Columbia High School: How a Comprehensive High School Becomes Mastery-Based

This is the sixth post in a series on Mastery Education in Idaho. Links to the other articles in the series can be found below.

Columbia High School in the Nampa School District is the only comprehensive high school moving to personalized learning among the Idaho mastery-based learning pilots. Walking through the hallways at Columbia, you’d think you were in a totally traditional high school. And in fact, somewhere around 50 percent of the ninth grade is being taught in the traditional way…and 50 percent have chosen another option. Eighth graders at Columbia’s feeder middle schools had three choices: enroll in the Summit Learning program, which offers mastery-based personalized learning; enroll in the mastery-based STEM Academy; or continue to receive education in the traditional model.

As we entered the realm of the STEM Academy, the first indication that something different was happening were student-teacher dyads – chairs or desks pulled closely together and scattered through the hallway for conferencing to reflect on and set the next goals. We wandered through a room with students spread on the floor, sitting on one of the two couches, or gathered around a couple of high top tables. The room was quiet except for a trio of students huddled together at a table and a teacher and student talking at a conference table. Columbia has organized the STEM Academy in a corner of the building with four classrooms, a breakout room, a flexible space, and a kitchen.

I sat down with three students, Anna, Ossie, and Alex, who spoke so quickly and simultaneously that it became one stream: “In the STEM Academy you can learn at your own pace. Actually, that’s not right. You can learn at your own pace as long as you get it done. The best thing about it is that there is always more to do. There are no restrictions on learning. You can go onto the next level or you can go work on the things that you need more time with.”

In another classroom that is part of the second mastery-based pathway at Columbia, we had a conversation with ninth graders about the pros and cons of personalized learning, with the teacher Jannette Stevenson chiming in, “Let’s use this as an opportunity to make a claim and back it up.” Comments included:

  • This [standards-based] grading should begin earlier, at least by sixth grade, as it is a bad time to start in high school when we’ve gotten used to the other way.
  • For students who like to work harder, instead of being bored, now they can work ahead.
  • Students who were held back before can now propel forward.
  • For students who are slackers, they may not have the drive to push forward. They need more help.
  • You can focus where you want to and where you might need the most help.
  • It is hard to keep on pace. I’m always watching how close I am to that blue line. (Columbia is using the Summit Learning platform, which provides a blue line that indicates expected pace, with red line to show actual student pacing.)
  • I like the independence.

Columbia is only in their first year of implementation of a mastery-based approach, and the students are feeling the difference and thinking about their role and responsibility in learning.

Discovering Mastery-Based Learning
Principal Cory Woolstenhulme reflected on his personal journey toward mastery-based learning. “I went to visit Summit Schools a few years years ago and just didn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “Is this for real? I didn’t realize that school could look like this. It wasn’t until I was able to meet with the Summit people at the iNACOL Symposium that I started to understand what it would take to transform Columbia High School.” He continued, “It took visiting several schools and talking to others using a mastery-based approach to decide that I can trust this for my community and the people for whom I have stewardship.” Woolstenhulme and teachers from Columbia visited a few Summit Schools, including Synergy in Kuna Middle School, Alliance Baxter College Ready High School near Los Angeles, and Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire.

Roll-Out Strategy
The roll-out strategy being used by Columbia was different than I had ever heard before, with different strategies being used within two pathways that are both personalized, mastery-based approaches:
1) The STEM Academy, based on engineering and project-based learning, opened up for ninth through twelfth graders, with about 150 students currently enrolled. Teachers signed up to develop the model and were then empowered to create their own team by interviewing each other and deciding who would be the launch team.   
2) Summit Learning is a personalized pathway that is phasing in for ninth graders and then adding a year each year. A team of teachers volunteered to create the model for the incoming ninth graders and will then loop with the students, staying with them in tenth grade, as well.

Each team has a teacher-leader with release time. Dan Neddo is the teacher-leader for the STEM Academy, and Carly Heins, an English Language specialist, is the Summit Learning teacher-leader. Thus Columbia is using a relatively decentralized approach with the teachers involved in creating each of the programs running them very much like small schools. However, students are able to access the benefits of a larger high school, including a wide range of electives, sports, and band.
I couldn’t understand why they would want the complexity of two different roll-out strategies in the same year. Woolstenhulme explained, “We wanted to infuse student-centered choice. We want to start living that way.” In addition, there was a pressing need for a STEM Academy, essentially a magnet within the school, because they wanted students to be able to have a high quality concentration in STEM without having to trade off focusing on science with other electives or extracurriculars.  They also wanted a more general personalized pathway for students and for mastery-based learning to be presented as something that is valuable for all students. He noted, “We know the pathways are going to be different. The end game is the same while allowing the experience to be different for kids.”

The Model
The Summit Learning platform is being used in both the STEM Academy and the Summit Learning program. The difference between the programs is that the STEM Academy is organized thematically around engineering and project-based learning. The team gravitated toward the Summit learning framework based on four pillars: cognitive skills, content knowledge, habits of success, and purpose. Woolstenhulme explained, “The container of the Summit Learning platform allowed us to go from zero to sixty in one year. The cognitive skills are the ones you need at age 14 and at age 40.”

“If we didn’t have transparent student information, we would be lost,” added Woolstenhulme. “Summit’s platform has been a game-changer. It allows us to personalize, not just herd students. We know where students are in their academic learning. We can track behavior that gives insights into the effort students are putting forth or how many times they have done an assessment.” The Summit framework balances skills more heavily than content (70 percent cognitive, 20 percent content, and 10 percent for the demonstration of skills above and beyond grade level expectations). It also pushed Columbia to make sure there was “project time” to enable the development of cognitive skills and produce evidence of mastery. Woolstenhulme noted, “The focus on skills is also opening up new opportunities for cross-curricular teaching.”

The Summit Learning platform provides a structure and helpful information for students and teachers to support students advancing at a meaningful pace while also recognizing that students will need more support and time if they are repairing gaps in skills, struggling with new skills and need more practice or revision, or finding something of so much interest they are diving deep for a bit. The cognitive skills rubric is built into the scoring/grading process. Thus, students receive feedback on their progress every time they complete an assessment. The platform tracks how often students are in the system and their level of productivity. Every project has checkpoints that offers tools and resources. Teachers can monitor which checkpoint students are at in their process. One way to think of the checkpoints is the place where students can access more help if needed. (Not all the learning is done within the platform, but the LMS system holds the instructional materials for each unit as well as the student tracking systems.)

He added that the LMS had enough content to get going while allowing for teachers to add their own. “We have found Summit to be very adaptable,” he said. “You can put your own course in it or you can use theirs or mix and match. You can make it your own.” They are now in the process in building out a guide of how to use Summit Learning within the models being developed at Columbia.

Columbia is seeking to expand their capacity to provide timely, differentiated support. Students currently have personalized learning time two times per week to get more help from teachers. Their block schedule is providing a bit of a challenge, in that it is hard to schedule the personalized learning time every day. The school is working with the district to try to modify the schedule.  

Summit Learning has been a vital partner, with their information management system being described as a “game changer” for several reasons: strong professional development; the Summit Learning framework and LMS content; and the platform capacity to monitor and track student progress. One person described the Summit professional development and coaching as “better than anything I’ve ever seen.” Woolstenhulme was very appreciative of how responsive Summit Learning platform has been. As they provide feedback, they’ve seen the changes made quickly. Please note: The platform currently requires a hybrid grading model that is based on concept of mastery but looks like A-F. However, I have heard that the hope is to continue to push Summit Learning into a platform rather than to design around the Summit model. Thus, I would anticipate over time that districts will be able to modify the grading policies at some point.

Other people and organizations have played a critical role in building the models and capacity at Columbia: reDesign as part of the Idaho Mastery Education Network (IMEN) of nineteen districts; Marzano Research Labs (MRL) for support in culture building and the practices to support personalized classroom management; and the Buck Institute for developing high quality project-based learning. Woolstenhulme noted, “Sydney Schaef from reDesign was instrumental in helping us understand what is at the heart of the culture of learning.” He enthusiastically continued, “Teachers got to sit at the feet of Doug Finn” at MRL to learn about personalized classroom management practices such as codes of cooperation and standard operating procedures. He explained, “We led our transformation with culture and climate. And the pay off has been learning.” He also noted that Kelly Brady, the director of IMEN, has been particularly helpful in “lobbing us ideas, resources, and practices from other schools in the network.”

Read the Entire Series:

This article was originally published at CompetencyWorks August 2018.

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