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Aurora Institute

Empowering Youth to Chart their Course to Readiness

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Alicia Wilson-Ahlstrom

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

Boston Day and Evening
Photo from the Boston Day and Evening Academy website.

This post originally appeared at SparkAction, The Forum for Youth Investment, on February 12, 2015.

A post on the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) Facebook page offers this student reflection: “At my old school: I was lost and confused and left behind. At BDEA: I get taught as an individual so I can get help with what I need.”

It is common for students talk about a “before BDEA” and an “after,” when describing their education. The school, which overlooks Dudley Square in Roxbury, Mass., is designed specifically for students aged 16 to 24 who are over-age for their grade level or have previously dropped out.

Students typically come to BDEA two or more years behind. Almost all have a spotty school history. Many have experienced deep trauma or personal crisis, and most have been told, directly or indirectly, that they were a lost cause.

By pushing the boundaries of traditional public education—holding some classes in the evening, grouping students by skill level rather than grade or age, replacing letter grades with a three-point proficiency scale—the school is able to support and graduate a population of students that other schools have failed to engage. A majority (85 percent) of students who enroll are still there six months later, according to the most recent assessment. 8 in 10 who complete five trimesters will graduate within three years.

“We Don’t Have Grades…We Don’t Believe in Failure”

Since opening in 1995, BDEA has been a regional and national model for competency-based education (CBE) innovation. CBE is an approach to schooling based on mastery of essential skills and content areas rather than “seat time”—that is, time in class—spent on a particular course or unit.

Competency-based education is not new. Across the country, a handful of states and hundreds of districts and schools are experimenting with the approach. “But what we [at BDEA] are doing that is different—and perhaps offers something new to the approach—is the level to which we have created the systems and structures around competency-based education that really empower students to take charge of own their learning,” says Alison Hramiec, BDEA Director of Instruction.

What are those structures and systems?

First, as its name signals, Boston Day and Evening Academy has shifted the traditional school day away from the traditional 8 AM to 3 PM. The school is open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, with classes running for six periods throughout that time to accommodate a range of student schedules.

Learning also does not have to take place in the school building. Students may also complete some of their coursework online, nearly a third of students choose this option at any given time.

Then, there’s the grading. Beatriz McConnie-Zapater, the current Head of School, sums up BDEA’s approach this way: “At BDEA, we don’t have grades. And I mean grades in two ways: We don’t have A, B, C and failure. We don’t believe in failure. And we don’t have grades like ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade.”

Instead, the school uses “highly competent,” “competent,” and “not yet” to assess content and skill proficiency. Students can go as quickly as they would like through a given set of competencies, and go slower in other areas (examples of how this works at BDEA were detailed in a 2014 report, Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Based Education).

As they go along, students learn how to take responsibility for their learning, including working with staff to create an individual learning plan. Each student must demonstrate proficiency in more than 300 competencies in mathematics, science and humanities, in order to qualify for graduation.

“Students here have come from other schools where they have essentially failed. But you can’t really do that here unless you quit,” says math teacher, Adrienne Level.

“At this school, they teach you until you get it, and you learn at your own pace. There’s not much pressure unless you personally want to graduate quickly,” says current BDEA student, Carlos Gavino.

The school also offers flexibility in other ways. In any given classroom, students may be working on different competencies within the same subject.

Instructor Adrienne Level explains, “I’m teaching geometry, and I have students in the classroom taking geometry for the first time, and I have students who have taken it last trimester, and just need time to finish up. My lesson plan for a given day may include work with students who need to work on unit conversations and others that are working on perimeters. Students working on similar competencies are grouped together.”

At BDEA testing out of a course—even midway through—retaking a course, using a different learning method (for example, individual study rather than classroom-based), and mixing different ways of gaining competency in different subjects are all options. Students who need it are can use a two-week transfer window between trimesters to finish up remaining course work before moving on to the next level.

Owning Your Learning

Undergirding all of this is an attentive focus on building a supportive culture—an intentional community that BDEA students and staff alike see as integral to student success.

“There’s barely any tension,” Gavino says. “That was new to me. There’s a lot of support in school. The teachers – I’ve never seen a group of people trying so hard to change the atmosphere so that students feel safer and like they have opportunities.”

A student’s first day at BDEA sets the tone for their school experience. Each new student begins by participating in a four-day, individualized orientation during which an advisor lays out an assessment of competencies already demonstrated from their previous time in school, and a roadmap that shows all remaining benchmarks to be completed and the pathway to graduation.

Students then spend part of their first trimester in an introductory seminar to understand the principles of competency-based education and get familiar with a transparent system of tracking their academic progress. In this way, they are equipped to be advocates for their own education, not just “recipients.”

Gavino describes it this way: “The teachers here provide a roadmap pointing to where you are with classes, and that gives you a sense of security and a direction to go towards. With that direction, you know why you are here and exactly where you are with your work … [and] what you need to make it this far.”

Another reason BDEA is successful with its students is the staff’s commitment to continually learning alongside students, and using what they learn with and about students to improve.

“Everything we do has been in response to how can we motivate students? That’s what is constantly driving us. Every year we are looking at our data and saying, how can we do this differently? How can we do this better?” says Alison Hramiec.

“So we are constantly thinking about how we can be more innovative, but in service of really engaging our students,” she says. Community partners play a strong in BDEA’s innovative approaches. These partners support student internships and community service components, and support the student symposia – a two week experiential module in which students demonstrate competencies in real world settings – and the capstone project, an exploration of careers in the final trimester. These connections help every student to have a post-graduation plan for life after BDEA, which contributes to our 80 percent college enrollment rate among graduates.

“You can see the transformation in students in the way they walk coming into the school compared to the way they walk when they walk across the stage [to graduate],” Hraimiec says. “Their perseverance comes from being in an academic program that challenges them, but also supports them to be successful in it. When they walk across that stage, they truly know that they have earned it.”

Spotlight: Professional Development

Boston Day and Evening Academy prides itself on its student-focused, competency-based approach and strong emphasis on community. While the emphasis is on students, BDEA makes clear connections between building a supportive environment for students and providing strong professional development for staff.Math teacher, Adrienne Level , reflected, “The thing that stands out about this school is that it’s such a community. The students know each other, the teachers know each other. Part of that is because of the professional development we have every Friday. We come together as a full staff, and that does not happen at all [in most other schools].”Professional development is a core component of BDEA’s culture. The school makes professional development and staff-structured time a priority.

According to Alison Hramiec, Director of Instruction, “Twenty percent of our teachers’ work week is self-directed. Delivering competency-based education is time intensive. We also support staff in weekly PD – two hours on Friday are dedicated to professional development, giving staff time to work with each other and get feedback from each other.”

These weekly professional development sessions give teachers and staff the opportunity to connect with each other, improve instruction, share best practices and work together to problem-solve dilemmas. In the spring, the staff identify professional development goals together – looking at student data, reviewing the school’s accountability plan, and assessing staff and student needs to shape the next year’s professional development agenda.

Recognizing the intense nature of providing a strongly supportive environment to students, BDEA encourages other outlets for teacher and staff support. An Instructional Leadership Team identifies whole school issues and works to build the capacity of all staff to reach school-wide goals. Smaller teams of faculty and staff meet together to get support among common needs. For example, BDEA has a new teacher support group focused on supporting teachers during their years of teaching.

As Level states, “All of this translates into the classroom. It provides regular opportunities to share curriculum and ideas.”

Having worked with competency-based learning and assessment for over fifteen years, BDEA also offers opportunities for professionals from other schools to learn from their model. BDEA’s Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL), launched in 2010, is a summer institute for educators interested in shifting from a “seat-time” system to a competency-based one.

Alicia Wilson-Ahlstrom is a Senior Program Manager for Research and Development at the Forum for Youth Investment.