Sanborn's Story of Transformation

The Sanborn Regional School District is in the middle of a major educational reform transformation that has gained local, state, and national attention in recent years. In this article, Principal Brian Stack reflects on how he became associated with a dynamic team of teachers and administrators at Sanborn who have been leading this ground-breaking work.   

"The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now."

This ancient Chinese proverb kept reciting itself in my mind in the days and weeks after I went to my first workshop on competency education back in 2008. At the time I was a Curriculum Director for the Sanborn Regional School District in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire. The workshop changed my life and the lives of my fellow administrators because it gave us a completely new outlook on what competency education was going to do for our educational system in America. We were convinced that we needed to help our school district make the shift from traditional to competency education, but we were all feeling a little "gun shy" on how (and where) to start. The proverb became our battle cry because we knew that we couldn't wait any longer to get started.

With a leap of faith in support of the latest educational research from authors Colby, Marzano, O'Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli, our school community began the implementation of one of the first K-12 competency education systems in New Hampshire. We would later learn that our implementation was also one of the first for a public school system in the country.

As you might expect, our leap of faith didn't happen without some advanced strategic planning and groundwork. For the next couple of years from 2008-2010,the teachers in our schools spent a great deal of time developing common course-based competencies and making sure they were aligned to the New Hampshire Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) and ultimately to the newly established Common Core State Standards. Teachers worked in teams to develop common assessments and common rubrics to measure student learning. As a school district, we talked about the importance of focusing our professional work on student learning and mastery of competencies. Still, we were only scratching the surface of our potential. We knew that if we truly wanted to impact student learning on a large-scale in our schools, we were going to have to operate differently.

At about this time in our school district's journey in 2010, I was promoted to the role of Principal of the high school. In my first year, my administrative team and I developed a blueprint to help us navigate how we were going to have to reorganize our school if we wanted to be successful at competency education. We identified three "pillars" of success, and we recognized that if we could do these three things well, then we would be a highly effective competency education school.

Pillar One: Our LEARNING COMMUNITIES work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.

Our school is now structured into small learning communities for all students in grades 9 through 12. Our teachers are organized into Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) that are responsible for one or more of the student small learning communities.

Prior to our competency education implementation in 2010 we organized our teachers into departments. While this model was useful for discussing curriculum and engaging in vertical planning within specific disciplines, our departments were never able to directly focus their work on student learning. By making the shift to small learning communities and reorganizing our staff into PLC's, we have made student learning the focus of all we do as professionals. Currently at Sanborn, there are 7 small learning community teams that in some way share common students: Freshman, sophomore, junior/senior, math, career and technical education, world language, and fine & performing arts. Our 9th and 10th grade teams heterogeneously group students to provide each with a personalized learning approach. In grades 11 and 12, students are grouped by their career pathway interest.

Pillar Two: Our STUDENTS ARE ENGAGED in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.

We all use a common set of grading procedures that are "competency-friendly" and accurately measure and report student learning in each course and content area. These procedures separate and acknowledge the role of both formative and summative assessment, replace the practice of using quarter and semester averages to get a course average with a learning trend calculation that weighs a student's most recent work more heavily, separate academics from academic behaviors like meeting deadlines and participating in class, allow for reassessment, and use rubrics and a rubric scale, not percentage scores.

Since the teachers in our PLC teams now share common language and common expectations for grading, it makes it easier for them to have the serious and meaningful conversations about student learning. It makes it easier for each PLC team to develop common quality performance assessments that assess student mastery of course-based competencies and to use those assessments as part of a data cycle that includes the following action items:
  • Establishment of targeted learning goals;
  • Development of instructionally relevant assessments;
  • Generation of valid data;
  • Analysis of that data; and
  • Implementation of targeted improvements.

Pillar Three: Our community fosters a POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE for each of our stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

It stands to reason that when you can focus your school community on academic excellence, personalized learning for all students, and provide all students with a clear understanding of what they will be expected to know and be able to do, the climate and culture of the school will change for the better. Such has been the case at our school.

Over the last four years our school community has seen a decline in discipline referrals. We have decreased our drop-out rate and increased our individual course success rates. We have increased the types and frequency of our communication with students, parents, and community members in an effort to provide all stakeholders with relevant and timely information about our school programs and initiatives. Finally, in an effort to foster student leadership, adults and students in our school have developed a new restorative justice peer jury program to provide an alternative to the traditional consequences of suspension and detention. During the peer jury process, a student who has broken a school rule sits with trained student jurors and together they discuss why the incident occurred, who was affected, and how the referred student can repair the harm caused.

Over the last four years our school district has been contacted by at least one educator from each of our fifty states to get more information on our competency education model. While we often decline requests for visits, we are happy to share our thoughts and reflections on our journey with educators because we know that our journey will not be unique. Over the next few years competency education IS going to disrupt the traditional way we have organized and managed our schools in America. Schools across the country have already started on the same past we began in 2008. We are by no means experts at what we do, but we offer schools the comfort of knowing someone else has been in their shoes as they embark on their journey. Each day we nurture the tree that we planted in our school district in 2008, and we know that one day it will be one of the most commanding, beautiful structures in our educational forest.


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