There’s a new option for high school on the East Side. At the start of this school year, 360 High School opened within Hope High School, a result of a $3,000,000 grant awarded to the Providence Public Schools from the Carnegie Corporation to open two innovative new high schools (Evolutions High School, located within Mt. Pleasant High School, also opened in the fall of 2015). 360 High School currently has a ninth grade class, with plans to add a grade a year until it reaches its 400-student total.
Both 360 and Evolutions emerged from a yearlong design process that synthesized input from young people, educators and community members. That commitment to community voice continues, with significant opportunities for feedback and fine-tuning as the school year unfolds. Both schools are implementing a student-centered, mastery-based approach as pilot programs within the Providence Public Schools. This mastery-based approach – also known as competency education – supports students to move at an individualized pace through a school’s curriculum and allows more opportunity to fuse a school’s course of study with students’ interests. As 360’s principal Kerry Tuttlebee describes, “Kids have a huge range of developmental needs and stages. Student progression though a course should depend on actual learning proficiency rather than time spent on academic work.” In a time-bound educational setting, some ninth graders will master a key algebraic concept within a few weeks of daily classes. Of course, because we’re not all the same, significant numbers of students will be outliers, either needing more time and support to master this critical learning standard or learning it more quickly. The result: a situation in which insistence that everyone master the same material in lock step creates difficulties for all sorts of learners, as well as their teachers.
For those who retain a notion about learning that involves desks in rows and teachers at the front of the classroom, classes at 360 High School look and feel novel. Each 360 student has a Chromebook that serves as a learning portal.
Using a customized Google for Education interface, students work at their own rate through the curriculum at school and at home. The opportunity to use technology in her education had a powerful emotional impact on ninth grader Maddison Dupuis-Fazio. “The Chromebooks are really different. I rarely used computers before. At my old school, they wouldn’t trust us, but here they do. We’re being treated more like adults. Plus, there’s technology all around us, everywhere in our world, so why shouldn’t it be in your education?”
Using data from online and other work, teachers group students who are learning at similar paces, providing additional support to those who need more time while empowering students who are showing quick mastery to move on. Math teacher Ellen Foley shared how this mastery-based approach works with a diverse group of learners. “We find an entry point that’s accessible for everyone,” Foley described. “Everyone’s doing linear equations. Those who are demonstrating more mastery focus on higher-level systems, while those who are moving at a slower pace learn the same concepts through graphing to gain conceptual understanding of what a line is. Everyone’s working on the same learning target with different levels of proficiency, so when they do a group project they can all contribute with conceptual understanding.”
Both Foley and Tuttlebee emphasize that learning in an individualized way doesn’t mean dispensing with urgency. “Our goal is that our students graduate within four years,” Tuttlebee emphasized. Some students might finish their course work on schedule, which would allow them to start dual enrollment on college campuses or completing advanced certificates while still in a more supportive high school setting. Others might eventually need time beyond the traditional four years. However, Tuttlebee and her staff are confident that nearly all of their current 80 students will graduate at the four year mark. Day to day, Foley says she moves students along by providing constant feedback. “Your own pace can’t be no pace. I tell students that I expect that problem to be done in five minutes, and I put the timer on. Otherwise a task that should take one period could take three periods.”
Most students entered 360 High School from educational settings that didn’t encourage initiative and self-direction. As students mature, they will learn how to learn, providing more of their own structure and expanding their horizons. Freshman Dupuis-Fazio has already felt herself start to transform as a learner. “You have to have a sense of responsibility here, but if you don’t, these teachers will help you build that. This school is going to push you to develop your own learning path.” The mastery-based approach that’s taking shape at 360 High School provides young people with the opportunity to develop the habits of mind they need for lifelong success and helps us understand the power of a student-centered approach to teaching and learning.