Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Colorado Takes Another Step Forward with a New School in Denver

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Happy Haynes
Happy Haynes, DPS Board President

Colorado is an interesting state to watch as it takes steps – both big and little – toward competency education. Home to Adams 50, the courageous district that moved forward because they knew that there had to be something better for their students, it’s one of the only states to have established a policy for a proficiency-based diploma – by the start of the 2015 school year, every district in the state must pass guidelines so that by 2021 students will meet or exceed minimum thresholds for college and career readiness. These guidelines will “signal proof of competency … rather than merely completion of seat‐time requirements.” (Read more about the graduation guidelines here.) To support this ambitious work, the CO Department of Education has a study group on competency education, including a site visit to Lindsay Unified.

Now Denver Public Schools is taking a step forward with a new competency-based high school.

Through an email exchange with Katherine Casey, Director of Ecosystem Innovation at Denver Public Schools (DPS), I learned that the school board unanimously approved a competency-based high school to open in fall 2015 with 100 ninth graders. The school is part of the Carnegie Corporation of New York Opportunity by Design Initiative based on ten design principles and supported by Springpoint.

Katherine Casey
Katherine Casey

The new high school is a part of the Denver Plan 2020, providing an opportunity for the district to learn about competency-based education as they seek to expand and scale personalized learning. According to Casey, the new school “joins an existing and growing personalized learning movement in the district. DPS has supported the design of innovative and personalized school models since 2012. As of 2014, over twenty DPS schools are making strides to personalize learning by increasing student voice and choice, providing next generation curriculum and assessment, shifting educator roles and supports, and allowing flexible use of time, space, technology, and community partners.”

The school will be designed around cornerstone competencies: academic excellence, lifelong learning and citizenship, innovative thinking and action, and transformative leadership. The school model will include design-thinking career pathways – such as Social Entrepreneurship, STEM, and Environmental Sustainability – to link students’ learning to the real world, and will evolve to offer all students the chance to graduate with up to two years of college credit.

Just imagine the degree of seamlessness that would be possible if DPS and partner colleges calibrated their standards and expectations so that students would know exactly where they were on the way to college readiness, and would be able to continue to advance beyond twelfth grade based on an aligned system. Given that colleges are now starting to question the value of college courses earned in high school, competency-based high schools that offer students an opportunity to get an associates degree should provide an evidence base that students are proficient in agreed-upon expectations. Of course, variations in what colleges consider college-level work may vary – it’s a problem for students and system-building alike that we don’t have any language or framework in place to describe the different levels of college readiness between community colleges, private colleges, state university systems, and highly competitive colleges.

Casey writes, “We believe that competency-based school models are uniquely able to simultaneously recuperate and accelerate learning to ensure that all students can master rigorous learning standards.” Recuperation is a term developed in the multiple pathways to graduation efforts of New York City a few years back. It means helping students who do not have the skills or credit consistent with their age-based cohort (often described as over-age and under-credit) to fill the gaps in their skills and increase the steepness of their learning trajectory (i.e., accelerate learning) so that they can graduate, if not on time, at least within an additional year or two.

The new state proficiency-based graduation guidelines are creating a more permissive context for competency-based education to develop. (Please note: currently, proficiency-based graduation is designed primarily around demonstrating evidence of proficiency on examinations such as PARCC, ACT, or SAT. This should be considered a solid floor for graduation levels with lots of room for districts to develop more comprehensive graduation expectations.)

The founding principal for the new school is Danny Medved. He and a team of educators and design specialists looked at a number of school models (not all of them competency-based) to inform the core design elements, including Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), High Tech High, and Summit Public Schools. To date, the design team anticipates the primary elements of competency education will include:

  • The school will advance students based on demonstrated mastery of rigorous cross-curricular standards, and use flexible groupings across grade bands to allow students to address content at their level of proficiency.
  • Educators will closely monitor student learning with performance-based assessments and data-driven classroom practices so that students are accelerating learning where they are farthest behind.
  • The school intends to have a flexible, differentiated human capital model. It plans to participate in the DPS differentiated roles pilot, which allows classroom teachers to take on additional leadership roles in the school. The school will also aim to partner with a local university to recruit teaching fellows; this model will allow there to be multiple educators in each classroom and will help develop a pipeline of teaching talent to the school as it grows.

Throughout the design process in the coming months, an expanded design team that includes students, parents, elected officials, higher education, and community partners will provide ongoing input and feedback on the design using a community-based and user-centric process.

Stay tuned!

Related Posts:
Asking the Right Questions: Urban Assembly Maker Academy
Momentum in Colorado