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Aurora Institute

Using Competencies as a Blue Print to Personalize Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

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

The following was written by Brian M. Stack, Principal; Michael Turmelle, Assistant Principal / Curriculum; Ann Hadwen, Assistant Principal / Freshman Learning Community; Michelle Catena, Guidance Director; and Vicki Parady-Guay, Athletic Director

Sanborn Regional High School had a very successful 2011-2012 school year in which it was recognized at local, state, and national levels for its work in school redesign for the twenty-first century. The school strives to become one of the premiere high schools in the State of New Hampshire and beyond. Using a competency-based grading and reporting system is one way the school personalizes learning for all students, but it is only part of a bigger picture. To move forward, the school has developed a master plan for redesign that is based on three pillars for success.

Pillar #1 – Learning Communities: Our learning communities work interdependently to achieve successful student performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.

The term “learning community” describes a collegial group of administrators and/or school staff who are united in their commitment to student learning. They share a vision, work and learn collaboratively, visit and review other classrooms, and participate in decision-making. At our school, all staff belong to one or more learning communities that are based on a shared content and/or grade-level. Teams use student learning, specifically the mastery of school and course-level competencies, as a foundation for their work.

In the 2011-2012 year, the first of what will be several highly functioning learning communities was implemented school-wide with the establishment of the Freshman Learning Community (FLC). The vision of the FLC is to prepare freshman for academic and personal success through encouragement, support, & self-advocacy. After just one year of implementation, the program is showing signs that it is having tremendous success in addressing the needs of all learners. Both discipline referrals and course failures for freshman were reduced by 50% from the 2010-2011 year. NWEA scores have increased at all levels. In April of 2012, this program was recognized nationally by the National School Board Association. It received a first place Magna Award for innovation and has been publicized to school leaders around the country as a prime example of how to redesign a school for the twenty first century.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the school plans to implement other highly functioning learning communities including a sophomore team model that will be focused on a project-based learning experience that connects the subjects of Biology, Civics, and Language Arts with a community organization and/or business and a college or university. One of the projects currently in the design phase may involve a year-long study of the watershed in the local community and would partner our students and teachers with the local Conservation Commission and the University of New Hampshire for outreach work.

Pillar #2 – Student Engagement: Our students are engaged in learning tasks and performance assessments that measure mastery of competency.

 Sanborn Regional High School is a statewide leader in a movement from traditional to competency-based grading for all courses. A “competency” is the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s). At SRHS, all courses use a competency-based grading system. By this, it is meant that assignments are linked back to the competencies that they are designed to assess and student performance is reported in a way that tracks student mastery of the competencies that have been identified for each course. This shift in focus allows the school to use report cards and transcripts to more accurately report what it is a student knows and is able to do.

Throughout the 2011-2012 school year teams of administrators, teachers, and students shared the school’s vision for competency work in presentations and workshops all over New Hampshire as well as nationally at a conference in Chicago, two “think tanks” in Washington DC, and in a video conference with the Department of Education for the State of Iowa. A new book by local author Rose Colby and NH State Board of Education representative Fred Bramante entitled Off the Clock: Moving Education From Time to Competency references and highlights the work of Sanborn Regional High School in several different places and is now circulating around the country, generating interest nationwide for a shift to a competency-based model for all schools.

Pillar #3 – Climate & Culture: We foster a school culture for all stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

In the 2011-2012 school year, the school community engaged in a culture survey to identify the ways in which it could better address the climate and culture “pillar”. All staff and students took the survey and the results were analyzed by sub committees composed of students, parents, and staff. An executive summary was prepared by these groups in May of 2012 with the following recommendations for the administration to be addressed as early as the 2012-2013 year:

  • The administration should work with teachers to increase the types and frequency of communication with students, parents, and community members about various school issues. With regards to the work on redesign, the administration should increase communication on the purpose and expectations for various stakeholders on these initiatives by making use of a variety of strategies.
  •  A committee of adults and students should be formed to address student behavior. The committee should review current School Board policies that are related to student discipline, review and revise the language in the student handbook regarding discipline so that it is clear and easy-to-follow for all stakeholders, develop school-wide strategies to promote awareness of and celebrate examples of positive student behavior, and recommend potential alternative strategies that could be implemented to address student misbehavior.
  • The administration should work with all stakeholders to personalize instruction in the following ways: develop a schedule that allows for personalized instruction to address the needs of all learners and one that devotes more time to training staff in the professional learning community (PLC) model as well as create more time for PLC’s to meet in order to address student learning, retool the advisory program so that it could be used as a vehicle to promote the personalization of instruction, and develop and/or refine the grading policies and interventions to allow for the personalization of learning based on student needs and faculty input
  • Efforts should be made to give students opportunities to learn and connect with the community. Also, efforts should be made to allow for the community to be able to support instruction based on career interests or to allow parents and community members to be involved in the school day-to-day activities.

Sanborn Regional High School is committed to learning for all, whatever it takes.