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Mastering the Art of Competency-Based Learning: Q&A with KnowledgeWorks

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Virgel Hammonds and Abbie Forbus are two leaders behind KnowledgeWorks, a group that partners with national policymakers and local learning communities to redesign classrooms to become more learner-centered. The basic idea is progress and grading that’s based on proficiency or mastery, rather than seat time and averaged grades.

 

We spoke to Virgel and Abbie as the Rodel Teacher Council working group wraps up its yearlong research and advocacy around competency-based learning. Teacher Council members engaged every college and university in Delaware and got them to agree in writing that competency-based transcripts are accepted by their admissions offices—and not a hindrance to prospective applicants.

 

 

Let’s say you’re out at a cocktail party or talking to a family member—how would you describe competency-based learning to someone who is not an education insider?

 

Abbie: Basically I think of competency-based education (CBE) as bringing equity into the learning experience. It gives all kids a shot, because we know that all students can learn, but at different paces and in different ways. What CBE does is bring a common vision for all kids to learn, as well as a transparent curriculum, so that kids can own their learning and develop their agency, instead of just teachers holding the vision.

 

Virgel: If it were explaining it to my grandmother—well, first, it would be in Spanish. After that I would say that it’s about moving kids through school based on their actual readiness, not just an averaged collection of grades. And I’d say that it’s about making sure students are working at a challenging level and truly getting ready for the next step in their educations.

 

Like Abbie said, kids are completely different learners with different types of needs. Grandma would understand that one of her grandkids could walk before the age of one and tie her shoes before four; that all kids have their unique strengths and opportunities for learning that are presented to them in different ways. So what if we could adjust our schools and learning environments so that it works for the superstar grandkid as well as for all their peers?

 

Abbie: We went to school when things were averaged. The idea of averaged grades means you could have a high school student graduating with straight D’s who has lots of holes in their knowledge. Or you could have a students who got an A, but who now feels like they are done with their learning—they’re not digging deeper, or challenging themselves further. I got the A and I’m done.

 

If we’re averaging learning opportunities for kids, even the ones who’ve been successful—let’s say 80 percent—there’s still 20 that’s missing. Those gaps get bigger and bigger as they continue through school until the student eventually experiences struggles.

 

 

What are some of the myths or anxieties you find yourself having to help people through?

 

Virgel: That teachers are paramount in supporting kids in reaching competency in truly personalized ways. The myth is that this whole concept of personalized learning and competency-based education is about tech. But teachers are critically important in developing relationships and trust among their students that will allow these models to flourish.

 

Abbie: Personalized learning existed before students had computers. They’re just a great tool that we have today. People also seem to think that CBE means that class is chaotic or changing all the time. It’s not. All it means is that we want kids to be met where they need to be met. It’s about taking the best teaching practices that have been around forever and making sure that all kids have access to it.

 

Virgel: Abbie and I have a working relationship as teachers and school leaders that goes way back to early 2000s, so we share a lot of stories. One common one that I love sharing is from when we were first implementing CBE, and we were getting lots of feedback constantly from kids and community members to make sure we were living up their vision of learning. And one kid said to us: “You’re not going to let us fail, because everyone is held to the same standard and you’re making sure all kids are getting to where they need to be.” How perfect is that?

 

I think of competency-based education as bringing equity into the learning experience. It gives all kids a shot, because we know that all students can learn, but at different paces and in different ways. It brings a common vision for all kids to learn, as well as a transparent curriculum, so that kids can own their learning and develop their agency, instead of just teachers holding the vision.Abbie Forbus, KnowledgeWorks

 

Tell us about how can SBL help students who may otherwise be left behind in the default system? How is this going to help students who are struggling academically?

 

Abbie: In our experience, because all learners have to prove proficiency and mastery, the holes in their learning or understanding of a subject become much more obvious much more quickly. We’re not waiting years to find these holes.

 

Virgel: One critical element where oftentimes people can go astray is when you hold kids to competency standards without a strong competency continuum. Yes it’s important to set expectations for learning, but what carries it through is when you have that well-defined continuum that’s uber transparent.

 

When teachers work together with an aligned learning continuum, together they can hold students accountable to proficiency before handing them off to the next grade level or learning experience. That allows us to be transparent about what a child knows and what gaps exist…and then provide direct support to close the gap.

 

We can correlate that data with other kids to let us address those holes in a quicker manner than we have in the past. The starting point is holding our kids accountable to the same standards—the how and when are variables. What exactly does competency and mastery look like? Teachers, kids and the community at large have to understand what competency looks like for every level of learning.

 

When we’re talking about CBL, what can we do to help spread this concept even wider? What have you seen work well in other parts of the country?

 

Abbie: Putting a network together. When Virgel and I started, there weren’t many schools doing it. There wasn’t much to learn from. There’s no phonebook for CBE. Trying to connect people and schools together—that’s a huge part of the work. When teachers thrive, they’re often learning form their peers.

 

Virgel: One critical element that we facilitate in communities and cohorts, is what a portrait of a graduate looks like. What do they want them to know, behave, look like—if all things are ideal? The knowledge, the strengths, the system for how we build, support, and nurture our kids from birth thru graduation. It’s not about what happens at high school, it’s about how do we as a community bring the supports, services, and interventions to all our kids so that they are meeting that portrait of a graduate. Stakeholder groups all have a role in that, and I think that’s a critical first step in terms of connecting educators in understanding how their role shifts. You have great trust and a great network of teachers that you’re nurtured in Rodel. Try some new things that they can reflect on collectively. Those are great strategies.

 

Another interesting part is how you include kids in this redesign. If kids feel a sense of ownership and like they’re part of the redesign, it’s going to make that design process that much more effective and innovative. They’ll be going back to their friends, their neighbors, their blogs, saying—‘Guess what I get to do with my school?

 

Are there different approaches to “selling” this concept to different audiences? I imagine there are different selling points for policymakers, for instance, than there with parents, or superintendents, etc.

 

Virgel: A big part of the process is to engage and create models along with community groups to figure out common beliefs, the culture of their community, and so forth, so that we as a supporter of their vision can help move them forward.

 

Abbie: It all stems from the needs of the community and their vision for learning. This is not a transformational school/turnaround system. We’re working on what’s best for kids and helping communities build around that. What we find is they’re not okay with eight out of 10 kids graduating, or test scores not being where they should be, or kids dropping out of college. It’s really important that they see the need and want their kids to be more successful.

 

Virgel: What if you, as an educator or a community member, can say ‘We have a learning community collectively supporting the success of every child.’ That we are all going to support all our kids and the education that we provide them through our K-12 system that will prepare them for the rigors of whatever they pursue afterward. Taking what every parent wants for their child—that’s really what helps a community make this commitment. The best part about this vision is it’s an investment in their community. And the kids come back because they felt such support from their community that they want to come back as adults to bring that support back. It happens magically almost every time. They might go pursue other opportunities but many take what they learned in their K-12 and say this is my opportunity to give back.

 

You’ve been engaged on a small level with the Rodel Teacher Council. They’ve actually gotten every single college and university in our state to agree in concept that CB transcripts are accepted and not a hindrance to the application process–and they even put it in writing—what are your thoughts on that approach?

 

Virgel: I like it. What it could lead to is a conversation about–what are your expectations of prerequisite skills, the competencies you want as a college, and then how to we reverse-engineer that for students? And then vice versa: How can you learn from our approach to ensure you continue those differentiated learning opportunities at the higher learning level?

 

It’s smart to start with higher ed because one question we hear a lot from parents is: What does CBE mean in relation to in higher ed? Having that green light or thumbs up will help alleviate concerns from parents, knowing that they’re kids won’t be at a disadvantage.

 

I’ve seen in states like Rhode Island, where they’ve been engaged on this work on a statewide basis, that they invite their higher ed partners to their community conversations. The higher ed folks often say, ‘This is not a big deal to us, we see transcripts from around the world.’ And really what a competency-based transcript does is provide a clearer picture of what your graduates actually know.

The Power of Place: Q&A with Evelyn Edney of Early College High School @ DSU

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Dr. Evelyn Edney and her faculty like to joke about the 79,000 hats on the wall of her office, one for each duty she must perform as head of a small but growing—in both size and impact—charter school in Dover.

 

Since 2015, Edney has led the Early College High School at Delaware State University, a public charter high school where students get a true taste (and more) of the college experience. Following their exploratory freshman year, students begin taking bona fide college classes at next-door-neighbors Del State, where they can accumulate up to 60 college credits in addition to a whole lot of learning.

 

Edney preaches about the “power of place”—that is, the stark reality of entering a college classroom as a high school student, sitting next to older college kids and absorbing college-level coursework. “They have this realization that they can do it,” she says.

 

That power is paying off. At ECHS (which the Rodel Foundation helped establish), students are outpacing state averages in SAT language arts scores with a high population of low-income and minority students. In 2014 the school earned a Charter School Performance Fund award from the state.

 

As Edney and the ECHS crew prepared for their first-ever graduation ceremonies, we took the opportunity to ask a few questions.

 

What can you tell us about the Early College High School @ DSU model? What makes it different than the so-called typical high school experience?

 

At ECHS, there are two campuses—one, a Freshmen Academy and the other, an actual college campus. A typical day in the Freshmen Academy involves a half an hour breakfast, then four 90-minute periods that include core courses and electives with a 30-minute lunch, and finally a one-hour Advisory/activity period. The academics are broken into semesters to mirror the college.

 

On the college campus, DSU to be precise, the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders are housed. Sophomores are mainly still taking high school classes, and juniors and seniors are mainly taking college courses (12-15 credits per semester).

 

Why focus on three areas—Agribusiness, Forensic Biology and Community Health—in particular?

 

During the first year of the school, the focus was STEM, and those were the chosen pathways for students. But after some time, students developed interests outside of the STEM focus, so the ECHS administration approached DSU about changing the STEM focus to a STEM+ focus. They have, since then, allowed the students to “major” in 41 out of the 42 majors and concentrations that DSU has to offer (with Aviation being the only holdout due to students not being old enough to fly a plane).

 

Who are the ECHS students? Why do they enroll here versus another school?

 

The 420 students at ECHS come from all three counties in the State of Delaware. They enroll in the program to get a “leg up” in being afforded the opportunity to take up to 60 college credits while in high school. There is no program of its kind for miles around. Parents are also thrilled about the potential savings on college tuition.

 

Why is it important for students to have access to college-level coursework while they are still in high school?

 

Students should be challenged every day in school. Most schools have somewhere between 24-30 credits. Even with that, there are gaping holes in students’ schedules, particularly in the senior year. Students should be challenged in that year and have more access to college courses through dual enrollment programs. Not having access to college-level coursework is a travesty, but it happens every day.

 

We know there can be barriers for students to take college-level coursework in high school. What are some of the supports that ECHS has developed to help students find success?

 

Turning 14 year-olds into college students overnight could be a nightmare if there was not a way to monitor their progress and determine which students needed the most support. In 2015, ECHS school leaders developed the ECHS College Readiness Rubric to do just that. It measures the whole student each grade reporting period in the factors of grades, attendance, behavior, scores on larger assessments, and teacher recommendations.

 

The ECHS College Readiness Rubric allows students to self-govern, so that they can see their strengths and areas for development. The ECHS staff can do the same. This is used to identify students who need more supports in place. That comes in the form of a Response to Intervention (RtI) class, homework help, tutoring, etc.

How is ECHS supporting students to think about college majors and careers that they might want to pursue?

 

There are two ways that ECHS works with students regarding majors/careers. First, having DSU as a partner is wonderful place to start students thinking about the majors/careers they want to pursue. They have worked with our students in many ways to provide experiences that shed light on different careers and about the majors. ECHS students have been invited to participate in science labs, an SAP software competition, math and ecology integration, and other academic experiences. In addition, ECHS students have been able to participate in the DSU band and DSU chorus, mentorships with DSU students in varying majors.

 

The second way that ECHS supports students to think about college majors and careers is through the Advisory program. The role of the advisor is to assist the student in making reasoned choices, acquiring needed skills, and serving as the “reality check” that will make college possible. The “hidden curriculum” of the Advisory program is to create a situation where the student has connected on a much deeper level with at least one person in the ECHS school community.

 

The Advisory program is a four-year program. In the ninth grade year, the focus is on college readiness, so students spend the year learning the skills needed to become college ready. The 10th grade year is devoted to choosing a program of study. Junior and senior years are devoted to working on a Capstone Project, a study of some topic—inquiry-based or problem-based—within the major.

How do high school students usually react to taking courses with college students?

 

At first ECHS students are completely frightened about taking college courses with college students, but after a while, they realize they can hold their own and they are fine. ECHS students tend to do well in the classes with very few of them failing college courses during the last four years.

 

ECHS talks a lot of about 21st skills that all students will need as future leaders. Can you give us an idea of what that means and how you’re helping to build those skills?

 

ECHS promotes the following 21st skills within the Advisory program, positive behavior support program (Hornet PRIDE, Catch it!), and through project-based learning:  problem solving, creativity, analytic thinking, collaboration, communication, ethics, action, and accountability. The Advisory program allows students to collaborate and communicate while learning college readiness skills. The Hornet PRIDE, Catch it! PBS program helps students with accountability for one’s own actions and words. Students also learn problem solving, creativity, analytic thinking, as well as the other skills through project-based learning.

 

In December 2017, we released a landscape analysis on Supporting Postsecondary Success in Delaware. Through this research, 54 percent of students indicated that parents/family members have been most helpful in preparing them for their future (college/career)—a much higher percentage than teachers or counselors. How do you encourage parent and family engagement?

 

Parent and Family engagement looks different in high school than it does in other schools. It’s not about mom and dad sitting in the back of Johnny’s classroom because he is acting up in class. It’s about having a quiet place to study, a designated time to study, monitoring peer groups, etc. It’s about showing up whenever you can and partnering with the school by monitoring school work. ECHS invites parents to partner. There is a strong PTSA. Because parents come from all three counties, the PTSA meetings rotate between the counties so parents can attend. Also, there is Zoom Conferencing available for all meetings so that parents can attend without physically being there.

 

Parents are on the ECHS Board. They help to make the important decisions about the school.

 

Tell us about some of your students and what excites you about their futures.

 

Willow Bowen and Christy Malone are the No. 1 and No. 2 students in the senior classes respectively. They are attending Stanford and University of Pennsylvania in the fall. They have earned over 55 college credits (or more by the end of the semester), and their futures are so bright because of all they accomplished at ECHS. They have all A’s and B’s on their report cards with all A’s in their college classes. This is what ECHS is all about!

 

Then there are the students who did not start out being college ready who worked hard to get there; countless numbers. We are so excited for them!

Inspiring a Generation of Little Colonials: Q&A with Dusty Blakey

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Dusty Blakey, Ed.D. was named the superintendent of the Colonial School District in June of 2014. Since then—and throughout his 13-year tenure with the district—Blakey has made early childhood education a major priority.

 

We talked to Blakey, who also serves on the Delaware Early Childhood Council, about the importance of early learning to the Colonial community, and about becoming the first district in the state to open a licensed, 5-star early learning center.

 

The Colonial School District supports students starting at age three, and utilizes partners in the community to support even more. Why, in your mind, is early learning so important?

 

Early learning experiences lay the foundation for all later learning, and we recognize that children and families who have access to high-quality preschool programming experience a lifetime of benefits. At our Colonial Early Education Program (CEEP), we actively involve families, who then feel valued and engaged. By hiring highly qualified early childhood staff, providing ongoing high-quality professional development, educating our families about additional resources available at school and in the community, and offering developmentally appropriate experiences, we set our children on the path for social-emotional and physical wellness, as well as for academic success. What we are doing works because we have many families who stay in contact with our pre-k staff and who bring their children back to visit pre-k year after year.

How big of a priority is early learning for you at Colonial?

 

We have four pillars on which we focus our efforts and our core beliefs in Colonial. Early childhood is our first and most important pillar. When combined with our fourth pillar—Access and Opportunity—they provide us with a blueprint for success for all students and families in Colonial. Following the lead of these two pillars, we offer high-quality early learning experiences in the classrooms at CEEP.

We also partner with Parents as Teachers to provide weekly playgroups at The Colwyck Center and we offer itinerant services to our children with identified special needs who attend community Head Starts and child care centers. By partnering with early learning programs in our Colonial feeder pattern, we strengthen the entire Colonial community. Early learning is where it all starts, so we must continue to provide access to these early learning opportunities.

 

Why did you decide Colonial should lead a Readiness Team?

 

Delaware Readiness Teams forge relationships between and among early learning stakeholders in each of the communities that they represent, allowing each team to focus on the needs of the young children and families in their geographic area. By creating the Colonial Readiness Team (CRT) in 2014, we’ve brought together parents, healthcare providers, librarians, public and private preschool and elementary school staff, mental health counselors, nonprofit staff, child care providers, community leaders, home visitors, financial advisors, and so on.

Team members 1) learn about the services that each team member’s agency/program offers then use this information educate and inform the children and families, 2) support and participate in ongoing community events, 3) plan and implement activities for our young Colonials and their families, and 4) advocate for initiatives and policies that support your youngest learners.

 

Tell us about shared professional development that happens in your district between early learning providers and elementary schools? What’s the objective of that collaboration?

 

Our CEEP team and our elementary team partner with our early learning community in a variety of ways. The Colonial Readiness Team and the CEEP team have invited and included our local Head Start staff, Parents as Teachers home visitors, charter school staff, child care providers, private pre-k staff, and elementary staff to professional development trainings, such as Handwriting Without Tears, Ages and Stages Developmental Screening (ASQ), Fine Motor Boot Camp, Conscious Discipline, and Creative Curriculum.

Delaware’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan clearly highlights the need for professional development collaboration and partnerships between LEAs and early learning providers. As stated previously, when we partner with early learning programs in our feeder pattern, we strengthen the entire Colonial community, which benefits all Colonial children and families.

 

What’s the significance of connecting the early learning world to k-12?

 

We want to support the transition from the early learning setting to the K-12 setting as well as we can, and we want to make the transition as seamless as possible. Children and families should feel confident and comfortable when moving from the birth-pre-k world to elementary school and beyond. In Colonial, we offer personalized tours for all interested families at all of our Colonial schools. Families can contact any school via phone or website to schedule these tours. Our elementary staff partners with our local Head Starts and CEEP to have pre-k students visit local elementary schools prior to kindergarten. All schools in Delaware need to continue to work toward stronger and more effective early learning and K-12 partnerships.

 

 

What unique strategies does the Colonial Early Education Program employ? Tell us about where your district has pioneered in services offered—not just those that are traditionally educational, but also more holistic approaches to wellness.

 

We have made great strides toward our goal of making sure that all of our students and families are aware of the services and programs available in the community, and that they have access to those services.

We recognize that Colonial families need access to high-quality early learning programs that are affordable and full-day. While our children with identified special needs attend for free, our children without identified needs pay a tuition. Our tuition is lower than any pre-k program in our feeder pattern, but it was still difficult for some families to afford. In 2015-16, we began accepting Purchase of Care (POC) for our students without special needs. That year, we also moved from half-day pre-k programming to full-day pre-k programming for all of our four-year-old students and for many of our three-year-old students. We also began offering onsite before- and after-care.

Partnerships (with the Department of Public Health’s Dental Screening Program, 211/Help Me Grow, the Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, Vision to Learn, and others) allow us to help our families access basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care, and to educate our families about community resources, such as parenting classes, financial/budgeting support, and job training.

Our future goal is to use our newly created partnership with The Life Health Center and Nemours at the state’s first elementary School Based Health Center (SBHC) at Eisenberg Elementary to further provide preventative behavioral and physical health services to our pre-k students.

 

What does Colonial offer in terms of developmental screenings—and how do you ensure follow up to ensure children get the identified services?

 

Developmental screening is a huge priority in Colonial. Decades of research demonstrates that when children who are eligible for early intervention services receive those services and participate in high-quality programming, they are more likely to read on grade level, graduate from high school, and not need special education services later in life. Studies show the Return on Investment (ROI) for early intervention to be about 13 percent and high-quality preschool programming to be seven to 10 percent.

Colonial School District is committed to offering free ASQ developmental screenings to 100 percent of the children ages birth-five who live in our district or who attend early learning programs in Colonial. This screening is available online for all Colonial families, and the ASQ link can be found on our CEEP website. In addition, all Colonial Elementary School secretaries offer developmental screening information to families when they register their children for kindergarten, just as all family and center-based child care centers, Head Starts, and private pre-k programs in the Colonial feeder pattern have been invited and encouraged to utilize Colonial’s developmental screening portal for free.

 

What is your team doing to ensure kindergarteners are registered on time?

 

We hold annual Kindergarten Carnivals at William Penn High School, and all Colonial families with a rising kindergartener are invited. We advertise kindergarten registration on billboards, buses, and banners, as well as in email blasts, and flyers that get distributed to community partners.

 

Where would you allocate more resources if they were available?

 

Federal funding for preschool programming is extremely low, as is pre-k finding in our state. While our K-12 students in Delaware are funded at approximately $9,500 per student annually, our preschool children ages three to five with identified special needs are funded at about $500 per student per year.

Delaware’s Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP) is available for children whose families are living at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and ECAP funds 845 children per year. We are grateful to be able to offer 40 full-day ECAP slots at CEEP, but with Colonial’s high poverty rate, we have many children who are eligible for ECAP, but not enough slots to meet the need. With additional resources, I’d definitely allocate additional funding to open more full-day preschool classrooms. At CEEP, we are operating at capacity, and we have a long waitlist. Our families desperately need access to affordable or free full-day, high-quality early learning programming.

 

Did your kids have positive early learning experiences? And did those experiences set them up for success later in school and life?

 

Yes, my children had positive early learning experiences as well as grandparents that were educators so expectations for them were high. Those experiences and expectations led them to educational and social success as they’ve grown into productive adults. Their early learning foundations helped lead to their love of learning that continues into today.

 

 

What’s the significance to you and the Colonial community to have CEEP be a 5-Star center?

 

This is extremely significant because 1) being a Star-level 5 indicates the highest quality of early learning programming in Delaware, and 2) Colonial families have access to a limited number of level 5 centers, particularly in the northern area of our district. As always, it is important that we strive to offer highest quality preschool programming at our district-run program.

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