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Aurora Institute

Parker-Varney Elementary: Keepers of the Bar

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Parker Varney
From the Parker Varney Website

What do you do when the student population in your school reverses the RTI triangle so more kids need intervention than core construction?

Amy Allen, principal at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, NH, raised this question early on in our conversation. What do you do when you might have over six different reading levels in one class of twenty-five students? She explained that in a kindergarten class, 60 percent of kindergarteners won’t know the letter A, while others are reading at a second grade level.

Allen explained that they are trying to make the shift to meet students where they are. They are using learning progressions so that even if students are organized into grade levels, they are teaching students at their performance levels within the learning progressions. (Please note: In New Hampshire, the term learning progression has a specific meaning. They are research-based maps of how students learn key concepts. One way to understand the difference between standards and learning progressions is to think of standards as what we want students to achieve and learning progressions as the way to help them get there.)

How Parker-Varney is Moving Toward Competency-Based Education

A year and a half ago, Parker-Varney began to partner with 2 Revolutions (2Revs) to revision what they wanted for students in the school and how they wanted to design learning to meet that goal. Allen explained, “When I arrived at Parker-Varney three years ago, we were program driven. We depended heavily on curriculum programs to drive our instruction. The problem is that when you use products like Every Day Math or America’s Choice curriculum, you are completely tied to that curriculum. There is no flexibility or strategy to meet the needs of students who are at a different level.”

Background: Parker-Varney serves 640 students K-5 with 70 percent FRL and 20 percent special education. Many families are in transition, often depending on shelters as they seek more affordable housing. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of students are, at any time, facing major upheaval such as moving to find more affordable housing, having to turn to shelters, having a parent incarcerated, or being placed within the child welfare system. By January 20th there were already fifteen new students.

There was another problem – there was too much focus on assessment and not enough on instruction. When one month they had more assessment days than instruction, they knew they needed to find another way. Allen noted, “We want to make sure that assessments are for learning.” They defined their problem of practice around student engagement, authentic learning, and ensuring that assessment was supportive of the cycle of learning.

Although not sequential, Parker-Varney has taken four big steps toward transitioning their school to competency-based education.

1) The first step of the redesign process was getting the school team ready for change. Teachers participated in the 2Revs innovation camp. They began to introduce more project-based learning so students were more engaged and had the opportunity to apply their skills in meaningful ways. For example, students research issues they care about, identify solutions in the community, create videos, and help to raise money for impactful organizations. This year, the focus is on substance abuse.

Last year, the third graders had an enormous impact across the community as they researched how to make school lunch more appetizing. After doing their research and finding it was less expensive for schools to manage lunches themselves and making a presentation to the school board, district policy changed for schools to organize their own school lunches. Eating the school lunches is up 20 percent, with even staff eating school lunches now. Students then became concerned about the amount of Styrofoam going into trash. Again based on research, the decision was made to buy a dishwasher. Trash from lunch has been reduced from 12 to 2.5 bags per day.

The dynamics of the school began to change immediately as they realized that they could change student behavior by changing instructional strategies. Allen explained, “Project-based learning allowed for deeper learning. We have moved beyond a ‘find the answer’ mentality to one that is more about inquiry, analysis, and applying.” Teachers also understand that the focus is on learning. “By focusing more on helping students make progress rather than pacing guides, teachers have greater flexibility,” Allen explained. “If they are at a breakthrough moment, teachers can take advantage of that teachable moment and not move on to math time.”

2) Parker-Varney began to participate in the Tier 2 of the PACE initiative, which is building a system of assessments that support learning and can contribute to the accountability system. (Click here and here for more on PACE.) Currently there is a twelve member team from Parker-Varney and the district working with the PACE cohort to develop performance-based assessments. Allen reflected on a calibration training they went to a few weeks ago as part of the PACE initiative. “The calibration process in schools is really where the work is,” she said. “Through calibration, we build a deeper understanding of what we want students to be able to do before they advance and build the capacity of teachers around assessment and instruction. It’s a powerful process.”

3) Parker-Varney also began to look at rigor. What were their expectations for students and how were they communicating this? They introduced the concept of competencies – the big ideas of what we want students to be able to do and ways of ensuring that students can use those skills in new contexts. They also began to look closely at the learning progressions toward those competencies. Allen explained, “Too often in schools with high poverty rates, we lower the bar. You can’t lower the bar or kids don’t understand where they need to get. They will reach the bar that we set. Calibration is helping us to hold the bar up. Instead of lowering it, we need to have constant communication with students about helping them learn.”

Beginning with ELA, Parker-Varney initiated a two-tiered process. First, they examined standards, instruction, and assessments to ensure coherency. Second, they used data to examine exactly where their students were on the learning progressions. Realizing that the majority of their students were not within the grade band, they knew they needed to personalize learning.

4) As many competency-based schools are doing, Parker-Varney then created a parallel system of competency-based progressions for teachers. All teachers have individual learning plans and are being awarded badges on their path to becoming a mastery teacher. (Click here for the Transforming Student Learning Summer Institute to support teachers’ professional development.)

Putting it All in Place

Parker-Varney is trying to figure out how to make sure that those students on grade level and above can continue to progress while teachers continue to work to meet the needs of the majority of the school who require help to get on track to grade level. As Allen explained, “We want to make sure everyone gets the help they need and that we don’t hold any students back. We want to make sure everyone is progressing.”

They’ve re-organized their schedule so that the bulk of ELA is in the morning. This allows students who are reading above grade level to move to a higher grade level for ELA. In the afternoon, K-2 students either go to labs or special enrichment courses such as arts and gym, switching between them every day. Teachers can use this time for planning or even more targeted interventions with their students. Adaptive software is available to allow students to practice and build fluency. The schedule is flipped for the older grades, with their regular classes in the afternoon.

One of the changes is to meet students where they are within their grade-based classrooms. Instead of pulling out special education students for separate work, students are being given different text, with special education staff coming into the classrooms to help. I’ve heard that this practice is making a difference in other schools as well, as even pull-out groups can fail to be as personalized as they need to be for students to make progress. They are also working with Dr. Greenleaf , a researcher in the brain-based learning sciences. He has been helpful in developing a better understanding of math learning progressions and the different reasons students might not be understanding a concept. They have also created a two-to-three week intervention for third graders based on pre-assessments to help them strengthen skills. Given that so many of the math standards are interdependent, they want to make sure students are fluent in the skills they will need again in fourth grade and later years.

In terms of personalizing learning to meet students at their performance levels, the traditional grade-based curriculum creates a disconnect. At this point, teachers have to give students a lower grade even if they are making substantial progress. It’s hard for the teacher and student to depend solely on grade-based curriculum as the one criteria to communicate how students are doing in school. To counter this, Allen explained that teachers are using student-led conferences in grades 2-5, as well as frequent goal-setting accompanied by celebrating growth as much as possible.

Parker-Varney is also building partnerships to bring more resources into the school. City Year has seven volunteers working with the students close to grade level (bubble kids) in ELA and math. Southern New Hampshire University has six student teachers in Parker-Varney. In addition, SNHU is actually teaching two classes, one of which is reading intervention, in the school. On Fridays, the students do co-teaching or work with special education classes.

Reflecting on the Progress

As Allen explained, “In the past, we have had tons of initiatives, but none have been powerful enough to improve achievement for all students. At this point, teachers are hesitantly excited and want to take this schoolwide.” However, she is concerned about burnout. “Making this transition is hard and our teachers are tired. Teachers will say that this is the right thing to do, but I do worry about burnout.”

She also noted that it is opening up conversations about the value of different practices. For example, there is a discussion on the value of retaining students. In Manchester, this is a school level policy. Teachers are exploring what to do if a student isn’t ready to move on to the next grade level but retention is either not appropriate or not going to be helpful – what else might be possible?

One of the big changes that has taken place at Parker-Varney is to think about learning resources rather than textbooks or curriculum. Allen explained, “We don’t have a curriculum any more. We don’t need it. We know where we are going and teachers and students have leeway about how they are getting there. What we use to support that process are resources.”

Allen is trying to develop meaningful data-driven reports to guide continued improvement. “There is a lot of data these days, but not all of it useful.” She has a business education intern who is designing ways to measure growth using the available data. “Introducing growth data will make a huge difference for teachers. It is discouraging to only look at grade-level proficiency as success, especially when they are having such a huge impact on so many students’ growth.” Looking at data is beginning to help them understand strengths as well as areas that need improvement. For example, they discovered that students in special education had the strongest skills in kindergarten because they had all been enrolled in pre-K programming.

Results? It’s very early but Allen said that they are already seeing some results. They have had the biggest gains in third grade by using the RTI model with direct instruction directed toward specific skills based on where students are on the learning progression. In addition, because they aren’t holding students back, seven of their students last year had already completed sixth grade math. When they moved into middle school they were placed into seventh grade math.

What’s Next?

Allen explained that there is still a lot of work to do:

  1. Draw upon the New Hampshire state standards used by Manchester School district to begin to create curricular units. With their deeper knowledge of learning progressions, performance-based assessments, project-based learning, and calibrated understanding of proficiency, teachers are ready to create high quality units.
  2. Develop work study practices (this is the term New Hampshire uses to capture the habits of work and higher order skills students will need to succeed) for elementary school students. Parker-Varney is in a network for work study practices with a feeder system of three elementary and one middle school. Allen explained that being a PBIS school has been helpful, but they need to go further to help students develop stronger executive management skills. They have already turned work study practices into I Can statements for students and are introducing the Leader in Me program into the school.
  3. Develop a better understanding and introduce practices that support the development of student agency and self-directed learning.
  4. Redesign kindergarten. Allen explained, “It needs to be a play-based learning precursor to project-based learning. We need to be focusing on helping students manage their feelings, become more self-aware, and be able to have behaviors and skills that allow them to stay on task.”
  5. Expand performance-based assessments to include science and social studies.

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