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Aurora Institute

Reaching Out into the Community at High School of Health Sciences

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Engage Community

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the seventh in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Image from the HS² website

Although the personalized high schools in Kettle Moraine share a number of common features in their culture, structure, and pedagogy, each has a different design and flavor. The nationally recognized High School of Health Sciences (HS²) builds upon strong medical partners Aurora-Summit, ProHealth, and the Medical College of Wisconsin to create rich field experiences, real-world public health problems for students to investigate as well as a variety of career development opportunities. Employees from the medical partners also often act as adjunct teachers bringing their expertise into the seminars. (Check out videos about HS² here.)

The beliefs that are shaping HS²’s model and pedagogy are based on the following:

  •      learning is contextual,
  •      students will be empowered to be architects of their own learning,
  •      students will make connections between learning and their future endeavors,
  •      student accomplishments are a result of both successes and failures,
  •      learning is social, diverse, and collaborative,
  •      authentic experiences help students understand their role in a global society, and
  •      teachers guide, facilitate, inspire, and coach.

The learning design for HS² includes:

  •      Micro-school serving 176 students with 7 full time faculty
  •      Immersive, seminar-based learning
  •      Interdisciplinary
  •      Place-based learning (referred to as outreach)
  •      Personalized individual learning plans

The mission of HS² is: The High School of Health Sciences cultivates authentic and personalized learning in a health care and research context. We inspire curiosity in a wide range of fields, study, and service by engaging problem-solvers in an interdisciplinary spectrum of opportunity. Students will master a course of study that equips them for success in health care, research, and related fields. Even with its small size and limited number of staff, HS² offers a variety of courses in sciences, health sciences, and the other academic domains. 

HS² is still defined by credits because of the Wisconsin state policies. HS² graduation expectations are five credits of science, two credits health science, and four in social studies and ELA. Plum noted that some of the AP courses, such as AP science, are very student-driven and some, such AP Geography, are content-laden with teachers expected to cover the curriculum. Personal Reflection: It would be interesting to do a review of AP courses to find out which ones are more aligned with personalized learning and then engage the College Board in conversation about the future of AP.

I found it interesting that HS² continues to use A-F grading and traditional calculation of GPA. Plum noted, “The pursuit of credits and grades is a game. And students are going to learn how to play that game to get a diploma. What makes a difference is to have real-world experiences, and lots of them. Students learn that this is about their life and their life isn’t a game.” He gave an example of how the Medical College of Wisconsin has developed the DRIVE program with HS² and the Milwaukee Academy for Science. The program introduces students to science research and design. Teams of students from the two schools are then paired with a principal investigator and a first-year medical student to pursue a scientific question. Students have looked at questions such as What is the relationship of gun violence and socioeconomic background, including racial tension? and What is the relationship between food deserts and poverty and cancer and diabetes rates, and what remediation might be the most effective? They then complete the data analysis and prepare a poster session and a publication. Given the depth of this partnership, it is constructed as a time-based course. The Drive program is paired with an AP Research seminar. Some students choose an additional outreach experience in research. Plum noted with a smile, “They know by the time they graduate all the ins and outs of a career in research. They know whether from both a social-emotional perspective and intellectual perspective if they want to spend their time in the lab.”

Plum noted that not all students love the HS² program at first. “Students in traditional systems have been taught to be compliant. When they get here, some have to struggle with the concept of ownership. The students who often have the most difficult time are the ones who have always earned As. Some want to be spoon-fed content and a guarantee that they will get an A. That’s not how a personalized, proficiency-based system works. Students have to figure out what it is going to take to learn something, and then they actually have to demonstrate their learning. The learning is what is important, not the grade.”

Plum noted that an important step is for students to build their own understanding of where their skills and knowledge are on the learner continuum. He noted that male students tend to be over-confident and overestimate their skills, while female students tend to be under-confident. He emphasized, “Both are going to get knocked down at some point in their learning process. That helps them to better understand how they learn and what it takes to be successful. That experience can’t be limited to the classroom. They need to confront challenging situations in the workplace too.” This process of understanding one’s own skills in the context of expectations in school and in the workplace is an important step for students. This is how they begin to build a sense of efficacy and self-manage the amount of effort they need to put forward to succeed.

Scheduling is very flexible at HS². It has to be because its medical partners have schedules of their own. Students and teachers have to be flexible. And students are expected to keep on learning if a teacher needs to jump out of the class to handle a phone call or speak with another student who is leaving early for a Certified Nursing Associate training. Courses are all embedded in Canvas so that students have access to the information and resources for seminars. This level of trust doesn’t happen immediately. Incoming ninth graders receive more intensive coaching on what it means to have ownership of their education and to build the habits of success that will help them become independent learners.

Reflecting on the Design and Planning of HS2

Plum talked about the initial stages of planning and early implementation using the metaphor of a sharp knife or dull knife transition. He recounted, “None of us knew what physics in a competency-based approach would look like. We had a physics textbook and a lot of competencies. With a sharp knife transition approach we were able to create a series of physics seminars within three months. We had to learn to ask different questions such as How are students going to learn about this concept and skill? How is the student going to demonstrate that they understand and can apply this skill?” He explained that the trouble starts with a dull knife transition when they try to take a traditional program with a binder of lesson plans, a textbook, and a few tests and try to turn that into a competency-based approach. “They might add some videos and double check that the VCR works. They might create a project. But they aren’t taking any chances. They’re afraid they might cut themselves. The core problem is that they aren’t asking the right question. You have to start with the question, What do you want kids to learn and experience? And it isn’t just academic content. We want our students fully prepared to succeed in the workplace and college by the time they graduate. That’s a much broader set of skills. That requires a different set of learning experiences.”

The competency-based physics course is designed so that it is not time-bound. Some students may finish in three or four months and some may take up to two academic years. Students have the option to spend more time in Physics lab as needed or desired. The structure allows for 24/7 learning and can support students that want to learn during the summer. There are eight modules available through Canvas for which students must demonstrate mastery: linear motion, projectile motion, Newton’s laws, Torque, momentum, Energy/work/power, Periodic motion, sound, and light. This course is designed as a linear progression with students build on knowledge and skills.

Director Steve Plum reflected, “There has been some trial and error. We didn’t get this all right the first time. There have been interesting mistakes that really helped us understand what it takes to organize education around students and have them as partners in shaping their education.” He and Superintendent Pat DeKlotz then shared their insights about balancing the innovative spirit with being too careful. They are aware that opportunities can be lost when other concerns take precedence. They now try to stay true to creating more opportunities for students and then figure out ways to handle other concerns. One example is that they want students to be out in the community, but there are a number of issues related to transportation. They now take calculated risks – providing transportation for the ninth and tenth graders and expecting older students to find their own way as they do with individualized internships.

Plum explained, “It’s easy to get stuck on the wrong question of how could things backfire. We want to ask how we can make the most of opportunities with our medical partners or in the community for student learning. In our partnership with Aurora, students do twenty-hour in-service training, spending four hours each in surgery, emergency, nursing, medical imaging, and therapy. And it is possible they are going to be able to be in the room to observe a surgery. Our expectation is that they learn all the regulations and follow them. Our expectation is that they learn to meet the expectations of the workplace.”

DeKlotz and Plum discussed the strategy for creating a career-themed school. Plum noted that it is important that it isn’t too narrow. Students need to be able to see a wide range of careers so they understand the choices available to them. HS² stretches from fire & rescue to medical research to surgery. They may discover they don’t want to pursue a medical career but find that designing the technology used in health care is very interesting. DeKlotz emphasized, “Students need to understand that if they don’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s a dead end. It’s just the beginning of their next step. The program has to be broad enough to make that possible.” It’s also important to consider the labor market. Healthcare made sense as there are so many unfilled positions in a hospital that require some degree of post-secondary education and training.   

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In the next article, the micro-credential strategy developed to provide personalized, competency-based professional learning will be discussed.

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