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Aurora Institute

Waukesha STEM Academy: Rethinking Space, Time, and Reporting (Part 3)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the third in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts onetwothree, and four.

“Once you get a new iPhone, you can’t go back to a flip phone…it just doesn’t feel right,” remarked Waukesha STEM Academy principal James Murray. We had been discussing the power of creating a transparent learner continuum and the implications for other parts of the instructional and school design.

Use of Time

One change just led to another, and there was no way to stop or back up because the value to students was so apparent. Murray likened it to climbing a tree, branch by branch. “Eventually, you look down and realize how high you have climbed. We were so far beyond the norm that we weren’t going to turn back and climb down that proverbial tree.” For example, in rethinking the learner continuum, Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) also started rethinking the structure of time and how it impacted learning. Instead of a semester or a school year, they began to think about how they would use the 540 days of learning students had while at STEM and then stretch the learning experience into the summer and vacation months. They are now pushing to see how they might provide a year-round model with more learning during the summer through seminars.

One of the principles they used is Do less so you can do more. They reduced core courses from eight to three per day.  The WSA considers the schedule a framework (scroll down to see this week’s framework), as it is something that guides but can be changed if needed. The first fifteen minutes of the day is spent for a transition to learning spaces. The idea of transition is that students check in with whom they need to, grab the resources they need, finish up any work they need to, and find their way to their learning space. The schedule is then a mix of four core courses each day with times aimed at supporting students and openings in the day, when students are able to work on focus areas respective of their individual and personalized learning goals.

Twice a week, students have FLEX where they go to whatever teacher and course they need extra help or extra time with to complete their projects. Homework Club is available three times a week for extra help after school, with students working in a math lab or literacy lab as needed. Murray noted that 98 percent of the students who need the extra help stay after school. In addition, twice weekly Advisory has formal reflection time for students to think about how they are using the time in the day for their learning, as well as to focus on personal success habits, digital citizenship conversations, ACP lessons, and other types of training and coaching.

CONNECT happens at lunch every day, with students touching base with staff as needed or as requested. This is a very unique approach to lunch, because 100 percent of students are on, all at the same time. No one tells students when they need to eat or where they need to go. In this hour, students choose when they eat and which teachers they will go to connect with. At first, there were conversations about schooling this concept and telling groups of students when they needed to eat and where they needed to go. This quickly fell by the wayside when the mission of this time was looked at closely. “We wanted to help our students build skills in time management and ownership of their day,” Murray adds. “When you do it for them and tell them when they can eat and where they need to sit, and make them raise their hands to throw their trash out or excuse themselves from the table, you have removed the ability and need to develop that sense of growth. Our goal was to build independence, not dependent students who didn’t need to think for themselves.”

When students first join WSA, they are offered a four-week Bootcamp during CONNECT to fully understand the proficiency-based system and the information management systems that support it. Students only exit the Bootcamp when they have demonstrated that they understand the necessary components to be successful at WSA. They learn how to use Google Docs and the information management system For All Rubrics; they are introduced to how the schedule is organized; they become familiar with the learner continuums and rubrics; and they learn how to use FLEX, CONNECT, and Homework Club to best support their learning. Once they demonstrate mastery in these areas, they are released into Gen. Pop. and are “pushed out of the nest,” so to speak, and show that they can be successful. If, after a few days, it is observed that a student still needs some support, they are reeled back in to Bootcamp so they can further develop the skills they need to build up.

Rethinking Space

WSA rethought space, as well. “No bells. (We play music instead!) No hall passes. No teacher owns a space. No one raises their hand to go to the bathroom,” pointed out Murray as we walked from learning space to learning space. There are also movable walls, spaces dedicated to science labs, spaces dedicated to making things, and spaces dedicated to reading or working together in small groups. (I’m not going to try to describe it in words….you can see for yourself.) According to Murray, the thought process was simple. “Why would we slap a name tag on a classroom and have it sit empty and idle while a teacher was on prep? What if you could utilize a space all day long based on student needs and group size, as well as resources needed?” At WSA, you may see students working in a space for the morning and creating 3D Printed projects on CAD or Inventor and then, later on, they are working on Stock-Market simulation, or building up their city in SimCity to help support their Future City project. Strangely enough, one of the math spaces also doubles as a space for chorus in the afternoon, with a portable, electronic piano being rolled into the learning space to support the beautiful melodies you can hear throughout the building.

Rethinking Reporting on Student Progress (i.e., Grading)

The WSA, like all traditional schools, started with an A-F grading system. They then moved to 1-4 scoring framework to provide feedback to students and parents about student progress. However, they found that there were issues in trying to create an overall number that accurately indicated student progress and gave students and parents a real glimpse into their progress. Murray emphasized, “It’s a form of systemic inequity to rate someone below grade level or to assess someone at a lower grade level based on grade level standards. When we place a single number or letter in a check-box for a student, what are we really telling them? Good luck and great job, hopefully you’ll do better over the next 9 weeks, when you’ll get another “grade” in math. By the way, you won’t know what that grade is until you open the secret envelope that is mailed home to your parents. What is the value in that?”

Trusting in the values and the theory of action of personalized, proficiency-based education, they took a big step to focus only on student progress by indicating that a student is proficient or that they are working on a topic toward proficiency. WSA has moved to the very essence of how to communicate how students are doing – being honest and transparent with parents to see where their children are on grade levels and showing where students are working currently so they can be fully supported at home and by teachers in the school. Not only do parents see where their student is in respect to their age-based peers, but they may also identify the specific skills that students are working on currently and what is coming up next across every content area and project. They wanted to build a complete roadmap for students and parents, as well as teachers, so there was no guess work left as to why a student was doing well and progressing forward at a certain pace. They wanted all stakeholders to be able to monitor academic growth and progress on a long-term planner that aligned with proper learning goals that stretch out to and identify college or career-readiness.

Work and project-samples are attached to each continuum as well, so that students can articulate their progress to their peers, teachers, and parents by showing them the evidence of growth and where the feedback stemmed from. This has completely changed WSA’s approach to Student-Led Conferences and the efficiency and impact of this deep, rich and meaningful experience, which is organically designed and shared. “It is amazing to me that we have finally found ourselves at a place where students and parents no longer ask questions like, ‘How does my little Bobby earn a D+ in mathematics, so he can just get by?’ and now have begun to ask questions such as, ‘When will the next opportunity be for Bobby to demonstrate mastery on those skills, so that he can progress to the next level?’” The conversation has completely changed in that students aren’t just getting by any longer, because they are being held accountable to mastering specific skills that are their own… not an entire grade-level of students being grouped together based on a born-on date.”  

Students who used to be boxed into this silly system quickly found themselves either being pushed through a conduit that was way too narrow and too quickly for their personalized learning pace and they would struggle, eventually shutting down and feeling the stigma of failure. The opposite was the student who was able to fly through the curriculum via a fire-hose approach that appeared to take place extremely quickly and with ample rigor, only to be told that they could now read a book, or work on an extra project because they did such a great job and finished up two weeks ahead of time. “Oh, and because they did such a great job, they were given the honor of being able to go work out in the hallway, alone and with zero collaboration or support. That wonderful model of learning was one that we forgot to let in our doors,” Murray chuckled.

In the information system For All Rubrics, green indicates proficiency and yellow indicates approaching proficiency. Interestingly, the yellow also indicates where teachers are providing feedback so students and parents will know where to expect feedback and where to focus. (See the fifth video on continuums on this page to understand what this looks like.) They’ve built out the 9-12 continuum in order to accommodate those students who are ready to move beyond the middle school grade levels skills. Last year, one student had green all the way up the continuum to where pre-calculus was shaded in yellow. Murray made sure I understood that yellow isn’t a problem, it indicates where a student is currently learning. At first, it is sort of a shell-shock to students that they haven’t mastered every single cell on their continuum, as they are used to doing. At this point, you have a very fun conversation with the student’s family and help everyone understand that while the may not have demonstrated mastery in their new skill-bands, it is important to recognize that they are working about four to five years beyond their age-based peers and have almost completed each of their high school math courses, prior to ever stepping foot in a high school. That is a petty neat conversation to have with parents, and when you help families step back and look at the big picture from a 30,000 foot view, they take a deep breath and start to see the benefit of the system in play and how it supports their learner.

For All Rubrics also makes the scores on the MAP tests visible. However, Murray explained, “We really try to de-emphasize the trophy-winning mentality that the MAP test can sometimes bring out in some schools. The belief that if you reach your annual goal, then you are amazing and if you don’t reach your goal (oh no!), you have just earned yourself another 30-45 minutes of worktime in a class that you probably already dislike. Talk about building a disposition, very early on in school. How exciting is that? We want students to be focused on learning, not test scores. Don’t get me wrong, we do find value in the quantitative pieces of data and utilize those to monitor progress over time on large-scale concepts and standardized tests, as it helps us monitor how we are doing on a national level, compared to grade-level bands in other schools. However, the MAP data provides another checkpoint that students are making progress.”

Although they use the term, the phrase “grading” doesn’t make much sense at WSA. WSA abandoned report cards and quarterly reporting out. They focus on the cycle of instruction and learning, evidence, feedback, and reporting progress. Parents have real-time access to student progress. Three times a year, student-led conferences and STEM Student Showcases (S3) engage parents in conversation with students and teachers about students’ learning. They have discovered that they don’t have to report out on everything, only what parents want and need to know. By being clear about where students are relative to grade levels, parents and students have the opportunity to discuss with teachers some supports and strategies about how to help better prepare students for entering high school if they are not yet on grade level. However, WSA keeps the focus on progress (what is now green); what the student did to demonstrate proficiency (artifacts of learning); where students are currently working (what is now yellow); and how students are performing and growing on their habits of mind personal success.

WSA is also introducing badging to recognize student work. Their hope is to be able to show a timeline of when students earned badges to begin to tell the story of a student’s journey. This initiation has already begun and will most likely be beta-tested in science and then scaled to the other core areas, once they have a pretty good grip on how to efficiently create and push out badges based on progress.

Habits of Personal Success

Like other personalized, proficiency-based schools, WSA has come to understand that the process only works well if students are fully supported in building the skills to be lifelong learners. Drawing upon the phases above, they seek to help students develop the skills they need to be successful. WSA’s theory of action emphasizes that providing students with the information about their learning – a transparent learning continuum, rubrics defining proficiency, and lots of formative feedback – allows students to build a sense of efficacy and learn to make informed choices about their learning.

WSA thinks about the Personal Success Skills as what it means to be a good human and, more importantly, a productive and kind citizen in our world. It focuses on five areas to guide laser-focused discussions and provide feedback to students: motivation, mindset, ownership, student agency, and independence. They’ve been drawing these concepts and frameworks from Center for Innovation in Education’s Essential Skills and Dispositions to build skill and precision in giving feedback.  

The effort to help students become lifelong learners is integrated into the core of the design and processes of the school. For example, every time students have to submit work products, they are asked to do a short reflective essay. Why? Reflection is now regarded as an essential capacity required to develop self-regulation and learning.   

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In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at WSA’s journey in creating a personalized, proficiency-based system and how they are using technology to support students and teachers.

Read the Entire Series: