It has been a busy year at Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), and much of our focus has been directed to our third 5-year charter renewal—a crucial milestone in the life of a charter school. During the 3-day visit by BDEA’s re-charter team, a student panel was asked “Who is in charge here?” Our students, never shy, jumped right in. Some of them said it was the head of school, others mentioned her by name, but one finally said, “We are!” When the facilitator asked for clarification, others started chiming in to explain that they, the students, are the ones in charge of their education at BDEA.
And the wonder of that moment is that they spoke the truth.
BDEA is designed as a competency-based school with the mission to educate high school-age students for whom the traditional, seat-based school model has not worked. These students come to us from almost every Boston public high school—and recently from many local charter schools. Unsolicited student statements such as this one make me pause and reflect. The answer, “We are!” is the essence of what it means to be a competency-based school: The responsibility of owning his or her learning is placed on the student. When we make student learning transparent with systems and structures that meet students where they are academically (not based on age or grade level) and allow them to progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of skill (rather than seat time and accumulation of credits), we have delivered a system that empowers students to take responsibility for their learning.
We know from the data that there are many more students sitting in traditional classes struggling to fit into what now seems to be a restricted and even antiquated mode of learning. As a result, competency- or mastery-based learning is increasingly at the forefront of the national conversation about student learning. The response of 46 states to the dilemma of struggling schools and students is to create common standards (the Common Core) and standardized systems of accountability (state tests) to “encourage” progress.
Two years ago, we took the time to see how our competencies matched up to the Common Core. As described in Jobs for the Future’s Aligning Competencies to Rigorous Standards for Off-track Youth, this alignment process gave us much to think about, specifically regarding what lay ahead for students who are significantly behind grade-level. Public education had not served them well and so they landed on our doorstep.
At BDEA, we believe we have set an example of what school reform could look like at the school level. We pride ourselves on constantly refining and improving our practice, empowering teachers to innovative and responsive, and respecting and using the cycle of inquiry. Our goal is to meet the needs of our students today while growing our own practice so that we can continue to meet the needs of students five, ten, and fifteen years from now.
BDEA’s mission is to serve students well and send them off prepared, invigorated, and confident that they have the skills to be successful in their next learning opportunity. I will continue to urge our staff to evolve and design a school where students are in charge of their learning. I look forward to seeing how this next generation of learners will push on the walls of our classrooms—as if they ran the place.
Alison Hramiec is Director of Instruction at Boston Day and Evening Academy.
Photograph courtesy of Boston Day and Evening Academy, 2010