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Aurora Institute

Juarez Community Academy: When Big Schools Become Competency-Based

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Principal Juan Carlos Ocón

This is the seventh post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

There are always exceptions, and Benito Juarez Community Academy (Juarez) in Chicago is one of them. At CompetencyWorks, we tend to advise against using grading as the entry point into competency-based education. It can create confusion and anxiety, especially in high schools, before the full competency-based infrastructure has been put into place. Yet Juarez successfully moved to standards-based grading, having used the practice for the last seven years, and is now ready to move to a fuller competency-based model. Actually, I think they have already taken the substantial steps to restructure their school as competency-based.

When Juan Carlos Ocón became principal, Juarez had been on the list of the forty worst schools in Illinois. In 2010, it jumped off that list. In 2008-2009, principal Ocon and his team began a deliberate and strategic shift from a content-based curriculum to a standards-based curriculum. This was a necessary shift that allowed the school to focus on what students should know and be able to do. In the spring and summer of 2010, Juarez adopted the College Readiness Standards. In 2011, Juarez continued to develop a schoolwide shift from what teachers teach to what students learn. Ocón explained, “After analysis and research on instructional and grading models, we needed to shift our focus from what teachers teach to what students learn. That is how we were going to improve rigor in the classroom. Benchmarking, therefore, is a system of instruction that is focused on student assessment and skills mastery.

At Juarez, we had a lengthy conversation with about fifteen teachers and administrators. I apologize, as I was unable to put everyone’s names with what they said as I normally try to do. Next time I visit Juarez, I’ll do better so that readers can get to know the leaders, administrators, and teachers there.


Serving 1,600 mostly Hispanic students, Juarez is a neighborhood school offering an IB program and 5 CTE programs. There is a strong college counseling program that includes resources for DREAMers. In 2008, they began to introduce standards-based grading (SBG) with school-wide implementation in 2010.

They are now in a process of preparing for the transition to competency-based education or what they referred to as “resetting.” Principal Juan Carlos Ocón explained, “Moving to competency-based education is forcing us to revisit our core values.” The leadership team, including teacher leaders, organized a retreat with Camille Farrington and members of the UC Consortium on School Research to clarify their philosophy about education and equity.

Juarez is part of the high schools organizing the pilot under the state’s Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program. (See CBE in Chicago for more information.)

SBG within CPS Parameters

Juarez understands the difference between standards-referenced and standards-based grading (if you aren’t sure, an explanation is provided here). Standards-based grading is making the commitment that all students are going to learn the standards – whatever it takes. They’ve made a number of interesting changes to provide more supports to students and align their budget with their beliefs. And all of this has had to be done within the parameters of the Chicago Public Schools policies.

Juarez created almost-year-long courses that run through the second week in August. (They’d run them year-round if they could get CPS to agree to it.) In mid-June, when the spring semester is over, students who have not met all of the standards pick right back up on the next Monday as if it as regular week. Students work on the specific standards for which they are “not yet proficient” and can demonstrate proficiency at any point.

Juarez fully sees the summer months as part of their offerings, and it is part of the design of the school. Ocón explains that the school actually declined Perkins funds that were dedicated to credit recovery and evening school because they no longer felt those strategies were aligned with their belief that all students can succeed. They felt that credit recovery was a remnant of the traditional system – failure-based and providing lower expectations. Ocón said, “I have to be creative with the budget. We monitor how students are doing so we can anticipate the numbers that will be in school in summer. Last year, I put aside $100k for the ‘not yet’ students.” They also use resources to organize extended learning opportunities in the summer, as well.

Making sure that students are well served in the summer takes some internal work on the part of teachers. They share the benchmarks the kids need and insights into how to best support their learning with the team of summer teachers. Common assessment rubrics are used within the departments so that there is a high level of continuity in the summer.

Making the Transition to Standards-Based Grading

Ocón explained that he knew that he was going to end up in working in a standards-based environment when he first started teaching. “I knew it was the right thing to do,” he said. “And I knew what we were doing in the traditional system wasn’t working.” When he became principal, the first thing he did was analyze ten years’ worth of data. The school was considered one of the lowest performing, but Ocón couldn’t see any trends or patterns to explain it. “And then a lightbulb went off,“ he explained. “I realized that teachers were teaching whatever they wanted to teach. Learning was incidental. We simply did not have a school that was organized around learning.”

He knew they need to make a substantial change that would make a difference, not just another add-on program. So he announced the change to standards-based grading in 2008. There was, of course, a fair amount of anxiety and opposition. He explained, “There were some who thought that standards-based grading meant the principal was against content.”

Ocón explained that the turning point occurred when the social studies department came on board. In conversation about standards-based grading, they had come to terms that the social sciences were an opportunity to build up literacy and analytical skills. The actual content could vary based on what was most meaningful to students. What did matter was that the role of the teacher was to help students engage with challenging text, understand the credibility and biases of the sources, and be able to analyze complex dynamics in society. They could use their own passion for history and the social sciences to engage students. One teacher explained, “This has been a shift for me. We were content area experts when we graduated. If students passed a test or quiz, that was enough to say they learned it. The actual skill-building was always incidental and certainly not strategic. Now we work together to think about how we can design courses so students are building skills.”

As the school continued down the path of standards-based grading, they continued to revisit traditional practices. They began to re-think assessments. In general, teachers no longer use midterms and finals. Instead they see assessment as part of the process of learning, with students bringing evidence of their work. One teacher explained that assessment is “the way I get to know my students. It’s a very personal process. Now I don’t assess their quizzes; assessing is a process of engaging students in learning.” Another teacher pointed out, “We have no way to capture where those moments of learning take place. It’s likely not in the classroom if the topics are engaging. Students will be thinking and talking about the learning outside of class. What we do in class is discover what the students are learning.”

Several teachers touched on the idea that standards-based grading has opened the door to courageous philosophical conversations about how students learn, how to balance all the different aspects of responding to students, and what it means when teachers realize their limitations and need to engage in a learning process themselves.

Juarez emphasizes three core benchmarks: synthesis, analysis, and argumentation. One teacher explained, “These three skills are the most powerful benchmarks. They are the skills you need to be successful in AP classes and in life.” One teacher explained, “Content is the vehicle you use to teach the skills.”

Organizing Learning Around Benchmarks

Juarez has taken the IL state standards and, with the help of the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago, created standards that are written in language accessible to students. The trick, Ocón emphasized, is to do so in a way in which the integrity of the standards aren’t lost.

Benchmarks, based on standards, may also have more granular learning targets when they are needed. Ninety percent of teachers are now using benchmarks, including the IB program. Each summer, teams of teachers take time to refine the benchmarks and align assessments. One teacher remarked, “Benchmarks require constant vetting. We are constantly seeing ways to improve them, strengthen instruction, and better align the assessment.”

Juarez is using a hybrid grading process, with 10 percent of student grades awarded for demonstrating the social and emotional standards. They’ve been able to manage this by modifying their gradebook system to meet their needs. As a large school, Juarez really needs a high quality integrated information management system to enable students, parents, and teachers to know where students are in their learning and monitor learning. However, at this point we simply don’t have strong options for meeting the complex needs of a large high school. The vendor community producing student information systems is failing us badly.

Teachers and Teaching

Ocón and others in the discussion emphasized that the teacher mindset is really the most important step in making the change to standards-based grading (and, in some cases, the biggest challenge). One teacher was emphatic, “The teacher mindset is at the core of the teacher’s philosophy. If it is not aligned with the pedagogy of the school, there is going to be a disconnect.” School leaders know they need to organize their jobs so that they have time to sit down 1:1 with teachers. Ocón explained, “I have had the same conversation 120 times. And each conversation is very meaningful in getting to know teachers and where they are in their thinking.” From individual conversations grow conversations within departments and within grade levels as a culture of learning is woven together with a shared set of beliefs.

One of the difficult challenges for Juarez, similar to many schools, is creating schedules that allow teachers enough time for planning and collaborating. This seems particularly challenging in high schools that are organized around academic domains and credits. (I’ll revisit this topic when I write about my trip to Wisconsin.)

Creating the Structures for All Students to Learn

Juarez knows that the standards-based grading infrastructure is just the beginning, not the end. They are in the middle of the process, and are putting into place several other important changes to increase personalization. Their approach is to root personalization of learning in creating the structures for greater autonomy and accountability. They are doing this through houses.

Juarez has restructured the school into three houses: global citizen, design tech, and wellness. They are in the first year of implementation. Every student and every teacher is part of a house. This allows people to contribute to creating communities of learners, build stronger relationships, and build a sense of accountability (teachers for students and students for each other). The houses monitor the number of “not yet” students and strategize about what is needed to help students learn. One teacher emphasized, “We are taking ownership of our houses.”

The house structure has also created the dynamics needed to create more distributive leadership and management structures and more autonomy for teachers. Ocón explained, “I’m asking teachers to allow students to drive their learning. That means I need to allow teachers to drive the policy, the culture, and the decision-making.” Each house has four leaders, one from each grade level, who operates as the management team. This means that Ocón and the school leadership team work closely with the twelve teachers leading the three houses.

They have also realized that they had invested a lot in helping all teachers build the mindset needed for standards-based grading, but they hadn’t paid as much attention to the basic practices and structures needed to support personalization.

Ocón reflected on their work to date. “There are lots of people who are scared about how long it takes to change low-performing schools or how long it takes to improve the rigor and performance of schools serving African-American and Latino students,” he said. “So they bring in consultants to help. However, there is no way to create ownership if it is someone else’s idea or someone else does the work.”


I only spent a few hours at Juarez and certainly can’t assess how robust their strategy is, how well implemented, or how much they are reaching scale. And to be honest, the way I organize visits is with a focus on capturing learning, not assessing the schools.

The entire time I listened to the steps they had taken, the structures they had put in place, and the rich conversation about how to best meet the instructional needs of students, I honestly couldn’t tell if there was any significant difference between Juarez’s model and the competency-based schools I’ve visited elsewhere in the country.

Certainly, the size of the school should have been considered a barrier. But it was never once described that way. Thus, the team at Juarez have that can-do attitude of doing whatever it takes to better support students. They also have some work to do to strengthen the structures to support students taking responsibility for their learning as well as the strategies of helping students build their habits of work and learning. And, like so many high schools, they are in the processing of shifting from teaching at a low depth of knowledge (memorizing and comprehending) to those wonderful skills in the higher levels of knowledge (synthesize, analysis, evaluate). This requires different scheduling so they can offer opportunities for students to work more deeply and engage in projects and to support teachers in building their skills and calibrating performance-based assessments.

All in all, it looks to me like Juarez is well on the way to building a strong competency-based system.

Entire Series:

Part 1 – CBE in Chicago

Part 2 – Leap Innovations – Learning Exponentially for Advancing Potential

Part 3 – Loving Learning at Lovett Elementary

Part 4 – Personalizing Learning at West Belden

Part 5 – Getting Results at Lindblom

Part 6 – Servant to Two Masters: Balancing Skills and Content at Lindblom