What could be a powerful discussion among educators about what we want students to learn and be able to do can quickly become a bureaucratic process eating up reams of paper.

Not so at Chugach. The spirit of empowerment, student ownership of their learning, and a shared understanding that the schools are preparing students for life, not just graduation, permeated every conversation. Absolutely every conversation.

This post, although long, will cover four elements of the Chugach performance-based system: student empowerment, a system of assessments, the domains of learning (content areas), and preparing students for life. 

The Spirit of Empowerment and Lifelong Learning

Zack, a sophomore who had just moved to Whittier in the fall, described his experience as, “This school opens up our minds. We were brainwashed in the previous schools. We were not used to so much independence. We had so many limits and boundaries. Here, the sky is the limit.”


The focus on student empowerment in CSD is as much rooted in the culture and the relationships as it is in the structure. There seemed to be less transparency and reinforcement in terms of having everything students need to know posted on the walls of the classroom. Yet, the rituals and routines were crystal clear, and students were on task in every classroom I visited at Whittier and Tatitlek. With the older students, I often had the sense I was observing a high-quality youth development program, as the relationships between the teachers and students were so strong and so respectful.

Debbie Treece, Director of Special Education, believes that the growth mindset is an important ingredient to creating a culture of empowerment. “We are heavily steeped in growth mindset. I didn’t know how important it was in the beginning, but we are now at the point where staff understand that students must have a growth mindset to take on ownership and for continuous learning to occur. The research on brain science and how the brain changes as you learn is fascinating to both students and teachers. In fact, learning about brain science and growth mindset has been the catalyst for change for some teachers. It’s now institutionalized in our work.”

District Principal Doug Penn explained, “In traditional schools, students are passive, and many only attend school because it is compulsory. Or they come with the expectation that the school delivers the knowledge. However, information is now so readily at hand, teachers can’t be the disseminators of knowledge. Our community told us they wanted their children to be lifelong learners. We had to ask ourselves, what are we doing in our classrooms to help them be lifelong learners? What structures and supports do our teachers need to help develop lifelong learners? It came down to needing to have an active learning environment. Students need to be able to seek out things they are personally interested in, create a plan, and find the resources. We are always looking for ways to students to learn beyond the classroom.”

Penn referred to a Ted Talk by Dan Meyer that has sharpened his thinking about the relationship between active learning, deeper learning, and empowering students to take ownership of their learning. “If we want our students not to be helpless, we need to help less. We want to create thinkers who can critically work their way through a problem.”   

The community is also always looking for opportunities for expanded learning. Andrea Korbe, a school board member from Whittier, described coming into the school one day to find the entire place empty. An employee in the harbor noticed that a fisherman had brought up a live octopus and called the school to alert them of this learning opportunity. Similarly, a waitress meeting an astronaut who was part of training happening in the area asked if he would be willing to meet with students, and a partnership with NASA was born.

The structures of empowerment at Chugach are similar to those of other competency-based schools I’ve visited. Students know exactly what they are learning and what proficiency looks like. The information management system is close to real-time and is accessible by students and their parents. Process skills help students become aware of how they are learning. Students write reflections as part of the cumulative assessment used as they move to the next level. A culture of cooperation among students and a recognition of mistakes as part of the learning process support students taking risks. Penn noted that they are embedding the PIER (Plan, Implement, Evaluate, and Refine) process, which is used in classes to help students learn skills to manage their learning. Individualized learning plans are also available, described by Treece as, “scaffolding, and then stripping away a little bit of the safety net on the way to independent learning.”

A large part of the focus on lifelong learning is a strong future focus. CSD includes career development as one of their ten content areas of learning. They’ve created Voyage to Excellence (VTE), a statewide variable-term residential school, based at the district offices. (The use of the term variable is in response to the negative experiences that Alaska Natives had with boarding schools that took them away from their families and communities and were often disrespectful of their culture and language.) Students come for varying amounts of time. The first “trek” for seventh and eighth graders is four days of leadership training, followed by ten-day phases of career exploration or skill building. As students get older, they might come for twenty to thirty days to get a driver’s license, industry certifications, or college prep.

Treece shared that an example of student empowerment is the development of the Personal Learning and Career Plan (PLCP) by the student and CSD staff, with support from the family, as needed. The PLCP provides a framework to identify steps necessary to achieve career goals of interest to the student. Career Navigators with the VTE School provide support and guidance to the student as progress is made in completing each step towards each career goal. Students are empowered to complete postsecondary applications, internship opportunities, and apply for apprenticeships in preparation for life after high school.

A System of Assessing

Penn currently has oversight over the three schools, the statewide homeschool program, and the VTE School. He started as a teacher in Chenega Bay in 1996 and knows the CSD performance-based system inside and out. As he spoke about assessing students, I began to think we should talk about how we assess students and how we use assessments to help them learn before we even we talk about how we design competencies, standards, and learning targets. Penn reinforced this with, “We need to always know the purpose of assessment. It is to help students and the teacher understand what students know and what they don’t know, and to provide insights into the steps that are needed to learn it. Too often, assessment is used as a hammer and a gateway. For us, we see it as a process of helping students get from don’t know to knowing.”

CSD uses a common scoring (grading) system with Emerging, Developing, Proficient, and Advanced. Reaching 80 percent on an assessment indicates proficiency and 90 percent is advanced. Of course, determining what 80 percent means requires calibration among teachers.

CSD focuses on content and process skills. Penn explained why this was important, “We all have great ideas, we all have passion about one thing or another. But that doesn’t mean we have the skill set to bring ideas to fruition. We want to make sure our students are learning the skills to make things happen. It’s not by magic. And it’s not just engaging students. You have to teach process strategically and systematically. You need the combination of the process and content skills to get to deeper learning.”

To help them stay focused on where students are in their learning, CSD has created up to ten levels for ten content areas that do not correlate to grade level knowledge. Students were perfectly comfortable reporting where they were in grade level and in the content levels. Before a student moves onto to the next level there is a cumulative assessment based on up to three assessments. The first, described as the analytical assessment, is the student’s reflection on his or her learning. Second, there is a skill assessment that focuses on the specific content. The third, a performance assessment, is often co-designed with students. In this assessment, they show evidence of their ability to apply their skill. (For example, in writing, it might be a portfolio of writing samples from different classes.)  

As students progress within the levels, there is a great deal of flexibility for students and teachers alike in how they learn and how they are assessed. However, CSD also thinks this is a very important process and tracks it within the AIMS information system that they had built to meet their unique needs. As you can see below, there is a range in terms of the depth of learning and independence of students in how they learn and demonstrate their learning within a level:

  • Direct Instruction: Student demonstrated proficiency through Direct Instruction followed by an instructor-generated, skills-based assessment
  • District Assessment: Student demonstrated proficiency on a District Assessment such as Reading, Math, or Science
  • Performance Task: Student demonstrated proficiency on the scoring guide above during a 2-3 day integrated, multi-grade instructional unit
  • Thematic Unit: Student demonstrated proficiency on the scoring guide above during a 2-5 week integrated, multi-grade instructional unit
  • Individual Learning Plan: Student demonstrated proficiency on the scoring guide above by accomplishing goals on the Individual Learning Plan (ILP’s are ways that students take even more responsibility for their learning by organizing how they are going to learn and demonstrate knowledge on high interest topics)

I was having a bit of difficulty wrapping my head around all of this until Treece pointed out that teachers had a great deal of autonomy to assess student’s within a level. “We think it is important that students have the opportunity to apply what they are learning and pursue thematic units. Through AIMS, we are able to view how students are demonstrating their learning. We also believe that teachers must have the autonomy to make informed judgments about instructional strategies and the assessments used.”

Doug Penn 2
Doug Penn

This discussion on professional judgment continued later with Penn as he explained, “The traditional system wants to treat all the students the same way. Why is it that we trust doctors to diagnose patients, but not expect teachers to be able to prescribe strategies to help students learn? We need to trust the professional judgment of our teachers in a personalized school environment to know where students are in their learning, assess how they are progressing, and develop strategies. Empowering teachers and providing them with the authority to use their professional judgment and to draw on the expertise of their colleagues is the only way to respond to the individual needs of students.”

Erika Thompson, a teacher at Whittier, explained, “We are supported in developing our skills as teachers and in using our professional judgment. Our colleagues support us, as does the district. As teachers, we are always learning, and there is always someone available to help.” Penn explained that the district wants to “create conditions for professional judgment to be used and developed. We can’t just say to teachers ‘Be autonomous.’ Our new teachers are mentored by other teachers, and we take advantage of the state mentoring program.” (In fact, Judy Youngquist, a state mentor who accompanied us on the trip to Tatitlek for a two-day consultation with a new teacher, brought her own food and prepared to sleep on the floor at the school.)

Treece walked me through the customized information management system, AIMS, which CSD developed to support their students, parents, teachers, and management team. Treece explained that they couldn’t find anything off the shelf. All the systems were designed around compliance data, but nothing was available for tracking learning. They tried a few products but outgrew their capabilities, so they eventually had to create a customized web-based system.

Like everything else at CSD, student learning is the core of the system. It’s easy to see what level students are in their progress along the ten domains. Teachers can also look at their students and see how students are progressing within the level. There are dates about which type of instruction and assessment were used in students demonstrating proficiency as well as notes from the teachers.

The team at CSD is finding that they are starting to encounter new growing pains. Treece explained, “We don’t want to wait until high school to identify students who are having trouble in school. We are designing reports to help us understand what is going on within schools and across the district to be more responsive.” They’ve designed “pivot reports” to see how students are progressing within content areas. They are also using “struggling student” reports that identify students who have been stagnant in their progress, students who are below grade level proficiency, and data on how far behind they are. The district is also beginning to think about what would be the important data on a dashboard, including current information to help monitor if balanced instructional models are being utilized (direct instruction, performance tasks, thematic, and real life application).

Designing Structures Around Students, Their Communities, and Their Lives

CSD’s goals for their students is captured in their mission: …empowering students to meet the needs of the ever changing world in which they live. Students shall posses the academic and personal characteristics necessary to reach their full potential. Students will contribute to their community in a manner that displays respect for human dignity and validates the history and culture of all ethnic groups.

This is captured in five focus areas:

  • Meeting Individual Student Needs: Instruction must be motivating and developmentally appropriate to foster students’ potential. We believe that different cultural, language, and religious traditions must be recognized and respected.
  • Basic Skills Proficiency: Reading, writing, and math are the foundation skills necessary for students to reach their full potential in all areas of learning.
  • Character Education: All students should have respect for self and others, including elders, teachers, parents, students, and community members. We believe that students should interact in a manner that reflects honesty, integrity, and a never-give-up attitude.
  • School to Life Transition: Students should be provided with opportunities to apply what they have learned in school to real-life situations. They should be provided with the skills and knowledge necessary to make a successful transition from school to life.
  • Technology Assisted Learning: We believe transition skills and technology-assisted learning are necessary to prepare our students to meet the challenges of an ever-changing society.

These five areas are then translated into ten content domains of standards: mathematics, technology, social sciences, reading, writing, culture & communication (student will understand and appreciate the unique aspects of their own culture, as well as Alaska Native or world cultures), personal/social/service (the values and skills necessary to reach one’s full potential and foster the development of those around them), career development, PE/health (healthy interpersonal strategies that apply in both rural and urban environments), and science. The graduation requirements are based on reaching specific levels for each content area. Of course, students progress through the levels at their own pace.

Treece pointed out, “We’ve designed the graduation expectations to cut across the disciplines to indicate a level of knowledge that prepares students for their next step. It’s not just completing algebra 2 or trigonometry. We want students to be able to think like mathematicians and solve problems using the skills they’ve developed.” In fact, 50 percent of last year’s graduation class did so in less than four years.

Preparing Students for Life

Penn opened up our conversation with a powerful metaphor, “We have to be a slingshot. There is a momentum that builds to propel students forward beyond their graduating high school. They need to have a wide array of opportunities. I don’t know if we have to help them find their specific direction, as it is going to change a lot in their late teens and early twenties. It’s a rarity for teens to know exactly what they want to do and successfully pursue it. We need to help them have the capacity to take advantage of changing interests. ”

Thus, CSD organized the content areas to include career development, as students having ideas for their future will also open up the reasons why college is important. However, they also have to respond to the interests of students and the communities for students to be successful in subsistence living, including fishing, hunting, and using local materials. (Subsistence living pops up several times in Alaska’s academic standards.)

There is also opportunity for students to explore and “live” their cultural heritage. Culture and Communication is one of the content areas. Students can co-design projects and ILPs. All the students in CSD, including homeschoolers, are invited to participate in the Cultural Heritage Week, which is held in Tatitlek each year to celebrate and learn about the Aleut culture.

For students with specific interests or all-encompassing passions, the ILP is a structure that allows student interest to drive instruction and gives them an opportunity to look for ways to find standards within their interests. Last year, a student developed his ILP around his interest in computers. With the help of his CSD teacher, he created a plan that addressed multiple Technology and Career Development standards and built his own personal computer. Culmination of the project included writing clear directions regarding specific parts needed and steps to complete a successful computer build, as well as creation of a Power Point presentation to share the process.

2Voyage to ExcellenceCSD also takes into consideration that students are likely to be navigating both rural and urban areas in their lives. The Voyage for Excellence program described above is designed to support students as they build up their “city-skills,” leadership, marketable skills, and a positive understanding of themselves within their communities and different environments.

Stephanie Burgoon, Head Teacher of Voyage to Excellence, and Patrick Hecker, VTE Logistics and Support, described a few of the “phases” they’ve designed for students. There is a First Responder phase, where they learn “about all things EMT.” (This includes a follow-up certificate for emergency trauma technician, a position unique to Alaska.) There are STEM phases with exploration, as well as steps to get certification through the Microsoft Academy. The engineering and robotics phase includes construction activities, Lego robotics, and job shadowing. The Go Green phase emphasizes environmental sciences. The It’s My Life phase for juniors and seniors includes financial literacy and getting a driver’s license (a very big deal if the transportation in your village is mainly four-wheelers).

Voyage to Excellence (VTE) is open to students statewide. For some students, this is the first time in a large city or away from home. Staff are prepared to support students through bouts of homesickness, severe shyness, and, for some students from Yupiit where families speak Yupik, helping them to develop communication skills. Patrick explained, “There are often students from a variety of Native Alaskan communities speaking one of the twenty Alaska Native languages, which creates opportunities for rich conversations about identity, culture, and language.”

In preparation for a new trek or phase, Stephanie, Patrick and the other VTE staff use AIMS to understand where students are in the learning across content areas and to identify possible ways that they can reinforce skills and meet additional standards. They start with the most obvious: personal/social/service, communications & culture, and career development.  However, some phases are designed to teach and apply science and math skills. And, as Stephanie adds, “There is reflection. Lots and lots of reflection.”

The team at Chugach School District has the benefit of being a small district where you can get everyone in the same room to talk together. However, it also has all the challenges of a small district, as well as a large geographic distance separating the schools. Yet, there is a confidence among everyone I spoke with, in that there is nothing that can get in their way of finding better ways to serve their students. Challenges become opportunities. Community members seek out expanded learning opportunities. Structures allow students to find themselves and their skills on the way to graduation.

Perhaps that’s why one belief is shared by the entire community: “Coming up with all the reasons why you can’t do something is simple. Coming up with all the reasons how you can is a lot more challenging. It’s also a lot more meaningful in the end.”