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Aurora Institute

Reading the Pulse of Students at Boston Day and Evening Academy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the first post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the second and third posts.

Reading the pulse of students. That’s what Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) does exceptionally well—read the pulse of their students. They know them, they respect them, and they’ve got their backs. That’s where personalization always starts—by having respectful relationships between educators and students.

BDEA has been fine-tuning competency education for fifteen years, and they have a lot of insights to offer to schools that are transforming from a time-based system to a learning-based system. They now offer a Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL) summer institute for interested educators.

Meeting Students Where They Are: The school is designed around students with a wide range of education and life experiences. BDEA is ideal for students who are over-age for their grade level at high school, are at risk of dropping out, or have already dropped out and want to earn their diploma. The day program is slightly more intensive, so students who are sixteen years old and have not completed eighth grade will be directed there. The evening program tends to be for students who have had some high school experience. Distance learning is available for students who need more flexibility.

One hundred percent of the 370 students at BDEA are FRL and about 10 percent are parents. At any given time, approximately 15 percent are homeless. (A note for districts: Boston Public Schools only recognizes 3 percent of these students as being at-risk and able to get appropriate funding. BPS’ policy only recognizes a weighted formula for at-risk students at the high school level, based on entrance into the school directly from eighth grade. It is the antiquated factory-model paradigm, which assumes that students will follow a linear pathway through school.)

Results: One of the hardest things for alternative schools to do is retain students due to a history of bad experiences with schools and adults, as well as instability in their lives. Of the students that graduate, approximately 18 percent graduate in a year or less, 38 percent in one to two years, and 24 percent in two to three years. A whopping 83 percent enrolled in college after graduating.

I love this school. The last school I went to was huge with four schools within it. Here I can ask a lot of questions. The teachers take the time to clarify. They like it when you ask questions. This school is my safe zone. I can be by myself and get my work done. I can work from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. I love getting an education. —G.W.

Structuring a Pathway to Learning and Life: This section discusses the structural elements of BDEA’s design. More can be read about their competency education model in the second part of this case study.

  • Scheduling: BDEA has been operating with two shifts a day but is moving toward even greater flexibility by allowing students to attend classes or work online anytime between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. With their trimester schedule, BDEA is open for classes eleven months a year and has graduations four times a year. BDEA structures the year so that students enter in small groups, or “cohorts,” six times a year.
  • Orientation: The first stop for all students is a highly individualized, four-day orientation. During this time, the BDEA team performs careful diagnostic assessments using MAPS supplemented with teacher-designed assessments and a deep analysis of their transcripts to understand the students’ past learning experiences. It’s not just about academic skills; the orientation is also “a chance to learn about who the students are and how they are doing.” Relationship building starts at orientation.
  • Seminar: Seminar plays a critical role in the learning trajectory for students.  It is an 11-week trimester to get students focused on where they are going and what they want to accomplish in school. Students are introduced to the competency model and the core elements of the school, including experiential learning, the Habits of Mind, Symposium, and the Capstone Project. They develop an individual learning plan with their advisor, and reflect on learning and how they think about themselves as learners. A key component of Seminar is allowing students to re-gain their academic confidence by providing them an opportunity to demonstrate benchmarks early.   Students build personal skills needed to succeed in school  and discover their interests.  Teachers have the opportunity to understand how to best engage and motivate the students.

Seminar helped us think about who we are going to be. I learned about my strengths and weaknesses. I learned about what I needed to do get from point A to point B. There are a lot of situations in life that can make you lose your motivation. It is easy to give up. During seminar, I learned to develop patience and just keep going. —J.C.

  • Symposium:Each year classes stop for two weeks for students and teachers to engage in experiential work. Teachers create projects developed around an essential question such as “How does evidence influence the way we think?” or “What does it mean to stand for something?” Symposium is fun and meaningful for teachers and students because it dedicates time to learn competencies in an extremely creative and collaborative environment. Each project has benchmarks (learning objectives) so that students can see clearly how the project links back to what they were learning in class. Some examples of projects are:
    • where students become web designers with real clients
    • The Effect of Technology on the Brain with research and design of experiments
    • Scenic Design and Construction for performance arts with emphasis on all stages of design, construction, imagery, and technical support
  • Capstone Project: In the final trimester, students are involved in a Capstone Project that includes preparing a research paper, investigating careers through real-life experiences (informational interviews, job shadowing, and internships), and making a presentation.

Roadmap to Graduation: During their last year, students start preparing for graduation and post-secondary options. Students are offered support in preparation for Accuplacer, participate in college writing courses, as a dual-enrollment course. BDEA also has a transition program that supports students for nine months after graduation as they balance college and work, or pursue their postsecondary goal.

With that introduction to BDEA’s structure, the next post will delve into their competency model.

You can find resources from BDEA at the wiki.

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.