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How Valor Collegiate Academy is Rethinking SEL

How Valor Collegiate Academy is Rethinking SEL

With the realization that many students today are unprepared for college and the changing career landscape, some schools are exploring new instructional models and broadening their definition of student success to include skills beyond traditional academics.

Newly designed schools have the advantage of considering the challenges established schools may face when it comes to educating students in the era of accountability, high stakes academic testing, and college and career preparation. By learning from their predecessors, new school leaders can build models that address those difficulties head-on. That’s exactly what the leadership team has done at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee, a school network committed to balancing academic content with non-academic skills and habits in the curriculum to help better prepare students for their future.

The Valor Flagship Academy opened its doors to 150 fifth graders in the fall of 2014. Since then, Valor has grown to serve 750 students in grades 5-7, adding a second campus, Voyager Academy in the fall of 2015.

Modeled after high performing school networks such as Summit Public Schools, Uncommon Schools and Denver Schools of Science and Technology, Valor has already proven that its model can produce successful academic results, outperforming all Metro Nashville Public Schools and 99 percent of schools in Tennessee on state testing in its first year. But what really sets Valor apart from other schools is its strong foundation in social and emotional learning (SEL).

Daren Dickson, the Chief Culture Officer of Valor, led the creation of the Valor Compass, a five-point SEL tool that is used to guide curriculum and encourage intentional teaching of non-academic skills. The Compass has been core to Valor’s model since its inception, and now the school is taking steps to expand its impact across a wider range of learning experiences.

Excellence on a Compass Defines Student Success


When asked how Valor defines student success, Dickson explains, “The way we’ve broken down student success is, at the most basic level, that all scholars will achieve excellence in the primary areas of the Compass.”

The Compass supports students in developing ten habits across five disciplines: Sharp Mind (curiosity & diversity), Noble Purpose (joy & identity), Big Heart (courage & kindness), Aligned Actions (determination & integrity) and True North (balance & presence), which lies at the center and is core to all of the other disciplines.

Valor’s “Compass Developmental Pathway” is a competency-based framework that guides curriculum design at both schools. It breaks each of the ten habits into seven phases of learning, and provides a collection of activities and projects to help students develop mastery of the habits over time.

Every Valor student has an “Individualized Compass Pathway” (based on the Compass Developmental Pathway), which guides them in how to grow in each of the five disciplines. Think of these individualized plans as a resource guide that is broken down across multiple phases, similar to a girl or boy scout system. There is a packet and tracker for each phase, with tasks and guidance for how to complete them. The student signs off on their phases upon completion and typically have a parent or mentor sign off as well.

Students meet in mentor groups for two and a half hours each week to make progress on their Compass plans. During Circle, the school’s name for a highly structured process of conversation and relationship building that occurs during mentor groups, they present the progress they’ve made within a specific phase of learning.

Expanding the Compass

Even in its earliest days of operation, Valor’s leaders wanted to know more about next generation learning and student success, so they researched several models and frameworks, including Foundations for Young Adult Success (FYAS) from Chicago Consortium on School Research; Building Blocks for Learning by Turnaround for Children; the Personalized Leadership Training (PLT) work from Alpha Public Schools; and MyWays, a framework created by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) that organizes academic and non-academic competencies into four quadrants.

Through this research, Valor’s leaders realized that when the Compass is used in various contexts for learning such as academic or physical contexts, there are other important habits to develop in addition to the core ten.

In the summer of 2016, Valor received funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Charter School Growth Fund to codify and share their Compass work. This funding supported three new goals: integrating the core Compass habits more intentionally into academic subject areas, sharing the Compass work with other schools through professional development, and developing new Compasses with habits that support specific learning contexts such as Compass-in-Academics, Compass-in-Relationships, Compass-in-Motion and Compass-in-College-Prep.

Work towards all three goals is underway. Currently, curriculum writers at Valor are outlining how the core Compass habits can be more meaningfully integrated and assessed, starting with fifth grade English. Valor is planning a few different types of professional development opportunities, including “Compass Camp” for schools interested in adopting the Compass.

In a broad step forward, Valor has identified a set of eight new habits called Compass-in-Academics. These habits are broken down into two categories. First is academic mindsets, which include: self-efficacy & growth mindset, value beliefs, conscience of craft, and sense of belonging. Second is learning strategies, which cover: goal setting, seeking help & resources, learning to learn, and design thinking and creative problem solving. Valor is in the beginning stages of defining them, with implementation set to begin 2017-2018.

Difficulties When SEL is a Focus

“There’s a long history of schools and education putting so much value in academic success,” Dickson explains. “Funders and families are super interested and feel that SEL must be a silver bullet” that helps students perform well academically.

Yet he wonders whether families will be so enthusiastic about the school’s focus on SEL if students are unable to maintain their test results, especially as the school is growing and will soon serve high school students. He is cautious against over-relying on academic student achievement data as a measure of whether SEL “works.” For him, the proof that students are developing social-emotional skills is not reflected in those test scores.

Dickson also explains that implementing an SEL school model can be quite complex and communicating it well to stakeholders is a challenge. “We have a good internal gauge for which students are progressing, but that’s hard to show on a graph or spreadsheet,” he says.

What’s Next for Valor?

The new Compass-in-Academics habits will impact how teachers organize their curriculum next year, so additional professional development is on the horizon. But not just for Valor teachers. In March 2017, Valor is hosting a two-day session for eight non-Valor schools interested in adopting the Compass; it will also facilitate a professional learning community for a group of about ten schools looking to learn more about the school’s model. Additionally, Valor will launch “Compass Camp” in May and July with a two-day session about Circle and a two-day session about its Compass.

The leadership team at Valor is planning to implement Compass-in-Academics and to define and implement Compass-in-Relationships during the 2017-2018 school year. They plan to roll out development and implementation for Compass-in-Motion and Compass-in-College-Prep over the next few years, introducing the Compass-in-College-Prep to students as they enter high school. This Compass will include habits that align with the Wayfinding quadrant of the NGLC MyWays framework, which highlights skills such as goal setting and finding needed help and resources.

Lastly, Dickson is interested in figuring out how to capture SEL growth in a meaningful and sharable way. This would help the school show how Valor’s Compass and SEL practices contribute to student success. “I’m really confident that our scholars are growing relationally, it’s just hard to show using reliable data."

This story is part of an EdSurge Research Guide about how schools are redefining student success using MyWays, a framework developed by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). This guide is made publicly available with support from NGLC. 

Amanda Ronan (@amanda_ronan) is a former teacher turned curriculum writer, education journalist and middle-grade author.

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