Noble High School: Creating Timely, Differentiated Supports

NobleIf we gave out awards at CompetencyWorks, I’d give Noble High School an award for the fourth element of the CompetencyWorks definition of competency education: Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.

In fact, the school is designed around providing multiple support strategies, which it does through its Academies and KnightTime (advisory/support). They’ve organized themselves so there is a web of adults for every student. It would be very hard to fall through the cracks at Noble.

A Foundation of Personalization
Noble High School is a four-year public high school (with eighth grade housed in the same building) serving 1,100 students with about 45 percent FRL. It serves the towns of North Berwick, Berwick, and Lebanon in Maine.

Before putting the proficiency-based infrastructure in place last year, Noble already had a strong foundation in personalization. It’s been a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools for well over a decade, is a member of the New England League of Innovative Schools, and is one of the schools participating in the i3 New England Network.

Below are their guiding beliefs:
At Noble High School, we believe all students can learn when provided with a rigorous and personalized education. We use transparent and democratic practices to foster a community of learners that values trust, decency, and equity for all. By creating authentic opportunities for collaboration, performance, and meaningful work, we seek to prepare students through mastery of skills and knowledge so they may participate capably and responsibly in society.

Example of long-time personalization practices include emphasizing student voice and choice, expecting students to present capstone exhibitions every year (i.e., run student-led conferences, call Roundtables, and complete a Senior Project), and requiring students to complete sixty hours of community service before graduation.

Heterogeneous Academies
Noble believes that heterogeneous grouping is important in creating an equitable environment and responding to adolescents’ focus on peers and social learning. When students enter, they are placed in one of two Academies that are designed to be mixed and balanced by gender, FRL, advanced academic levels, special education, and 504. All classes are mixed except for advanced math. (The reasoning there is that an advanced math class is available starting in sixth grade, so some students need the opportunity to continue learning rather than taking algebra again.)

This approach introduces an important question: If classes are academically heterogeneous, how can you make sure students have the opportunity to excel? At Noble, students can use their KnightTime to pursue honors-level work, which means that instead of being placed in an honors course (a form of tracking), they’re allowed to earn it by demonstrating honors level work and earning an “H” on their report cards and transcripts. (AP courses are open to all students; however, students must usually complete summer assignments or a readiness assessment, so academically high achieving students may end up in a less heterogenous course.)

Teachers stay with the same group of students in their Academy through all five years, working as interdisciplinary teams. Within grade levels, teachers participate in professional learning groups (PLGs) and RTI groups, create interdisciplinary units, and analyze data.

Noble uses a block schedule with embedded professional development. Four days a week, there are four eighty-minute blocks and a forty-five-minute KnightTime. Teams use one of those blocks for planning. On Thursday, there is a late start dedicated to 120 minutes for professional development and then four blocks of sixty minutes each. This professional development time allows teachers to meet within their departments across academies.

Julie Gagnon and Janice Eldridge, teachers at Noble, explained that KnightTime is a combination of advisory and intervention. It is designed to provide a structure to support students and help them achieve success. The goal is to have students become responsible for their learning.

The structure is set up so that eighth graders have an advisor for one year. When they enter ninth grade, they are assigned a new advisor, who stays with them through tenth grade—a two-year process that is repeated with another new advisor in eleventh grade. The students are drawn from different academies. In response to questions about this structure, staff emphasized, “There is no right answer. We are constantly adjusting.” They strive to strike a balance between the advisor being able to form long-standing relationships with the advisees while still only being held responsible for knowing the ins and outs of two different grade-level requirements and expectations.

On Mondays, students meet with their advisor with the goal of scheduling how they will use the remaining three KnightTimes for that week. Students are expected to review their SMART goals, check their progress in Infinite Campus to see if they have any missing assignments, and draft a schedule to be reviewed with the advisor. Once the advisor approves the schedule, students schedule themselves into KnightTime with specific teachers through a software program called Enriching Students (Noble has 1:1 devices).

Students schedule work with teachers in areas where they need help or more time. It is also possible for teachers to “book” students if they know they need extra help or are starting to fall behind. Teachers said that most students in KnightTime are revising their work, getting help when they are struggling with homework, and, for some, just trying to keep up. Students working on honors projects or independent learning can also receive support during this time. If they don’t have anything pressing, there are book clubs, art projects, expanded learning opportunities in the community, and other activities. The goal is to make sure that “every kid is able to find something meaningful to do during KT.” As one teacher pointed out, “If you are caught up, you have choice. You lose choice by not doing the work.”

Thus, on Mondays, teachers are advisors. For the rest of the week, they are either offering support within their discipline or overseeing some other type of activity. Every teacher is responsible for no more than twenty students in KnightTime.

Noble has also invested in building up additional supports for students, including a math lab and writing center. The writing center is staffed by upperclass students who teach others how to proofread, revise, and improve reading. There is also a literacy center that students struggling to read can use as one of their blocks.

Other forms of support include:

  • School counselors and social workers can also schedule students to see them during KnightTime.
  • Special education students are integrated into the advisories, with special education staff often scheduling the students back to their classrooms.
  • Noble provides standards recovery after school or during summer school using Edmentum and Compass Learning.
  • There is also increased time available for building ELA and math skills. In the eighth and ninth grades, students take an additional ELA course. In tenth, they double up in math. This means that between grades nine and twelve, students essentially take five years of ELA and math.
Alison Kearney
Assistant Principal Alison Kearney

Proficiency-Based Learning
Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal, led a conversation on Noble’s efforts to create a proficiency-based infrastructure. Kearney pointed out that Noble had adopted many of the values of proficiency-based learning years ago. For example, they had eliminated the “D” from the grading scale, emphasized application of skills in real-world situations, and valued student voice and choice. However, with the introduction of LD 1422, Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law, they had to reconsider in detail how they might get all students to the standards in all eight domains.
They started by clarifying their philosophy and creating common definitions. Their definition of proficiency-based learning is:

  • We communicate to students exactly which skills and knowledge they will study and practice.
  • We create opportunities for practice and check in to see how much they are learning.
  • We design assessments that identify what students know and can do and give them many opportunities to demonstrate proficiency
  • We demand that students demonstrate proficiency on all standards, not just some.
  • We ensure that our grades are accurate indicators of what students know and can do by assigning separate work habits grade.

Taken together, these statements have required the team at Noble to stay focused and think carefully about the most important things to include in classes. It has also demanded that they become very realistic about what can and cannot be consistently done in five years for all students. For example, they started with the goal of getting all students to the intermediate level in a foreign language. However, after learning that it takes five years on average to learn a new language to that level, they reduced the expectations to the novice level. Another example is that given the importance of writing, Noble developed a schoolwide focus on improving writing using a writing rubric that has bands for 9-10 and 11-12.

Kearney pointed out that their grading philosophically remains the most challenging aspect. They are using Professional Learning Groups (PLG) to talk about what it means to shift from traditional grading to a standards-based system. Although the whole school is using the new grading system, teachers are still learning about the implications of not including class participation and homework in the grade. The new grading scale is designed to indicate three levels of proficiency: Distinguished, Advanced, and Basic, as well as Does Not Meet (NM). They think of this as similar to A, B, and C, and their goal is to make sure all students reach basic level. This approach requires teachers to be able to delineate three levels of proficiency within either a grade level or within two bands for ELA.

Kearney explained that the process Noble used to organize their proficiency-based system includes:
1) Conducted a whole-staff process that resulted in revised core values and beliefs.
2) Conducted a whole-staff process that resulted in new Noble High School 21st Century Learning Expectations (i.e., formerly existed as Noble Guiding Principles) and new schoolwide, analytic rubrics. The Center for Secondary School Redesign’s i3 New England Network provided support in the development of rubrics. Noble’s 21st Century Learning Expectations are divided into three domains: academic, social, and civic. The schoolwide rubrics assess students on each 21st Century Learning Expectation. As part of this process, they did a crosswalk between Maine Guiding Principles and the 21st Century Learning Expectations (i.e., Maine law requires students to demonstrate proficiency in the Guiding Principles).
3) Academic departments studied content area standards (e.g., Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, Maine Learning Results, etc.) and grouped them into clusters of skills, behaviors, and knowledge called Graduation Standards. What is taught is directly related to what students need to know in order to graduate. They produced “Graduation Standards Grids” that specify the performance indicators, knowledge, and skills (i.e., Learning Targets) associated with each Graduation Standard.
4) They conducted a crosswalk between the Graduation Standards and 21st Century Learning Expectations and established specific alignment between the two sets of expectations. For example, NHS 21st Century Learning Expectation-Writing and English Department Graduation Standard-Writing align; the English Department is responsible for assessing students on writing using the schoolwide writing rubric.
5) Graduation Standards are assessed through complementary rubrics and common assessments and instructional practices. Each department also validated and calibrated the assessments and student work exemplars to ensure there was a shared understanding of the three levels of proficiency.
6) They developed scope and sequence documents for each course, which specify the “year at a glance,” (i.e., each unit of instruction that will occur in each semester. Include a descriptive title and an approximation of how many days each unit will take to teach); “standards alignment,” (i.e., for each unit listed, the standards [CCSS, NGSS, or MLRs] that will be taught to mastery in each unit); and “ Graduation Standards alignment,” (i.e., for each unit, a listing of the Graduation Standard(s) in which students will have the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency).
7) Instructional units are developed using the Understanding by Design (backwards planning) model; these are common units, with common goals/standards, and are shared by grade-level partners (i.e., two teachers teaching the same course on separate Academies). Teachers may design instructional lessons that differ.

For an information management system, they are using Infinite Campus, which allows them to organize grade books by Graduation Standards rather than by traditional categories (e.g., tests, quizzes, homework, participation). As students complete assessments, the score is marked under the standard. They then average the grade. They score students work habits as well, but those don’t contribute to academic grades.

Teacher Thoughts on the Proficiency-Based System
How do the teachers at Noble feel about the proficiency-based system? A conversation with three teachers, David Perkins (chemistry), Danielle Miniutti (biology), and Liz Moon, (French) raised a number of points. I’ll let them tell you in their own words.

  • It has lifted our expectations of our students and of ourselves.
  • It makes so much more sense, I feel much more confident. We understand the expectations, and it has allowed us to have more on-the-spot conversations with students.
  • It is a unified approach. We are all working in more or less the same way. I feel better about my teaching, and the kids feel better about their learning. It’s been hard work, but we are hitting a groove and it is worth it.
  • Before we went to PBL, I didn’t offer revisions and I often inflated grades because I thought students “got it.” Now I believe they can do better. Instead of good enough, I talk with students about doing better.
  • We developed stronger assessments, not harder ones. They more clearly assess the skills students are supposed to be learning.
  • There is much more focus on learning. Now that we have introduced work habits, students understand that assignments are practice. They understand they have to complete them in order to learn the content. There is much less anxiety about failing. Students understand that if they don’t use work habits, they won’t be prepared. If they do, it’s likely they will do well.
  • When students have poor work habits, it sticks out like a sore thumb. We can talk to students about the fact that they are not going to get hired if they have poor work habits.
  • Students take pride in their work habits and are taking pride in making sure they understand.
  • Some departments weren’t comfortable with the principle of letting students retry. However, if you create conditions that are based on the work habits to retry, then it really makes sense.

Improving the Graduation Rate
The graduation rate at Noble hovers between 80 to 87 percent. Of the students who graduate, a high percentage go on to college. Thus, the team at Noble has been trying to find ways to keep kids in school. They know that students who have a hard time in ninth grade are likely to exhibit lower engagement.
In terms of other types of support beyond academics, Noble has found the Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) program to be effective. It’s a model developed to support eighth graders making the transition to ninth grade. It allows teachers to efficiently review how students are progressing in building assets. After implementing BARR in one Academy, Noble found that disciplinary issues were reduced and academic achievement increased.

The program helps teachers build trust and form relationships strong enough to engage in addressing social-emotional learning, leadership, grief, loss, and substance abuse.

Other programs designed to help increase graduation rates include:

  • A freshman mentoring program that focuses on students who need the most support in developing habits of work.
  • Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, which provides additional support to lower income students, including leadership development and strong career development.
  • A Multiple Pathways Program (MPP) for students in grades 10 to 12 who are struggling to meet standards. This program provides smaller class sizes, more hands-on activities, and real-world learning opportunities. As a result, Noble is finding that almost all the kids in the MPP are graduating. Essentially, they have integrated an alternative school into their operations for students who need more support and structure.
Joe Findlay
Principal Joe Findlay

Principal Joe Findlay noted that they have lots of programs at Noble. As he states, it can be difficult to know which ones are making the most difference for students.

Thinking Deeply about Preparing Students for Their Next Step
A final conversation with Findlay and Kearney about the tension of getting students through graduation by meeting all standards was very thoughtful and very troubling. This conversation is not unique to Noble – it is happening all over Maine as districts prepare to create proficiency-based diplomas.

The question of what happens for students who start high school with gaps in their skills is an important one. These students work really hard and they show growth, but they don’t reach all the standards in the eight domains outlined in the Maine Learning Results. Certainly, students in special education can remain in school until age twenty-one to build their life skills. But what about other students? As I understand it, Maine has used a four-year graduation rate and counts anyone not graduating by that time as a drop-out. Findlay was emphatic, “A not yet proficient should not be equivalent to dropping out.” The idea was raised of creating a transcript that shows what students do know. But the problem remains – are we going to let students who hit some big bumps in the road not graduate because they didn’t meet every standard? Are we going to invite them to remain in school longer? Are we going to create different types of diplomas?

We also spent time discussing the flip side of this issue – what about students who complete all the standards in less than four years? How do we ensure that they have access to higher level studies, including online courses and dual/concurrent enrollment? With the recent ruling of the Higher Education Commission, this may be much more difficult than before.

I’d love to see what Noble High School could do if Infinite Campus ever creates a student-centric capacity so they can monitor student growth over time more clearly. Then Joe Findlay could have better information about what is making a difference.

This article was originally published at CompetencyWorks in 2015.

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