Chugach, Alaska isn’t just known for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and 1964’s tragic 9.2 magnitude earthquake anymore. The Chugach School District has become recognized as an innovator in grassroots school reform, especially when it comes to performance-based learning.
And for good reason. Within the first five years of starting to rebuild its education system, Chugach leapt from the bottom quartile to an average 72nd percentile on Alaska’s required state assessments. The Chugach School District performance-based education system was honored by President Bush as the first education organization to earn the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and again by Alaska’s own quality award program by being the first recipient of the APEX award.
In small remote village schools spread out across 22,000 square miles of the roadless pristine wilderness of Prince William Sound, Alaska, communities and educators collectively tossed out the traditional education system to build an entirely new system from scratch. We knew that traditional education was built for another era. Community input, common sense and research led to a school system where there was no second grade, or third grade, or any grade. Students no longer received report cards with letter grades of A through F. No longer was the system built for adults to manage students. It was now built to meet the individual needs of each student.
How We Did It: Chugach’s “Voyage to Excellence”
The Chugach School District’s “Voyage To Excellence” began in 1994 when we spent two years gathering community and business input about what we wanted our graduates to know and be able to do. Leadership, staff, students and community members participated in ongoing training to gather authentic input and strategically use that input to rebuild. We looked to our students and community to affect change: rather than “Buy In,” where people point at the district when a problem surfaces and ask you to fix your problem, we developed “Ownership,” where everyone pitches in to solve any problems that surface.
This heavy investment in early, frequent and ongoing community engagement was essential to the rebuilding efforts and overcoming resistance to change. We built our new plane as we were flying it, so the solid foundation of community support coupled with a bold leadership commitment to stick with it for at least five years were essential catalysts.
It’s clear today that our commitment and community involvement set Chugach rebuilding apart from many other school reform efforts. We know now that the cost in time, energy, and resources to build the strong foundational level of our system are far lower than the cost of a failed rebuilding effort, not to mention the high costs associated with a less effective school system for our students.
Twenty years later, we are thankful for how our community guided us in the right direction through difficult-to-answer common sense questions, which we honored by building right into the new system. Should we expect all students to learn the same material, in the same way, at the same pace? Should we allow our system to hold back students who are ready to advance to new learning material? Should we advance students to new learning levels before they are ready? Should we consider the state-tested content areas as the most important, or consider all content areas equally important?
What We Did: Changing to a Performance-Based Model
The common sense questions led us to responses which reversed the traditional education equation. In our past traditional system, time (180 school days per year) was the constant, and learning (the amount learned by each student each year) was the variable.
Today’s performance-based system allows learning to be the constant for each student, while time is the variable. Students learn at their best developmental pace, developing interest-based relevant individual learning plans and projects that help each individual master academic skills. Teachers serve as facilitators who help students stay on course academically and fulfill local and state learning standards. Students, teachers and families work together to construct individualized learning plans, small group performance tasks, classroom and schoolwide thematic units. These processes allow students to be involved in developing their educational experience.
Multi-age groups of students are routinely found planning, raising funds, scheduling, and developing proposals to present to the school board for travel to far reaches of the globe. They experience first-hand learning about the culture, people, and history of each location they visit. While each student involved is part of a larger learning experience, they each have individualized learning expectations which align with the project roles they fulfill and with their current educational learning level needs. From Europe, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, to Hawaii, Washington DC. and the Grand Canyon, students use real life skills to plan, fund, and learn from these Ed-Ventures.
At a more local level, students engage communities in Alaskan Native Subsistence culture and Suqcestun language by harvesting berries, fish, and other natural resources to develop the likes of “The Blueberry Book” or the “Salmon Book,” including Elder interviews, cultural and historical stories, drawings and recipes. Recent projects include schoolwide groups partnering with post secondary organizations to plan and facilitate STEM related events such as a Robotics Camp, Welding Camp and EMT training. In addition to specific credentialing in each of these areas, local and state performance standards from all content areas are integrated into each of these learning experiences.
Alongside an individualized learning plan, each student constructs a School-to-Life plan, ultimately presenting it to the school board prior to graduation. Today, with an 87% ultimate graduation rate, we consistently see graduates transition to employment or post-secondary training at levels ranging from 80% to 88% annually.
Looking Forward: Continuing Teacher Involvement
Today, teacher training continues to be a key factor in the Chugach continuous improvement process. Innovation comes from people who are heavily steeped in our processes, and who have developed a deep ownership for our system. Our teachers are closest to the student and hold the most information, and know they have the authority to diagnose each student in order to prescribe the best educational plan for each student.
Years ago it took courage for teachers to learn to empower students by giving up some of their power, becoming the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” More recently, it requires courage for leadership to give up some of their power to empower teachers with this authority.
Sailing into these uncharted waters has paid great dividends for Chugach. While we always have room to grow, we have realized great gains and have been able to sustain them for the long term. The long-term impact our performance-based system will have on our students and their communities is yet to be determined, but with 20 years of encouraging evidence, the Chugach School District is fully confident that this system is here to stay.