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Moving from Theory to Practice: Designing a New Competency-Based High School

By Danny Medved and Lisa Simms

Every school leader wants to create their dream school. They want the kind of opportunity that would allow a passionate team and community of learners to cast a shared vision, to side step the bureaucratic elements of schooling, and to create an atmosphere and experiences that educators and students long for. However, when the opportunity of a blank canvas for school design arrives, there are a number of unspoken challenges in moving from theory to practice. In December of 2014 we embarked on this leadership journey with Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD). As we look back on our first year, there are many lessons that contributed to the success of our first year and our goals moving forward. Most importantly, our strong foundational systems and goals allowed our leadership to steer DSISD through the uncertain waters between theory and practice.

North Star: DSISD Vision

Our theory from the start was that a competency-based approach would make our school truly student-centered from startup to launch. Moving from theory to practice inherently means that an organization will need to navigate uncertainty and change. Many of the daily structures that ensure confidence and coherence in an established school or organization do not exist in a startup situation. What does exist in a startup situation is enthusiasm and excitement about new possibilities. However, enthusiasm is a finite resource that can be whittled away as challenges, which are sure to come, arise. To navigate uncertainty at DSISD, we built a compelling vision to anchor decisions in and test designs against.

The DSISD vision is “To empower ALL students to OWN their learning, SHAPE their dreams, and CREATE a better world.” This simple statement paints the picture of what we hope to instill in all of our students. It is also the first test for all of our decisions and school design elements. From identifying staff dispositions, to curricula choices, to student experiences—if the choice doesn’t align to the vision, then we don’t do it. This simple stake in the ground creates unity and confidence among the staff and provides consistency in the midst of uncertainty and change.

Map and Compass: Year One Goals

But vision alone is not enough—leaders also need to provide concrete criteria to know whether the group is heading in the right direction. Having clear benchmarks and goals helps generate momentum and secure early wins. This positive momentum is critical for counteracting the challenges of change and uncertainty. To secure these wins, the DSISD leadership team set three core goals for a strong first year:

  • Goal #1: Establish a school culture of ownership
  • Goal #2: Establish a coherent and transparent instructional model by content area
  • Goal #3: Deliver on vision specific and DSISD trademark learning experiences (e.g., student-led conferences, off-site learning excursions, play and passion intensives, job shadows, college visits, etc.)

Rocks in the Water: The Adaptive Challenge of an Uncertain Instructional Model

All three of these goals were critical for ensuring a strong first year, but the adaptive challenge of ensuring a clear model was paramount in getting DSISD off of the ground. Adaptive challenges trigger emotion and internal uncertainty, since they are encountered through the lens of current beliefs and past experiences. These challenges are dangerous because they can greatly impact the culture of an organization, and its ability to navigate change.

Teachers and students bring past school experiences and beliefs with them, which can create a sense of uncertainty, inefficiency, and dissonance. This can be overcome by understanding the daily functions of a new learning environment. But this learning curve can be exhausting, and an organization should quickly move toward clarity and continuous improvement. Constant iteration is critical to a learning organization, but total re-invention is not sustainable or scalable. We watched veteran teachers struggle with moving from a synchronous to asynchronous classroom and with supporting their students with advancing based on mastery of standards, instead of seat time. Additionally, until a teacher lands on a consistent instructional design, her or his instructional leader and coach cannot provide targeted feedback. Students also struggled to navigate this change from more traditional synchronous, whole-group, direct instruction to a self-directed, asynchronous progression toward mastery of competencies matched to their personal learning goals.

In order to help students and staff land on a clear instructional design, we facilitated experiences, such as focus groups and weekly coaching sessions, that pushed students and staff to identify what was working in classrooms and what was challenging. This provided clarity for our staff on the nuts and bolts of our instructional model. We took a tight-loose approach, giving teachers flexibility in generating solutions and designing their content area’s instruction model. At the same time, we required them to clearly commit to a course of action. As a result, several instructional models emerged, including the DSISD AP cohort model.

Emergence of an Instructional Model: AP Cohorts & Acceleration

This year, nearly half of our ninth graders chose to enter an AP cohort and take one or both of the exams for AP Language and AP Human Geography. At most high schools across the country, AP classes are reserved for 11th and 12th grades, and students who take AP classes have experienced academic achievement for years. What makes DSISD unique is not only the offering of AP to 9th graders, but the fact that we have multiple on-boarding opportunities for students to elect to join the cohorts throughout the year. This is a key part of our school culture, which values learning opportunities for ALL students. Additionally, teachers support students in fostering a sense of agency and confidence. Students have really risen to the occasion because we’ve eliminated traditional barriers to access, while at the same time providing robust supports, such as office hours and targeted FLEX block intervention and acceleration lessons.

When we created our vision, we knew one of our greatest priorities was to close the achievement and opportunity gap for our students. Equitable opportunity at DSISD means that every student has a pathway to accelerated cohorts, and these cohorts are as diverse as our entire population in race, gender, ability levels and socio-economic status. Within each cohort, students advance once they’ve mastered necessary standards; every student has their own pathway toward mastery. You won’t find a school within a school at DSISD—we don’t provide only certain students with opportunity to accelerate, while others are perpetually placed in settings that have low-expectations, limitations, and boundaries. Rather, we designed a classroom model that is both inclusive and responsive to all students’ cognitive demands. This works toward building our vision of a school where students are empowered to be self-directed learners and can foster a deep sense of understanding and learning alongside the gifts and talents of people who are different than themselves.

While laying a strategic foundation for equity and rigor in school design was a critical early leadership move, we couldn’t have achieved this without hiring the right teachers. These exceptional educators are resilient and willing to take risks outside of their comfort zones. Most importantly, they believe all students should have access to high-value and rigorous learning opportunities. Our lead Language Arts teacher, Stephanie Price*, exemplifies the disposition, skills, and commitment that is required to bring bold instructional designs into daily classroom practices.

Looking beyond Year One: Moving to Scale

The journey from theory to practice will continue as DSISD adds a grade each year and leverages learning experiences at every turn. At the same time, our vision and goals will continue to provide a strong foundation for our team to build upon in the years to come. We are excited to continue the practice of intentional design and exploration that will take us to scale as we move from 100 to 450 students and from 9th grade into college. However, that is another story and adventure yet to come!

Danny Medved (principal) and Lisa Simms (Dean of Curriculum and Instruction) designed and launched Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), a mastery-based high school, in summer 2015 with generous funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and support from Springpoint. To learn more, visit their website and check out this video about the school.

Take a look at companion blog post from DSISD ELA teacher Stephanie Price on bringing mastery-based education and cohort models to her classroom.