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Aurora Institute

Merit Prep: Where Students Feel Safe to Learn

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Ron Harvey
Principal Ron Harvey

This is the first post taking a look at Merit Prep. For part two, visit Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety.

I am deeply grateful for the time the team at Merit Preparatory Charter School spent explaining their school, the model, their sparkling information system, their school culture, how to accelerate learning for students who have not been previously well-served by public education, and what they are learning about turning around schools. This post will be followed by another with some of my big takeaways.

Thanks to Laura Shubilla, a long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder of Building 21, for joining me on a site visit. Listening to her perspective helped me better understand Merit Prep, reminding me how important it is to do joint site visits.

The Challenge

What is truly amazing about Merit Prep and the Matchbook Learning approach is that they are pushing hard to create a personalized, competency-based, blended model. And they are doing it with the most student-centered starting point…making sure kids feel loved, cared for, and safe. They are also doing it in an area of concentrated poverty in Newark, NJ, where kids face multiple challenges day in and day out. Matchbook began working to turn around Merit Prep last year, thus they are still in the process of reshaping the culture and expectations while simultaneously working to get the design of the school just right.

The Team

I met Sajan George at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit in 2011. I was instantly impressed by his commitment to finding solutions for our lowest performing schools in our most economically challenged cities. Soon after the summit, he launched Matchbook Learning, and I’ve been watching its development ever since. What was interesting in meeting the team of Merit Prep staff (Ron Harvey, Principal and Jason Lewis, Director of Culture) and the Matchbook Learning leadership team (George; Nithi Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology; John Polk, Chief Operating Officer; Laurance Specht and Tiffany McAfee, Directors of Personalized Learning; Al Motley, Chief Technology Officer; and Dr. Amy Swann, Chief Learning Officer) is that the same level of leadership, courage, commitment, and love of children is held by all. It was such a treat to be in a room of warm, brave-hearted people. As I told them, I think they are going to be leading the way to help us transform schools in big, broken-down districts.

Culture of Safety

The Merit Prep team takes culture-building very seriously. They start by ensuring that students feel safe and cared for, and that learning is at the forefront of any decision. Given that they are introducing an entirely new set of values, there is also an emphasis on high expectations and being “firm, fair, and consistent” to rebuild trust and respect. I’ll write more about their school culture in the second post on their school.

The Model: A Cycle of Learning

The model at Merit Prep starts by meeting students where they are – they level students at the start of school to understand what they know and where they need to focus their learning. Classes are organized by disciplines, with 50-minute blocks followed by 30-minute project-based learning. Approximately eighty students work with three teachers. Merit Prep organizes itself around standards and a four-part cycle of learning: learn and practice, conference, apply, and assess.

Students have choices for Learns with options like videos, worksheets, and adaptive software content. They work through several of them, and when they are ready (more on that below), they ask for a conference with the teacher. In the conference, the teacher and one or small groups of students will check in to see how well the student understands the concepts. They might send the student back for more learning and practicing, provide individual instruction, or the student might move to apply. In the apply stage, students once again have choice about an activity in which they apply their learning to a new context. After the teacher reviews the evidence of learning, student then move to a final assessment.

It may sound very individualized, and in some ways it is. However, students are being very creative about their application, including creating plays and rapping about punctuation. As Harvey suggested, “You have to listen closely when you walk by students in the hall. They might be cooking up something really interesting.” I’m guessing that over the next year or two, this might become a strong element of the model. In addition, there is extra time each day for project-based learning so students have an opportunity to work in groups as well as interdisciplinary application and exploration.

What’s important to understand is that the cycle of learning is the lifeblood of Merit Prep. It is used in every classroom, by every teacher, and is supported by the platform Spark.

The Platform: Spark

Merit Prep had rolled out its new platform, Spark, the day before our visit. It is built upon Slate, an open source platform developed for schools by Jarvus.

George and the Matchbook team walked through the way students navigate Spark, the flip side of how it supports teachers, and then their developing designs for the report card. This is far and away the most student-centric, personalized tracking and reporting system I’ve seen. It is a beautiful thing that opens up the future of competency education. (One of my pet peeves is vendors that describe their standards-based products as competency-based. Standards-based is not the same as student-centric.)

Note: The day before, I was at Building 21, which is in the midst of designing a powerful system for tracking student progress and inspiring them to excel. Interestingly, they are also relying on Jarvus’s Slate to build their platform. For any of you looking for a system that can help you understand how students are doing over time and over academic domains – check Slate out.

There are several strong design principles underlying Spark, including:

  • triggering students to take responsibility for their learning;
  • personalizing reporting so it is the student’s report card, not a bureaucratic document;
  • supporting teachers in identifying students who are struggling and managing work flow; and,
  • thinking deeply about how to maximize learning within the time constraints of the day.

Spark is designed to support students as they move through the four stages of learning on each standard.

Learn and Practice

For each Sparkpoint (i.e., standard) teachers indicate how many Learns are needed. Students can pick from the playlist of Learns that have been curated by Matchbook Learning and, if needed, modified by the teacher for less choice or to guide students to specific resources. The playlist includes videos, Compass, IXL, other adaptive software, and teacher designed worksheets. Little light bulbs at the top show their progress, lighting up as they complete another Learn.

After completing their Learns, Spark prompts students to restate the standard in their own words, describe the steps used to show understanding of the skill, and cite three world examples of the standard.

Matchbook is continuing to curate its playlists with the help of students and teachers, who rate the content as it is used. This produces a much higher level of granularity on feedback on the content.


Students are asked to select a peer with whom to do a pre-conference before meeting with their teacher. Spark captures the name of the student and their feedback.

Matchbook believes that helping students to lift up their voice in the conferencing process is very important. Thus, students are prompted to add questions they have about the material or their learning. Thomas explained, “If kids can ask questions, the conversation is going to go much deeper, much more quickly.”

From the teacher’s view in Spark, they can easily see which students are ready for a conference and, if several students are ready to conference on the same standard, they can pull together a small group to probe their understanding. Spark offers guiding questions for teachers for each step of the process, such as this one for conferencing: How would you explain the standard to an alien? Resources are available as well to support just-in-time learning as students encounter a new situation or challenge.


In apply, students can select once again how to apply their learning or create their own application. Teachers can create options that are vetted by the grade level team to ensure it reaches Depth of Knowledge Level 3 or 4. It’s clear that the Merit Prep team is enjoying the different ways students are inspired to tap into their creative spirit. The projects in this stage are designed for students to demonstrate that they know the concept and the skill. Rubrics are available for students, with scores between 1 and 5 (a 4 or 5 indicates proficiency). At the completion of apply, they can either link a document or take a picture to capture how they have applied the concept, which begins to build up a portfolio of their work.

The issue of apply raised the question of what type of support teachers need to create and assess Levels 3 and 4. As for all schools integrating Common Core State Standards with the focus on higher levels of learning, Merit Prep has to provide support and scaffolding to teachers as they build their capacity for assessing at the higher levels.


The cycle is closed through a final assessment. As George explained, “We need an independent check on the Learns. We don’t want adaptive software products saying when students know something.” Merit Prep is using Illuminate’s bank of assessments, which can be supplemented with teacher-designed assessments.

Assessments will offer questions at Level 1-4 DOK and a reflection question on how the standard will apply to every day life. Students receive immediate feedback unless the teacher has added an open question they need to review.

The final step is for students and teachers to reflect on the Learns so that Matchbook builds up a strong understanding of how the playlist can be better curated.


Matchbook Learning has been thinking deeply about how reporting on student progress can leverage pacing and reflect the values of the school. They are being honest with students and parents about the academic levels at which students are performing and are developing ways to capture students’ growth. Thus, even if students might be “behind,” they might also be one of the strongest in terms of growth rate.

The Matchbook team considered creating a report card that would let parents know how students are doing on a daily basis, but focus groups helped them understand that the ritual of the report card is really important for students and parents. Thus they have created a digital report card that is available four times per school year to trigger reflection on how students are doing and, if needed, deeper conversation about how to better support students.

The report card is personalized, with a picture of the student and a short statement that captures their learning and progress over the past quarter. There are also thumbnails of a number of the projects they did within the apply process or in the project-based learning component of the school day, thereby creating a portfolio of evidence of their learning. The report card shows where students are based on academic levels and the Sparkpoints they achieved during this period, a comment from their teacher on their progress, and a summary of merits/demerits.

Our discussion was fascinating, as the Matchbook team explained that in a highly personalized system, the interim goals are different for each student. If the assumption is that every student will master the standards, that means every student is essentially getting an “A.” There needs to be some way of capturing the progress in a way that signals to students and teachers how students are doing, so they create a target number of Sparkpoints a student should do within a time period. If the student meets that target, they get an A. But if fewer standards are met, they will get a B.

The next step is to create a parent dashboard with guiding questions for parents to talk to students. Brilliant.

Other Insights from Merit Prep

Integrating Student Agency into a Blended Environment

One of the concerns I’ve heard from educators involved in blended learning is that students don’t build the skills to manage their own learning. Matchbook is trying to overcome this and build in student agency in a number of ways. George explained, “We have built student agency into a blended environment so that there are triggers all through the system to encourage reflection. Pedagogically, we are trying to engage peer-to-peer learning in a blended environment and trying to put some onus on students to make sure they are prepared.”

Building student agency is one of the reasons there are long playlists for each Sparkpoint. As Thomas explained, “We want students to have agency on what they learn. We want them to try different Learns and reflect on what helps them learn best. We want kids to be thoughtful about how they select content. ” In addition, Spark prompts students to turn to one another to check on their learning, to identify questions they have before they go to the conference with the teacher, and to reflect on their learning.

Managing the Workflow of Students and Teachers

George explained that Spark is putting rigor around the workflow. The system measures the amount of time in each phase of learning so that teachers can glance and see how long students have been in a phase or a standard. This will also begin to build up knowledge about whether some standards take longer to move to conference. It also has mechanisms so teachers can glance at information about students, where they are, and if they are waiting for a conference in order to set priorities. It also monitors the time that conferences take, which begins to build a foundation of knowledge about this important step in the process.

I have to admit this made me a bit uncomfortable at first. Workflow is a concept you hear in business – but schools? However, if we are to move away from pacing guides for curriculum to support student progress and pace, we need to understand what this is really going to require – especially for our most educationally challenged students. Focusing on workflow also addresses the fear that self-pace means no pace. And think about the extraordinary amount of learning and development children do between the time they enter kindergarten, sometimes without knowing their colors or how to count to five, all the way to preparing teens to be ready to take on the world.

Thus, I concluded that what Matchbook is doing is extraordinarily important. However, I’m not convinced every school should do this. To avoid digital Taylorism, we need to ensure that schools that are doing this are basing it upon a robust culture of respect for students, their lives, the wholistic ways in which children develop, the emotions involved with learning, and the need to access deeper learning, not just recall and comprehension.

Engaging Teachers

Merit Prep and Matchbook are as focused on engaging teachers as they are students. A member of the team explained, “We want to create a culture so there is a reboot to why you wanted to be a teacher. Happy teacher, happy school.”

Harvey also added his approach. “We never assume students are engaged, and similarly, we don’t assume teachers are engaged. Engagement is a changing and iterative process.” In addition to adding prompts, resources, and tools for teachers in Spark, professional development time is offered three hours per week. Matchbook Learning also pays special attention to ensuring that teachers like Spark.


For all those next-gen organizations that can’t figure out how to create multi-racial, multi-cultural organizations, you might want to take a peek at Matchbook, as they take diversity and equity to heart in their organization. They also offer us insights into how to think about supporting students who enter school with big gaps in their skills and how school culture needs to be nurtured in areas of concentration of poverty. I’ll be covering some of this in the next blog.

I can’t wait to visit Merit Prep in a year or two because I know they will have prototyped new solutions that will have gone well beyond anything I might have anticipated.

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