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Aurora Institute

Highland Tech Charter School – Putting it All Together

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the first post in a series on Highland Tech. Part 2 is Advice From Highland Tech StudentsIMG_0293

Student ownership of learning. Standards-based framework. Personalization. Performance assessments. Standards-based grading aligned with Bloom’s taxonomy. Inquiry-based learning. Project-based learning. New roles for educators.

Highland Tech Charter School (6-12) in Anchorage, AK is putting all these pieces together, but the process is not without its bumps. One staff person wondered, “Is HTC having an identity crisis?”

The pieces don’t all fit together smoothly…yet. The team at HTC is continuing to fine-tune a cohesive, personalized, mastery-based approach, where the size of the school (with 200 students and eleven teachers) is both an advantage and a limitation. They are easily able to work together collaboratively as a school, yet there are limitations in deploying resources to students with a wide range of academic and developmental needs (not to mention a wide range of educational expertise).

It didn’t feel to me like HTC was having an identity crisis. Instead, the different elements of the school are so well-developed they are pushing up against each other, requiring the staff to think strategically about how to integrate the elements as well as keep them in balance.

Student Ownership of Learning

The heart of the design at HTC is student ownership of their learning. Ayme Johnson, Assistant Principal, says, “We believe children learn best when they are engaged in the learning process through leading their learning. Teachers facilitate, but it is students who are driving their learning. Our job is to help them learn how to take ownership. When they have the ownership combined with the trust that their teachers are holding them to high levels of expectations, they succeed. At HTC, we think about success first as measured by active engagement and the development of individualized skills that lead to effective learning.”

The students are coached in taking ownership through a combination of the personal/social service skills taught in advisory and the teachers who provide a developmentally-based approach to coaching students. As students build skills, teachers move from telling students what they are working on today and providing direction to asking them what they will be working on today and how are they going to demonstrate their learning. David Frame, a STEM teacher, explains, “Our approach is progressive—at level 3, kids need more teacher involvement. By level 4 and 5, they are much more independent.”

While I was visiting the school, students were preparing for student-led conferences. Staff had decided to strengthen their approach so that students were the ones organizing the questions they believed their parents would ask, creating web resources to guide the conversation, and thinking about the variety of standards they would be able to demonstrate (such as professional etiquette, speaking techniques, or presenting life skills/careers portfolio). HTC’s new principal Michael Shapiro explains, “Students maintain an electronic portfolio of all of their exemplary classwork, goals, and reflections. They share this with their parents during student-led conferences in the fall and spring, and we encourage them to create these with their future in mind.”

Of course, students enter HTC at different points and ages, which means many students have different levels of ownership and skills needed to manage their own learning. Shapiro explains, “This is about retraining students who have been trained to be compliant. They need to learn self-direction and self-advocacy. They need a different mindset.” The challenge for HTC is that some families reinforce this level of independence, while others may not be able to. Thus, students entering at later ages may be not have adequate time or the around-the-clock support necessary to build up skills to own their learning.

Standards-Based Framework

If student ownership of learning is the heart of HTC, then the standards-based framework is the skeleton upon which everything is aligned. This framework has been fine-tuned for ten years and was recently updated to align with Common Core. (Although Alaska didn’t embrace the Common Core at a state level, Anchorage, which serves 50 percent of students within the state, did).

Standards, Knowledge Taxonomy, and Rubrics

Every course at HTC, including advisory and electives, has standards, which are defined as the steps taken toward achieving the standard aligned with Bloom’s, as well as performance tasks for students to determine proficiency. As in most competency-based schools, the level beyond proficiency (called Advanced at HTC) can vary in how it is constructed. Level 4 might include teaching another student, designing an individual project to apply skills, or becoming certified in CPR for the standard on first aid. (As in all states, there are some standards that relate directly to the history or life of their unique location, such as studying the potato famine in Massachusetts. First aid and the science of subsistence activities, including fishing or hunting, are both relevant to life in Alaska.)

There are three kinds of standards at HTC: process standards, content standards, and personal/social service standards. The process standards help students in building the skills needed for each discipline. Shapiro pointed out, “the process standards do vary and go up in complexity as you make your way through each level.” The content standards we are all familiar with are drawn from Common Core and state standards. The personal/social service standards include habits of learning, twenty-first century skills, and a comprehensive focus on well-being that includes first aid, nutrition, and substance abuse.

One teacher emphasized how powerful the framework is: “In some ways it is much easier to move through a textbook from Chapter 1 – 12. At HTC, we have to really think about what we want students to learn, how we can support them taking ownership of their learning, how to assess if they learned it, and how to think about it with students moving at different paces. But it’s not as hard as watching students fail and not having a way to help them.”

Standards Empower Students

At first, I was surprised that standards were not placed visibly in the classrooms as in every other competency-based school I’ve visited. That is, until I realized that a combination of blended learning and a well-developed use of the information system meant that students could find the standards, tasks, and rubrics online, as well as how they were making progress.

In fact, students can see their progress in all the standards across their classes. Students are encouraged to seek out opportunities to demonstrate standards, and teachers look for ways to develop or apply standards from other courses. For example, the technology standards are often used as students develop presentations. Students can use the information system Educate to seek out tasks that will allow them to learn and demonstrate the standards they need.

Some of the teachers have also entered the standards and performance tasks for all of their units in Educate so students can actually find the units that will help them complete missing standards. For example, each semester, Frame looks at which students are missing standards in the courses he is teaching and sends an email with links to the units to remind them they need to complete it. The school is still structured around courses, but they are structured to organize the standards, students, and learning. In the large common area, there are always students working alone or in small groups. They may work independently because the schedule isn’t working for them, or because they have already mastered the standards that are the focus of today’s class.

Standards Drive Success

Shapiro explained, “When students enroll at HTC, they take assessments for language arts and math that are designed to gauge their appropriate placement based on ability, regardless of grade level. For science and social environments, students are typically placed in their chronological grade-appropriate class.” A student explained to me, “When you take the placement tests, take them seriously. You don’t have to get stuck doing things you’ve already learned. You may even be able to be placed at a level above your grade.”

When students understand where they are on the language arts and math standards, they realize that they need to strengthen their skills. Another student emphasized, “When you get behind, don’t worry. It’s easier to catch up. You just have to demonstrate that you really know something.”


Learning at HTC is personalized in several ways that support and reinforce students owning their education. Johnson cautions, “It’s a misnomer to think of the school as entirely self-paced and students following their passion wherever it may lead them. Teachers are coaching students to build skills to meet deadlines, engaging students with choices, teaching processes and providing structure, and constantly seeking ways to help them build all the skills they need as well-rounded learners.”

  • Placement in Levels: Every student I spoke with told me their age-based grade and their level E-6. When students enroll at HTC, they take a series of assessments to level them in language arts and math. One student explained to me, “It takes a long time but it’s worth it. You find out exactly where you are so you know that you are going to be successful in class. And if you know more than your grade level you can be placed out so you don’t have to do things again.”
  • Choice and Co-Design: HTC emphasizes that students have choices on how they demonstrate their learning. Students are given options, but there is always the additional option to bring an idea to a teacher. Students can also create Individual Learning Projects (ILPs) to work on projects that are of high interest to them or that help them complete missing standards.
  • Pace and Supports: HTC is designed around the idea that students are at different places in their learning, learn at different tempos, and may have interruptions in their education. Students may be at different academic levels in different disciplines. This is balanced by clear deadlines and rapid response when students don’t meet them. If it is an issue of academics, students can take advantage of skill classes, individual meetings with teachers, and after school work times. However, it’s often more related to behavior, which is when the personal/social service competencies become vital to helping students build the skills to become effective learners.
  • Enabled by Blended Learning: HTC has embraced blended learning in order to support the instructional process and create access to instruction 24/7. Teachers place standards, unit tasks, and rubrics online; students can show evidence of their work and share it with teachers; and teachers are able to provide feedback so students can revise. A few products (such as Accelerated Math) are also available, with teachers often taking advantage of open education resources like Khan Academy as well as online courses through the Anchorage School District iSchool and APEX.

Johnson explained to me that the process to use blended learning has largely been organic. They had been using Educate as the primary learning management system. After being introduced to Schoology several years ago, however, they realized they could create an environment in which students could direct their education in and out of the classroom. The next move was to “dabble in Google.” Once they realized you could assign and share files and work collaboratively, “the wheels started spinning.” Now Google is the core technology to support their online curriculum.

HTC supports BYOD, and also provides school computers for students. There are plans to continue to upgrade access to technology in the building.

Performance Tasks and Assessments

The term “task” or “project” is used for all the steps students complete towards becoming proficient in the standards in a unit. The phrase is used regardless of the knowledge level, with projects ranging from the initial prep work of looking up vocabulary or historical figures that are included in the unit, creating a presentation on why the aurora borealis develops in the skies of Alaska, or researching why revolutions begin. Many of these tasks create relevancy by connecting to current issues.

In most cases, the tasks to demonstrate proficiency are set up as performance tasks, although not each one I saw had the rigor we might hope for. This is a challenge for all schools across the country as they upgrade their instruction and assessment to analysis and application of skills in response to Common Core. Certainly, the transparency of the expectations at HTC is going to make it easier to make adjustments along the way.

Teachers seek out ways to include other standards in the performance tasks, which means students may be demonstrating the causes of the aurora borealis using digital illustration software to strengthen their skills in technology standards, or by writing an explanation of how scientists track solar activity to build writing skills.

Students also participate in peer reviews of projects to reinforce the culture of learning, enhance student ownership, and strengthen their understanding of the skills/content.

Johnson explains, “It is important for students to demonstrate their learning. At some point, they will challenge teachers with ‘Why do I have to do it if I know it?’ And we counter with the argument that teachers have to have some evidence that students know how to apply the standards. Sometimes, we offer them the option to talk about their knowledge. We hand them the rubric, preparing them that this will be a deep conversation, with the teachers asking them questions. However, the time requirements for students and teachers isn’t manageable. Thus, we usually encourage students to create an Individual Learning Project in which they demonstrate their knowledge in a way that is meaningful to them.”

To help support teachers as they continue to design task projects, professional development at HTC is ongoing, including common plan time for cross-curricular collaboration, professional development activities related to blended learning, growth mindset, content area reading strategies, and technology integration. HTC often collaborates with the Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Laboratory to refine student tasks to align with standards.

Standards-Based Grading Aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy

HTC’s grading system is consistently aligned with Bloom’s and is a powerful tool for keeping students focused on learning. Structured as emerging (knowledge), developing (comprehension), proficient (application and analysis), and advanced (evaluation and synthesis), students know exactly where they are in the process of learning the basics on the way to applying their knowledge. STEM teacher Diana Burbank describes this as students “working their way up a standard,” while Frame prefers the term “steps to learning.” A student explains, “This type of school makes you have a better sense of what you are learning. It’s important to know when you are learning the basics and when you are applying your learning.”

In addition, the information management system Educate allows students and teachers to see exactly where students are in their progress. Teachers can print out which standards students have completed or which ones are missing based on how they want to use the information.

Inquiry-Based Learning

The board of HTC is advocating for the school to strengthen its inquiry-based approach. Shapiro explains, “Whenever you anchor the learning in essential questions, students get the bigger picture.”

Inquiry-based learning is present in some of the classes. For example, in the front of one social environment class, the phrase Revolutions is placed on a huge sign with several questions underneath: How do people become united? What is the process of change? What makes a revolution successful?

However, essential questions and rich inquiry-based learning aren’t used consistently throughout the school. Johnson explains that it has been more present in the past, but a small detail in their systems ended up having a profound impact on the educational experience. Essential questions driving learning slipped away as a consistent practice when a unit design template in Educate didn’t prompt for essential questions. It’s a lesson to all of us to ensure that systems are aligned with pedagogical approaches.

Project-Based and Real-World Learning

Students at HTC are always involved with smaller projects in their classes to demonstrate their learning. Yet the school also wants to offer opportunities for students to engage in larger areas of inquiry and more open-ended projects. They’ve tried creating themes that can act to open interdisciplinary projects, such as the overarching theme of water. However, teachers suggested that both the small size of the school and the standards-driven approach have resulted in larger projects being shifted to the wayside.

The school is structured so that as students develop the skills of personal mastery, they are offered increasing opportunities to immerse their learning in the community. Students in seventh and eighth grade are involved in community service projects. Students in ninth and tenth grade do job shadowing. Senior level students in the eleventh and twelfth grades pursue internship and apprenticeship programs.

Creating Mastery-Based Educators

As members of the Anchorage School District teachers’ association, HTC teachers are evaluated according to the Danielson Framework. As the Danielson Framework was originally designed as a method of enhancing professional practice, HTC administration views it as the perfect complement to the personal mastery approach. Just as students are empowered to have voice and choice in their learning, so, too are teachers empowered to focus on areas of professional practice they wish to focus on and achieve growth. Shapiro and Johnson view the evaluation process as collaborative and mutually supportive, keeping the focus on the needs of students.

Frame explains that when he first joined HTC, “the freedom actually made me nervous. We weren’t just marching through a textbook. Yet, I didn’t fully realize that the standards-based framework was an opportunity to be creative. After the first year, I realized that I could be intentional and creative. Now I look for ability to tie in standards from electives into the units. I can constantly be looking to find out what works best for kids.”

Currently, HTC is emphasizing interdisciplinary efforts by organizing the school into two core academic sections: 1) humanities involving English language arts and social environments, and 2) STEM, including science and math. Class is arranged as blocks (see schedule). At this point, the humanities is working more smoothly, as the science and math teachers are finding it more challenging to correlate disparate math levels with a common science discipline such as physics or chemistry. While curricular connections between the two disciplines are frequent and evident, alignment is more of a challenge.”

The size of HTC is also an advantage in some ways, as it supports teachers to strengthen their skills to operate in a mastery-based environment. The staff has a retreat each year where decisions and plans can be created jointly. Calibrating an understanding of proficiency across levels may only take a few hours. Johnson explains that they wanted to calibrate their understanding of writing skills across the entire staff so that science and math teachers can also assess writing.

Personally, I don’t think Highland Tech Charter School is having an identity crisis at all. It looks to me as if they are at such a high level of development they are able to focus on those places that need to be more carefully balanced. They can offer both opportunities for wide-open inquiry and extend deeper learning projects to ensure that students are developing the skills they need to take advantage of opportunities after graduation.