School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”

Melissa Bailey PhotoSixty-five freshmen are about to embark on a new journey to reimagine a high school education—one that may take three, five, or even six years, depending on how quickly they learn.

Just don’t call them “freshmen.”

And say good-bye to social promotion.

“We’re pushing all the assumptions of how school is supposed to work,” said Erik Good, who’s steering the experimental journey.

The journey begins a week from Wednesday as the academic year begins at High School in the Community (HSC). The radical restructuring is taking place as the Water Street magnet school becomes a “turnaround”—a school with special permission to reconstitute its staff, extend the school day, and overhaul the school rules in order to lift lagging student performance.

A teacher-run school since its inception in 1970, HSC launched two months ago as a turnaround directly managed by the teachers union instead of the school district central office staff. It’s among the most prominent examples to date of how, unlike in other cities, the teachers union and school board here are working together rather than fight on school reform experiments.

HSC, which has 250 students from New Haven and surrounding suburbs, is the city’s sixth turnaround school. Earlier this month it joined the first batch of schools to become part of the state’s new “Commissioner’s Network” of state-sanctioned turnarounds. The state Board of Education approved an extra $7.5 million for HSC and three other turnarounds in other cities. HSC will receive about $1 to $1.5 million to pay for its plans, according to state Department of Education spokesman Jim Polites.

The school got a head start on its transformation last spring, when staff had to re-interview for their jobs, prompting a third of the 31 teachers to leave. The leadership team, which was elected by teachers at the school, will remain in place.

Good, who has worked at HSC for 12 years and was elected to serve as an administrator for the past two, is overseeing the overhaul as the “building leader.” (The school has no technical “principal.”)

Good and his colleagues have spent the summer diving into a daunting task: To reinvent how the school evaluates and promotes students.

To start, HSC is scrapping the term “freshmen.”

Instead of entering “freshman year,” incoming students will be placed at the “foundation level” of a new “competency-based learning” system. That means students have to demonstrate mastery of certain skills in order to move up.

That’s a big change from the current system, where students simply have to get passing grades to progress.

School will no longer be a “Henry Ford assembly line” where all kids get shuffled through at the same speed, Good said. Instead of getting promoted based on seat time, students will progress at their own pace, once they’re ready.

“We’re pushing all the assumptions of how school is supposed to work,” Good said.

HSC is piloting the new system with its first-year students; next year, it plans to convert the entire school to competency-based promotion, he said.

No More Scraping By

In doing so, HSC is following national momentum around redefining the meaning of a high school diploma, according to Larry Schaefer, a senior staff associate with Connecticut Association Public School Superintendents (CAPSS). Schools in Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have already made the shift to competency-based learning, as well as the entire states of New Hampshire and Maine. Vermont is in the process, he said.

CAPSS has endorsed competency-based learning and has been training Connecticut schools in how to implement the method. Schaefer led a training last week for HSC and eight other state schools—called the Connecticut League of Innovative Schools—that are considering following suit.

HSC will be the first public school in the state to make the jump to competency-based learning, according to Schaefer.

“It’s a major change,” he said.

Schaefer said when you watch an average high school graduation, “there are some kids that cross the stage that got all D minuses. They got by minimally.”

Passing grades may not indicate kids are ready for college or careers, Schaefer said. “Many times, students get grades for effort, or because they’re nice kids and they cooperate with the teacher.” Teachers gave all kids the opportunity to learn for four years—but “whether or not they learned it was up to them.”

“In a competency-based approach, you have to master certain content skills in order to earn your diploma,” he explained. The goal is to “make sure that all students graduate college-and-career-ready.”

The approach “really raises the bar,” Schaefer said. “It gives better assurance, in my mind, that when you get a diploma, you’ve got something that’s important and shows what you’ve learned.”

In a traditional school system, “time is fixed” at four years, “but the learning that each child gets is varied.”

In the new approach, Schaefer said, the “learning is fixed,” but the time students take to learn is variable.

“Some kids are going to be out of here in three years,” Good said. Others could take six.

Good and his fellow teachers are now grappling with how to define the new system—what key skills do kids need to earn a diploma? How do you evaluate them without over-testing kids? And what happens to kids who don’t “master” a subject?

Good said teachers across the subjects have been working to come up with key tasks that students will have to perform. Some will be out-of-the box and out-of-the building; others will take place in the classroom.

For example, students in English I will have to be able to write an essay analyzing campaign speeches by President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to show “what the speeches tell us about the values of the leaders.”

The “performance task” is supposed to test skills, not memorization of facts, according to Schaefer.

As part of the turnaround, teachers are set to show up to class four days early, on Tuesday, in part to work through these new competencies.

Schaefer said one big challenge of a competency-based school is to set up an adequate support system for kids who don’t meet the standards.

HSC has an answer for that: It plans to add two hours of mandatory after-school help per week for kids who are falling behind. Half of teachers will stay after school for an hour on Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays.

The extended day is part of a turnaround plan teachers are set to vote on on Wednesday. The state grant will pay for teachers stipends for the extra time commitment.

Good said students will still get grades, though they won’t be As, Bs and Cs. They’ll likely be a new four-point scale based on the new standards. The standards will be aligned with Common Core State Standards, the new national curriculum states have agreed to adapt to.

Good said the school faces a big challenge in explaining competency-based learning to its new students, parents and to people outside the school who may be considering enrolling. So far, he has heard some skeptical feedback questioning why a school would hold onto a student for more than four years.

“We’re already paying for kids to go to school for five or six years,” he said. “Let’s be honest.”

The new system will treat kids like individuals, and enable them to learn at their own pace, he said. When the incoming students emerge from HSC, they’ll have something to show for it, he said.

“These outcomes are really going to be amazing.”

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posted by: ms.mary on August 20, 2012  9:05am

Way to go!!!!I feel it will have a positive effect on kids.With no pressure kids will be ready and willing to learn.I wish you all the best in doing a great job.

posted by: jenand on August 20, 2012  9:43am

New Haven is flippin’ awesome - So committed to using creative change to benefit its citizens. without waiting for some administrative doodah or opportunist to sell their program. I salute you, teachers of New Haven. Thank You

posted by: robn on August 20, 2012  10:50am

I love this idea.