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Aurora Institute

PASA Forges Ahead with Competency-Based Expanded Learning Opportunities

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Photo from the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) Website

“It’s hard to design a competency-based afterschool program when none of us have had any experience in our own lives of learning through a competency-based approach.”

So started the conversation with Alex Molina, Brittany Sandbergen, and Ann Durham of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA).

“We have an idea of how afterschool and expanded learning programming can be better aligned with student interests and their schooling through competencies, but we aren’t there yet,” explained Deputy Director Molina. “Competency-based learning can help clarify how students move from point A to point B in an afterschool experience. It can help improve the learning experience to be very clear about what we want students to be able to learn and also become a way of providing feedback to them. The one thing that is clear is that it starts by changing the way adults think about learning.”

How Expanded Learning Opportunities are Constructed

PASA has created very dynamic afterschool programming with the AfterZone (middle school) and the Hub (high school). The Hub organizes Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) that provide high school credit (.5 of an elective credit) to students for learning they do outside of the school day. Some samples of ELOs include mechanical fabrication, Android app design and development, Model UN, and environmental science.

While the AfterZone is designed for younger students to explore and try out lots of different experiences, the Hub was created for more in-depth experiences for high school students. It is organized to provide a central system for young people to access learning opportunities not currently available within their schools or to learn about content within applied, real-world experiences. The Hub’s ELOs provide a wide range of experiences, including: Young Voices (leadership development); Chrysalis-App Design (computer science for young women); Improv (acting and storytelling); Rocketry (engineering flying machines and then teaching middle students to do it); iPhone App and Game Design; Model UN; Art+Design Lab in partnership with RI School of Design Museum; and Take CoMMAnd (martial arts).

With funding from Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Providence Public School District (PPSD), PASA then began to strengthen the ELOs for students to earn credit by using a competency-based framework. Durham, Director of Quality Initiatives, explained, “Competencies are a way of improving the quality and design of afterschool for high school.”

For every ELO, students have a “teacher mentor of record” in their school who works closely with the community organizations and instructors to assign grades for ELO credit and completion. While the community partner almost exclusively delivers and implements curriculum, they are not granted access to PPSD’s grading portal. Since the grading system is only accessible by PPSD teachers, the partnership for assigning grades is imperative for the credit. ELOs are designed as approximately thirty-hour learning experiences (twice per week for ten weeks). The big shift in moving to a competency-based framework is that providers are being asked to assess the learning very differently than in the past.

Providers have to apply to offer ELOs through an RFP process that requires them to provide in detail what students are going to learn, lesson plans, and information about the instructor. Once accepted, Sandbergen, Manager of Professional Development and Training, leads trainings focused on positive youth development and curriculum alignment as well as any necessary technical assistance that providers need. PASA and the Providence Public School District both have to approve submitted curriculum before a provider is accepted and recognized as a PPSD registered course for students.

In order for the district to approve the ELO, there has to be a point of alignment with the school curriculum. Durham emphasized, “The trick is to pick broad, far-reaching standards.” Sandbergen explained that there are several mechanisms that can be used to bridge the ELO and school-based learning. One, Common Core ELA standards grouped under strands such as ”Research to Build and Present Knowledge,” can be used in most ELOs. Thus, mixed martial arts and sailing ELOs can be aligned through a final demonstration by the student on what they learned, how they learned it, and how it has shaped their thinking about themselves, their learning, and their future.

Another option is for providers to use supplemental standards such as the RI Department of Education’s music or arts standards. Sandbergen asks that the providers themselves try to identify the standards to which they will align then she will help them refine the alignment documents. Delving deeper into specific content standards allows individual ELO providers to customize the curriculum alignment process to their area of focus.

A third method is to draw on either social-emotional skills or 21st century skills such as communication, collaboration, engagement in learning, perseverance, and problem-solving. Sandbergen noted, “Most ELOs will have one or more of these types of opportunities. However, they may manifest themselves differently. Thus, critical thinking or creativity may look different and draw on different content knowledge in a sewing program as compared to an engineering program.”

There is also training on how to create and use rubrics focused on these skills. She noted that the rubrics are focused on 21st Century skills, which are applicable no matter the subject matter, to help structure the dialogue and emphasize the importance of these skills with youth. Through the ELO’s rubric customizations, youth can understand how to draw out and practice each skill within the context of the ELO’s learning environment and then engage in dialogue with their instructor about how to continue their individual growth.

At the end of the ELO, students are expected to demonstrate what they have learned in front of a panel of community members, their peers, the ELO instructor and their teacher mentor of record. For the ELO specific skills, a checklist is used to generate feedback rather than a rubric. The feedback from panelists is not used in determining the grade but rather to provide youth with an opportunity to hear from professionals in the field they are studying. The instructor also completes a formal assessment using the ELO rubric that is completed midway through and then at the very end of the session.

Insights and Emerging Issues

There are several issues that have made it challenging for expanded learning programming to be used as the entry way for competency-based learning:

  • Outside-In Strategy: The partnership between Providence Public School District and PASA is playing a pivotal role in introducing some competency-based practices to schools. Even though PASA finds that the competency-based structures enhance the communication between school, PASA, ELO provider, and students, it isn’t always an easy fit as few schools in Rhode Island have made a shift to thinking about advancing upon mastery. As schools build more competence themselves in these practices, it is likely that they will see the value to using them within the school day. (See post on Rhode Island.)
  • Providers Have Big Learning Lifts: Providers have to learn the competency-based practices, including creating rubrics to determine proficiency and how do to assessments. This is particularly difficult for those individual providers who have a passion, such as building boats and want to open their doors to young people, but are not trained in educational pedagogy. They are doing this through generosity (the stipend is minimal at $1,200 for a 40-45 hour session), and it is a lot to ask someone to build up a whole new area of expertise.
  • Timing: Durham explained that the current structure doesn’t allow for any flexibility in the amount of time students have to develop the skills within an ELO. It is a ten-week program with the same entry and exit for all students. A rubric is used in the beginning and mid-point to help students understand the skill development. However, the provider completes the second round rubric when they do their final demonstration at the end of the ten weeks, thus the students never get final feedback or a chance to improve if they didn’t meet all the elements of proficiency.
  • When Common Core Standards are Used for Mixed Grade ELOs: ELOs are designed as mixed grade. However, providers use level of proficiency within the rubrics for the academic related skills. Thus, distinctions are not being made between what a presentation should look like for a ninth grader as compared to a twelfth grader. Given that these are for elective credits, this is not a barrier. However, if the district wanted to open up for students to develop and demonstrate skills through ELOs for core academic credit, there would need to be more attention to this issue.
  • Accessibility of Common Core and Other Education Language: Durham explained, “The community partners and school teachers are both educators, but they inhabit two different worlds with two different sets of language. Although Common Core can be very helpful in providing language about student progress, it is not language that most community partners are familiar with. Even with a template, the burden is on the community partners to learn about the language of Common Core and the education system. It would be invaluable to be able to create common language that could strengthen the relationships between these two sectors.”

Sandbergen helped me understand that our challenge is to create accessible language that allows us draw on the assets of our communities in a way that resonates with them. She explained, “There is a problem when a captain who has experience working with underwater robots and is brilliant in working with the most challenged young people, young people who have nearly shut down emotionally, can’t become an ELO instructor because he doesn’t know the language of formal education.” It’s an important reminder to us that as we build the new competency-based structures, we need keep in mind that it has to eventually be as easy to understand as semesters and A-F grading.

Coming Up Next

In the coming year, PASA will be exploring how ELOs can be used to strengthen CTE pathways. Community partners will be paired with in-school CTE teachers to synchronize their content so that the in- and out-of-school learning experiences directly complement and build upon each other.

The state is also investing in ELOs. RIDE approved a proposal to create nine ELO courses in advanced STEM topics to be offered by community providers in partnerships with schools. These courses would get per-pupil allocation, opening the door to much richer expanded learning experiences.

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