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Aurora Institute

Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety at Merit Prep

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Sajan George
Sajan George

This post is the second on my visit to Merit Prep as I try to capture a couple of the big huge takeaways. (Click here for an overview of Merit Prep.) I really believe that schools like Merit Prep and Building 21 – schools that are student-centric, competency-based, and exploring how to use technology to support the learning process – are opening the door to models that will work for our most vulnerable students. I believe they are at the forefront of turning around education in communities shaped by a concentration of poverty. We aren’t there yet, but after visiting these schools, it’s as if a path opened up in my mind about where we are going. Being able to climb up and outside of the traditional box is the power of innovation, especially when it is designed around the needs of students.

Catching Kids Up Through Non-Linear Progressions

During my site visit, we had a fascinating conversation about how to respond to students who have huge gaps in their skills when they enter a school or have had difficulty keeping a pace that allows them to complete their work for a course. This is no different than a traditional high school when students enroll with elementary school skills, or when ninth graders don’t achieve all their credits, thereby creating a pool of over-age, undercredited students who need special strategies to help them complete high school.

In a competency-based school, the problem has to be dealt with directly, as we don’t pass students on with Cs or Ds. Our discussion touched on creating forcing functions early in the year so students must complete their work before being able to do something else, creating learning experiences that allow students to “double up on standards,” and establishing “competency or standards recovery” mechanisms that can be accessed throughout the year.

Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, explained that they are making a pivot on how they think about missing standards. Remember, they are a school that is designed to have students working at their own level. He said that it doesn’t always make sense to have a seventh grader who is starting at the fourth grade level to follow a linear path. He suggested that we need to think about non-linear paths that will produce greater growth, be engaging to students (can you imagine being a seventh grader who has to work through three years of standards just to get to grade level?), and be instructionally sound.

Matchbook has been looking at Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards. (Please go to link before reading on.) Baumes has developed a way to visualize the prerequisite knowledge for any math standard and to look at a specific standard to see what other standards are built on that knowledge. When you move your cursor to a standard it turns green. Those standards that it depends on turn blue and those that are dependent on that standard turn red.

This got me thinking, How might other disciplines think about prerequisite skills and how knowledge builds upon knowledge? Could we engage the experts in learning progressions in each discipline to think through the best way to help secondary school students build the prerequisite skills they need for the secondary school level standards and curriculum? I think it is time we start having deep conversations with competency-based teachers, content specialists, child and youth development specialists, and curriculum/content experts about how we might construct methods to expedite learning that creates meaning for students.

Culture of Safety

The visit to Merit Prep has really changed my thinking about culture. As you may have followed, I’ve come to think that competency education doesn’t work unless it is rooted in an empowering culture of learning. George agrees that paying attention to school culture is essential. “If the culture isn’t here, nothing else takes hold.” However, the starting point for describing the culture is different at Merit Prep than what I’ve seen in the schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Alaska.

George turned to Jason Lewis, Director of Culture, and Ron Harvey, Principal, to answer my question What types of culture are needed? Lewis replied with the following four principles:

  • Nothing stops learning
  • Every student feels loved
  • Every student feels safe in the building
  • Be fair, firm and consistent

Harvey helped me to understand how these values weave together a culture where students can learn. “The core beliefs need to be shared so that every kid feels loved and feels connected. I want students to be able to email me or any other staff person about what is on their mind. The relationship and the connection allows kids to be vulnerable and take risks. When kids feel safe, they can let their guard down. Letting your guard down enables you to take risks and what we want kids to risk is their own self-perception. We are asking them to believe in themselves and try really hard. This doesn’t happen unless there is a connection.” He also explained that structure, order, and consistency are important so students can feel that the environment is safe and trustworthy enough to allow them to focus in on learning rather than remaining vigilant.

So, how are these values implemented? It’s intentional every step of the way.

The first week of school is dedicated to culture, norms, and rituals – and you see these aspects everywhere. There are the warmhearted greetings to every student and a teacher’s arms wrapped over the shoulder of a student when they are talking as they wait for lunch. There is a daily assembly each morning to help students get refocused on learning, reinforce values, and deal with things that are on their minds. The day we were there, Lewis talked directly about a fight that had happened the day before. He told students to keep their hands to themselves – what might be fun one day with a friend isn’t the next when they don’t feel like playing. What is fun one day might feel aggressive the next.

There is a powerful use of ritual to keep the learning moving forward – there are shared visions to create classroom cultures of respect, there are hand signals to use for tech help or the need to use the facilities, there are numbers to indicate the appropriate voice level, and more. Positive behavior is reinforced through merit (and demerits) supported by Kickboard.

George raised the idea that “you can’t have extended learning without extending the culture.” An example of this is that teachers accompany students to the public bus stops after school to ensure they are safe (and what a way to indicate that you love a kid – seriously brings tears as I write). Parents have thanked teachers for staying with their kids until they are safely on the bus.

George noted that, “The turnaround context is different than a conversion to competency education. It is different when you go into a broken culture and have to stem that tide. The system is broken and schools are failing. As the principal, Ron Harvey has to be incredibly firm and incredibly open. It requires a velvet hammer.”

I think we need to pay attention to the difference of these starting values. Anyone going to introduce competency education into concentrated areas of poverty needs to understand these values and why they are important. This conversation also made me rethink how much I have been emphasizing distributive leadership and creating empowered and empowering organizations as essential for competency education. Perhaps we are talking about phases. Perhaps we will see that in a few years Merit Prep is talking distributive leadership as well. Or perhaps context is so important that we need to be open to different leadership strategies and organizational cultures. I am also going to have to think more deeply on extending the culture and the implications for how competency education and these powerful values have in impacting our communities, our country, and our future.

Culture of Learning and Support

The culture of Merit Prep is as carefully managed as the information system. There is a Director of Culture who keeps the school focused on four core Merit “PREP” values: being Professional, Respectful, Engaged, and Positive.

The staffing structure also supports the culture. In addition to the Director of Culture, there is a Dean of Students and a Dream Director, who focuses on helping students develop a vision for their future beyond what they know in their daily lives. Harvey pointed out, “You need to have all three for bringing about culture change. We need to support our students in their current lives and in developing their future.”

More than any school visit, Merit Prep made me understand the trade-offs in different design choices for schools and how important it is for all of us to seek a balance. Standards help us be intentional, but they can also create a “chugging through the standards” experience. Thus, having higher level competencies or essential skills can introduce more meaning to the process. Interdisciplinary themes with powerful essential questions can engage students in inquiry, analysis, and creativity. Units can organize standards and learning so that more meaning is introduced.

It takes effort, opportunities, and relational time to build intrinsic motivation – and this is in addition to deeper learning, Common Core, habits of work, opportunities to pursue passions, and work experience. Is there really enough time in the day as we are currently set up to do it all for every students? In the film Most Likely to Succeed, they argue there isn’t – it suggests students dive deep into about 60 percent of the standards. The question is, who is deciding which standards are left out – and do we care? Knowing how institutional isms work, we need to make this an explicit conversation.

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