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Aurora Institute

The Envelope Please…And the Winners Are…

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones

The Next Generation Learning Challenge announced the Wave IV Cycle 1 winners this week. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the reviewers for NGLC.) There are a number of grants that are going to offer valuable insights into competency education. One of the things we will need to pay attention to is the difference between those that have a full competency-based infrastructure that is similar to or expanded beyond our working definition, and those that may emphasize proficiency (or mastery) without the same level of formality. We really need to understand what are the key elements to which we need to have absolute fidelity.

We are also starting to see 2.0 versions from the leading innovators, including New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, Boston Day and Evening Academy, and Florida Virtual School.  They are exploring moving to fully competency-based learning progressions rather than using courses to organize units of learning. They are also moving toward new information systems and integration of what we are learning from experiential learning, mind-body connections, and social-emotional learning.

A few of the winners are described below:


Launch Grants

VIRTUAL LEARNING ACADEMY CHARTER SCHOOL (NH), the statewide online charter school is redefining “school” to mean wherever learning occurs, whether in a classroom, online, or in the community through VLACS Aspire, a 100% self-paced competency-based approach (rather than a course-based curriculum), that harnesses the face-to-face learning potential of internships, service-learning, and distributed learning team-based projects.DANVILLE INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS (KY), one of the Districts of Innovation, is completely redesigning its middle school and high school to a competency-based, problem-based, and blended learning model to fulfill the district’s goals of powerful learning experiences, global preparedness, growth for all, excellence in communication, and an informed and involved community

THE GREAT OAKS FOUNDATION (NY) is opening the Great Oaks Charter School of New York City (GO-NYC), a 6th-12th grade school with a significant proportion of English language learners. GO-NYC’s model integrates Swedish-based Kunskapsskolan Education’s (operating in the U.S. as KUSA) competency-based Learning Portal and resources. The high expectations, parent engagement, and dedicated tutoring model is inspired by Match Education of Boston, which received funding from NGLC last year.


Planning Grants

Florida Virtual School (FLVS)  will develop Project TAM, which combines a robust content management system with a student profile system where standards-aligned learning objects are delivered to students as and how they need them. Powered by a recommendation engine that knows the student’s needs and interests, Project TAM will provide a blended learning environment where students learn through individualized online content and flexible, personal face-to-face instruction. In addition, students’ virtual learning will be deepened and strengthened through community-based internships and service-learning as well as Community Learning Centers.

Building 21 is customizing learning at scale by transforming the interaction between student, teacher, and content. The B21 academic model will organize learning into pathways, studios, and modules that allow learners to choose instructional approaches and the pace that suit their learning styles and needs. The instructional menu will include online and blended learning; individual, small and large group instruction; and project-based and real world learning. B21 will tailor when and how students are exposed to these learning opportunities, creating a network approach to learning. The mastery-based permeable school model will engage students directly with post-secondary learning opportunities and authentic learning experiences. The development of critical non-cognitive skills and mindsets will be intentionally fostered through the integration of the B21 “Anchor Competencies” across the curriculum. Transparency and building the habits of mind to self-direct learning will be integrated throughout B21’s learning modules and studios.

Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), serving students who are over-age and under-credit is redesigning its model. Building upon its student-centered, competency-based teaching and assessment practice with wrap-around supports, BDEA is incorporating these additional strategies:

  • Partnering with Project Adventure to incorporate experiential education promoting healthy social-emotional development and 21st century skills.
  • “Brain Breaks” of physical activity will occur before and after core courses to optimize the learning experience and improve motivation, mood, and overall well-being.
  • Expand blended learning in its five core courses: Humanities, Math, Science, Adventure, and Technology.


Internationals Network for Public Schools is opening a new school with its partners

The City University of New York (CUNY) and Make the Road New York (MRNY), designed to meet the needs of a growing student population:. The academic model of Pan American International Community Academy will include the following features:

  • Flexible scheduling and innovative programming
  • Virtual learning integrated with internships and deeper academic learning
  • Seamless integration between high school, community colleges, and adult education/continuing education
  • Opportunities for meaningful work experiences combined with opportunities to learn

The academy will allow students to design a program that suits their individual academic needs, economic/social demands, and college/career desires. It will build off the strengths its students bring, including developing their bilingualism, entrepreneurial ambitions, and commitment to family and community. The outcomes-based and self-paced curriculum—experiential and culturally relevant—will provide multiple entry points for students to access the content and demonstrate mastery. English language learning will be integrated into learning of rigorous content through well-designed hands-on projects.


Jefferson County School District 509-J is developing a personal mastery (i.e. competency-based) model for American Indian students.  The district, in Central Oregon, plans on closing an elementary school serving students of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. The district will use a community-enacted bond measure to open a brand new K-8 school in September of 2014. Students’ families and other tribal members will collaborate with JCSD to provide input into the creation of their community school located on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.  The school will adopt a personalized, mastery-based model pioneered by Richard DeLorenzo, former Superintendent of the Chugach School District in Alaska (another American Indian community that has achieved successful results) including:

  • Individualized education plans for all students
  • Mastery-based approaches (replacing seat time and grade-levels with advancement based on demonstration of mastery)
  • Experiential learning through internships and service-learning projects


The Education Achievement Authority of Michigan (EAA) is developing a new high school model to  extend the breakthrough blended, student-centered learning model currently used in the EAA’s K-8 schools. There will be no age-based grade levels, but students will progress based on mastery. The learning environment will become less structured as students make progress.

  • Traditional bell schedules will be phased out in order to extend the reach of effective teachers.
  • Classrooms will be replaced with open space labs.
  • Students will be able to spend as much time as they need working on various subjects and standards.
  • A College and Career Readiness Coach will mentor individual students and monitor their progress.

Students who meet certain benchmarks will have the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree concurrent with their high school diploma.

The Buzz online teaching/learning platform will leverage licensed and open source materials and will expand the individualized learning plan into a personalized success plan.