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Iteration in Action: Eagle Academy

This is the second in a series on iteration in school design. Read the first installment here.

At E 3 agle Academy, a public high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, students support one another in mastering rigorous, college-ready standards. With a personalized approach and a focus on social justice, students are encouraged to connect classroom content to their experience in the real world, and to move at their own pace along a sequence of clear benchmarks.

Principal Lennox Thompson describes the school’s approach as fundamentally student-centered. “I want to give students benchmarks so they can track how they are progressing. This lets them stay on top of their work so they don’t fall behind and then get overwhelmed,” he says. To facilitate this, E 3 agle places students into groups of 10-12 to form “advise-aeries” (an aerie is an eagle’s nest). Advisors deliver students’ personalized schedules, and serve as a hub for messages to and from students’ core subject teachers.

On a recent visit, students were learning about proportions in a co-taught immersion math class. A teacher was leading a lesson on body image, anchored in an activity measuring Barbie’s body proportions. Students broke into groups and measured their own body proportions before presenting on their findings: How do normal body proportions compare to Barbie’s, and what does that say about body image? The activity gave students an opportunity to develop mastery of math and social studies skills—first in a group setting, and then individually.

E 3 agle’s underlying belief is that young people—even those who are entering high school with significant gaps in skills and knowledge—know themselves and can be trusted to make positive choices about how they use their time and energy. Teachers and administrators understand that for many students, the structural mechanisms of promotion between freshman and sophomore years must be more fluid, and that some students will take more time to finish courses than others. For students, the awareness that mastery of content—rather than “seat time”—is what matters has compelled them to take charge of their learning like never before.

Supporting mastery-based learning

To drive home the message that learning—rather than class standing—is what matters most, E3agle combines freshmen and sophomores in some courses like English and Social Studies, where the gradient of skills is more fluid. Recently, on a recent afternoon in an English class, freshmen helped sophomores analyze song lyrics to find evidence of characterization. When asked, nearly every student could articulate the exact competencies they were working toward. They knew the end goal and how they would work toward it.

English teacher Eleanor Salzbrenner describes a student named Marco*, who struggled in his first year, to manage his time and coursework. This year, says Salzbrenner, with attention and support from his teachers—and lots of opportunities to continue to work toward his mastery goals in each of his classes— “he’s almost chasing [us] down the hallway, saying ‘I need to get this done!’”

Differentiated learning environments

E 3 agle Academy opened in fall 2014 as part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s engagement in Opportunity by Design. With support from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Springpoint, the district engaged in a year of planning a high school that would serve students at all levels and allow them to earn credits at their own pace. The school’s design was grounded in 10 integrated design principles, and the exponent in its name refers to its core mission: to enable students to envision, engage, and excel in academic, personal, and community contexts.

E 3 agle is structured to help students to demonstrate success in three spaces: workshops, learning labs, and seminars. Workshops allow time for small-group instruction; learning labs are dedicated to individual instruction; and seminars bring students together for larger group discussions about timely and relevant issues. One seminar in the school’s first year, for example, involved guests from the Cleveland Police Department leading a discussion on police brutality. Others have focused on natural disasters, health, and conflict mediation.

When the school first opened, E 3 agle developed individualized student schedules at the start of each week to help all students receive personalized supports. Teachers placed each student into a strategic combination of workshops, seminars, and learning labs. Though the scheduling shifts were difficult and time-consuming for teachers, it gave them the opportunity to truly personalize each student’s experience, so they stuck with it. For students, seeing their schedules change each week was tangible evidence of E 3 agle’s willingness to respond to their needs in real time.

Continued iteration

Now in its third year, E 3 agle has found a happy medium in less frequent schedule updates. This lets students develop a set of skills over several weeks while still taking advantage of personalized scheduling. Additionally, as seminars have grown even more robust, staff have developed competency-aligned assessments for them. Students can now master competencies and earn credit for participating in these discussions. E 3 agle is also now using Haiku, a digital learning platform that allows teachers to give personalized feedback to students.

After three years, the mastery-based approach has helped shift the way students speak about their own progress. As Kelly Daily, a history teacher, described, “Very few kids ask for a grade now. Instead, it’s ‘Did I achieve mastery [of course standards]?’ which is really cool to see. It’s school-wide now, and everyone is speaking that same language.”

Students echo teachers’ feelings about the mastery-based, self-paced environment. “Each level of work you can do is geared towards you,” says one student, “and they don’t rush you.” Another student, Damien*, at first was “a class clown, constantly talking in class,” according to Principal Thompson. This year, after enabling him to move to an honors class as a sophomore, he is “completely changed—he’s more mature and takes his education more seriously” says Thompson. With a focus on mastery, he has taken ownership over his success.

*Students’ names have been changed