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Aurora Institute

Sanborn Regional School District Flips District Reform

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Learn Lessons from the Field

sanborn district-brian blake
Sanborn Superintendent Brian Blake

This is the first in a series on Sanborn Regional School District. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

“We know more about our students than ever before.” At Sanborn Regional School District (SRSD), competency education is about relationships.  It’s also about common sense, finding practical solutions to make education work for kids.  This post and the two following it will provide a look into Sanborn Regional School District.

Background on Sanborn Regional School District

Our site visit began with a conversation with Ellen Hume-Howard, Curriculum Director for SRSD, Brian Stack, Principal of Sanborn Regional High School (SRHS), Michael Turmelle, Assistant Principal/Curriculum Director at SRHS, and Jonathan Vander Els, Principal of Memorial Elementary School.

Hume-Howard began with the story of the district’s journey towards competency education. “Before the arrival of Dr. Brian Blake as superintendent in 2009, the district was paralyzed and unable to work as a system.  Dr. Blake brought focus to the district and provided a clear and ambitious goal for us to reach.” One of the first things the district decided to tackle was the misalignment of curriculum.  Hume-Howard explained, “We became experts in standards,” by embracing the New Hampshire state standards and Understanding by Design, developed by Tighe and Wiggins. They learned what was required to operate a standards-based school, including the calibration that happens as teachers use weekly meetings and professional development to talk about how they know when students are proficient.

Second, they built the capacity of the district and school to use Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) based on Dufour’s approach. PLC’s focus is on students as they become proficient, close in on proficiency or struggle far from proficiency in a course, described as the data team cycle.

“Dr. Blake’s leadership was invaluable,” Hume-Howard emphasized.  “As a leader, he had confidence in us and trusted us to do the right things. He believes in the learning process and gave us the chance to invest time in research and then building initiatives based on that research. He also focused heavily on the importance of the Professional Learning Community as a foundational piece of our work that enables us to work through challenges and to build a common purpose.”

When the State introduced the policy for competency-based, rather than seat-time, credits, SRSD saw an opportunity. First, they set a vision of excellence, with an operational goal of being in the top 10% of the state. Second, they took the time to look at what the research says about how to implement competency education, reviewing the work of Guskey, Ainsworth, Wormelli, O’Connor, Reeves, and Marzano.

Third, they introduced a new approach to district leadership and reform. “We flipped district practice on its head,” curriculum director Turmelle said. “The district embarked on a school-by-school redesign, with standards providing a common thread.”

They have been working to reduce the number of rules, providing schools with flexibility to design structures and establish practices that make sense for their teachers and students. They haven’t found many intractable rules, and so far nothing in teachers’ contracts has been an impediment.


The Competency Framework

Sanborn School District approached the effort to convert to competency education as a district-wide reform.

At SRSD, competencies are equivalent to the essential standards. Teachers design units based on Understanding by Design, identifying the enduring understandings as an overall structure to house the necessary standards. Teachers identify those most important anchor standards that “rise to the top” and then write them as “I can” statements.  Howard-Hume pointed out that if you fail to focus on the anchor standards, the number of standards can overwhelm teachers and students – there might be as many as 100 standards at kindergarten.  Follow these links to learn more about how they are organizing competencies and standards and for tips for unpacking standards.

SRSD thinks clearly about the continuum of assessments, describing formative assessments as a “videotape of the learning process” and summative as a “snapshot” at the close of a learning cycle. They also know they don’t have all the pieces in place yet.  They are working with the Center for Assessment to create performance tasks that will allow them to better assess the application of knowledge.


Human Resources and Human Capital

Competency education is changing the way that SRSD thinks about hiring. In the traditional model, they searched for teachers who had experience in teaching the curriculum for a specific grade. “Now we look for teachers who are interested in teaching students and know the discipline so they can help students who are in different places along their learning progressions,” Hume-Howard said. The PLCs provide much of the orientation for new teachers.

The district also has invested in enriching their evaluation process, which includes using a rubric to observe each teacher five to ten times a year. They haven’t worked all the kinks out yet – teachers said that there wasn’t enough transparency in the process and it didn’t allow them to share what they have been working on in their personal professional development.

The emphasis on PLCs is consistent, with even the district administration having its own PLC that focuses on data that can drive improvement. SRSD uses Pinnacle as their SIS system, and has developed the capacity to include standards in each course and manage standards-based grading. It hasn’t yet been able to provide a full student profile that includes how students are progressing in their learning

The culture of learning is strong at SRSD, with many of the leaders writing about their own learning in school and national blogs, including CompetencyWorks.


Next Steps

SRSD knows that they have a ways to go to fully develop a personalized, competency-based system.  A few of the elements they hope to tackle in the coming years include:

  • Identifying and building capacity to assess the competencies for learning. SRSD knows that habits, or “soft skills,” are critically important for their students. They are starting with Susan Brookhart’s How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading to inform their thinking.
  • Building assessment capacity: As described previously, SRSD is working to create performance tasks.  “In competency education, teachers need to develop their assessment literacy,” Howard-Hume said. “So we are thinking about how to help them.”
  • Clarifying what it means to “exceed proficiency”:  SRHS has created a five-step grading rubric – insufficient evidence, limited progress, in progress, meeting expectations, exceeding expectations. However, they haven’t incorporated Webb’s Depth of Knowledge into their competency framework (NH uses Webb’s) to designate knowledge utilization as exceeding proficiency, nor have they clarified exactly what it is. So teachers have been left creating their own meaning.
  • Creating the capacity to advance beyond the “teacher pace”: SRSD director Stack raised the concern that “we don’t have ways to have students advance beyond teacher pace.” SRSD is beginning to think about more personalized learning through blended learning and other ways to allow students to have greater flexibility.


 It was a pleasure to meet with the team at SRSD, as they have been working together for five years and has developed a respectful, collaborative leadership style.  Their advice to others starting on the path to competency education: “Have a vision to know where you are going.”