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Aurora Institute

Flexible Learning Time Provides System Approach to Differentiation in a Competency Education School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

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

KINGSTONOne of the keys to the early success of our competency education model at Sanborn Regional High School has been the inclusion of a flexible grouping period that is built into our daily bell schedule. For the past four years, our Freshman Learning Community teachers have benefited from having this flexible time to personalize instruction and provide students with support for intervention, extension, and enrichment as needed throughout the school year. Three years ago, we added this flexible time to our Sophomore Learning Community structure. Now as we enter the 2014-2015 school year, this flexible time model has been expanded to include all four grade levels in our high school.

Our flexible grouping period is known as the Focused Learning Period at Sanborn Regional High School, and it operates in a forty-minute time period each day. The Focused Learning Period is time for our students to engage in the following activities:

  • Intervention: Small groups of students work with the teacher on content support, remediation, or proactive support.
  • Extensions: Whole class groups in which the teacher extends the current curriculum beyond what is able to be completed during a class period.
  • Enrichments: Above-and-beyond activities that go outside of the curriculum to expand the experiences of our students.

The Focused Learning Period is not optional at our school. All students are expected to participate. Since the time is built into the school day, all teachers are available to students at the same time. Students are scheduled into a Focused Learning Period with approximately fifteen other students in the same grade level and/or career interest. A teacher is assigned to each group of students as an adviser.

Our school’s bell schedule operates on a six-day (A-F) cycle. A and D days are reserved for the students to engage in traditional advisory activities with their adviser, and B, C, E, and F days are reserved for focused learning activities. On the first day of the cycle (A-Day), students meet individually with their adviser to develop a schedule for where they will spend their focused learning time for the rest of the six-day cycle. For example, a student may be asked to spend B day getting math intervention with their math teacher and F day working on an extended project with their art teacher. On C and E days, the student may be able to choose where they would like to spend their time based on the availability of their teachers.

To make the scheduling of students run smoothly each day for the Focused Learning Period, this year our school purchased customized software that allows each of our teachers to schedule the students in their advisory to all of the places they will need to go during the six-day cycle. The software allows teachers to pre-schedule students who need specific intervention or support. It also allows students to have a view-only ability to view their schedule at any time. The software has made a huge difference in our ability to run the period efficiently. Prior to purchasing the software, our teachers tried to accomplish the scheduling through home-made GoogleDoc forms and spreadsheets, but none proved to be as efficient as this web-based tool. Several companies offer such software. Our school uses the company Enriching Students, but this is not the only company out there.

To maximize the potential of our Focused Learning Period as a system-wide tool for differentiation and personalization, we put the control and power of monitoring the time into the hands of our Professional Learning Community (PLC) teams. We recognize that for our PLC teams to do this effectively, two things need to happen:

1) The teachers in our PLC teams must share students so that they can develop common performance assessments that are linked to competencies, administer those assessments to their students, analyze the data from those assessments together, and make changes and adjustments to their instruction and the curriculum as a result of what the data tells them about student learning. At our school, we have abandoned the traditional department structure of grouping teachers by their subject. At our school, teacher teams are grouped by grade level when possible so they share students and can have these important assessment discussions.

2) Our PLC teams have a tremendous amount of collaboration time. When we adopted a new bell schedule this year that includes the daily Focused Learning Period, we also built it in such a way so that each of the teachers in our PLC teams have a sixty-minute common planning time each day. Additionally, we gave back all of the time during which we had teachers performing duties such as monitoring the hallway and cafeteria to the teams so that teachers could use the time for PLC collaboration. The result is that on average, our PLC teams meet between two and three hours each week. Some meet more often because they choose to use much of their individual planning time for this collaboration. Creating this time in our master schedule was almost an impossible feat, but we found a way to make it happen. It makes all the difference in the world. If you are curious about what our bell schedule looks like, you can view it here.

For us, developing a flexible time each day to provide intervention and enrichment to our students has been a key to allowing us to provide all of our students with the differentiation and personalization that they need to be successful in our competency-based system. I challenge each of you to look at the ways your school responds when students need that support or enrichment. Competency education doesn’t create the need for differentiation. That has always existed. It does, however, highlight and expand upon the need for schools to be responding to all student learning needs on an ongoing and consistent basis.


Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.