‘School within a school’ lets kids control their learning

IDAHO FALLS — Nearly a fourth of Rocky Mountain Middle School’s students attend their classes in a old vocational building behind the school.

“We call it a school within a school,” said Rocky Mountain history teacher Jami Mcling.

With an at-times crowded hallway, new lockers, classrooms and bathrooms, the bygone shop houses a 180-student mastery pilot program that encourages kids to take control of their coursework. They set their own schedules and take tests when they’re ready.

Students walk the hallway at Rocky Mountain’s mastery pilot program.

Rocky Mountain is one of 32 Idaho schools with at least some students participating in a state-sponsored mastery pilot program. Last year, Idaho lawmakers carved up $1.4 million for participating schools. Schools chief Sherri Ybarra wants to increase the amount to $1.9 million, despite mixed results three years in. Ybarra said student outcomes need more time to play out.

The focus on mastery is largely the same from pilot to pilot: moving away from a system based on seat time and toward one based on development. Rather than earning letter grades, students advance through coursework by meeting “mastery” thresholds on tests and projects.

With a threshold of 80 percent, Rocky Mountain’s mastery students progress from course to course at varying rates — one tenet of a mastery-based model. At least three Rocky Mountain eighth graders are already doing high school coursework. Others require more time and help learning the material.

To address the challenge, Rocky Mountain’s pilot program uses Summit Learning, an online learning platform that helps students set goals, draft plans to achieve them at their own pace, and demonstrate learning through periodic tests and projects.

Rocky Mountain Middle School’s mastery students work individually in a classroom devoted to silent study.

Each school day, students use laptops to review their progress, identify activities and assignments and, if needed, get help from a teacher. Green checkmarks indicate areas where students are on track. Red marks mean they’ve fallen behind.

Meanwhile, Mcling and the program’s six other teachers meet daily to review students’ progress through their own Summit accounts. The teachers plan learning activities around areas of need. Activities range from lessons on a particular topic to individualized teaching or mentoring. Students can view activities in advance through Google Calendar and make plans to participate.

All the planning and emphasis on self-direction results in a building full of students engaged in various activities at any given time. One recent morning, some students settled into couches in a silent study room, feet propped up on coffee tables, taking online tests. Others studied silently at desks or met in groups across the hall in a room devoted to projects. Down the hall, a science teacher delivered a lesson to over a dozen students. Mcling helped students individually.

“We choose what to work on when we can,” said eighth-grader Sydney Tolman, a second-year mastery participant.

Rocky Mountain students study together.

Tolman pointed to a laptop screen bearing her progress in several subjects, from math and science to history and English. Writing assignments have felt especially challenging this year, she said, before clicking a hyperlink to her English teacher’s daily schedule.

“I can go here to get personalized help from my teacher,” she said, adding that the program feels more aligned to how students learn in college.

Mcling’s been “blown away” by the results. She recently vouched for the program, both as a teacher and a parent, in an Idaho EdNews op-ed.

“As a teacher, Summit Learning has allowed me to help every student reach their full potential,” she wrote. “As a mom, it has given my daughters the confidence and knowledge that they can succeed at anything.”

Mcling pointed to the program’s mentoring component. On top of delivering periodic lessons and working with students in groups and individually, the program’s teachers track the progress of 25-30 of their own “mentees,” students they’ve been assigned to mentor.

Mentoring students as needed has improved teacher-student relationships, Mcling said — despite the program’s heavy emphasis on self-direction.

“I know these students much better than I knew my students in a traditional setting, and I always felt I knew those students very well,” she said.

Mcling echoed Ybarra’s sentiment that it’s too early to judge mastery pilots on student outcomes. However, she said some school testing comparisons show gains in English language arts.

Math scores aren’t as high as teachers had hoped, she said, “so we’re focusing more on math now.”

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