Turn in your badge

Digital “merit badges” coming to Aurora Public Schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Public Schools bus picks up students after school.

Digital merit badges — think of a cross between a report card and a Girl Scout badge — are coming to Aurora Public Schools.

The district is planning to introduce the online credentialing system to 19 APS schools this fall and to all schools by 2016. The badges, which students earn by demonstrating skills in the areas of collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, invention and self-direction, are displayed online through student profiles. The idea is that colleges and employers could then access the profiles to see students’ skills when making hiring and admissions decisions.

The idea of awarding students digital badges was developed at a Mozilla Foundation conference in 2010 and has since spread to some higher education programs and, less commonly, K-12 schools. Badge proponents argue that the online tool helps integrate academic and soft skills.

Chalkbeat spoke to Charles Dukes, the director of Postsecondary Workforce Readiness for APS, and APS Director of Educational Technology Kevin Riebau, who explained how the badges will work and why the district is choosing to use them.

What is the simplest way to describe “digital badging”? 

Dukes: Digital badging is an online platform that documents and records students “soft skills” or what we call 21st century skills: critical thinking, invention, self-direction, collaboration, and information literacy.

Riebau: Another word you might use is “micro-credential.” It really is a skill currency used to open up opportunities because you earned the badge, you can cash the badge in for opportunities otherwise maybe not available if you didn’t have the badge.

What is the step-by-step process for a student to receive a badge? 

Riebau: So the student will be made aware of the digital badge and will see what the criteria is for earning that badge. Then, what the student will do is familiarize themself with the criteria and they will set out to fulfill the criteria. What we’re asking for is the student to provide the evidence that they have fulfilled the criteria, so they might  choose to take a picture or a video, or link to a blog that they write…any kind of multimedia or some sort of product they have created that is uploaded and attached to the badge that shows they have fulfilled the criteria. It’s their evidence. When they’ve done that then the teacher who issues that badge takes a look at the evidence and says “yes” or “no” to if they have met the criteria. If it has met the criteria, then the teacher will issue the badge to the student. All of this takes place online, by the way. We have a badge platform that allows for the designing, issuing and earning of badges so then the student is filling out their digital repository of badges, they have an account and they start to populate it with badges they’ve earned.  Then because the student has earned the badge now, the badge is a skill currency, so they should be able cash that badge in for an opportunity. For instance, if they’re in high school, attached to that badge (because you’ve earned it) that unlocks an opportunity to have an internship with one of our partners during the summer. They can show that they have that badge and then get be bumped to the top of the list or just given the internship.

It’s different for different grade levels. For middle schoolers, it might be a job shadow, elementary might be a visit by somebody from the company- it just depends.

How does a student benefit from this if the badge doesn’t apply to a participating company or organization?

Dukes: The goal for the whole initiative is that we have a lot of partners that belong to all of our Colorado career clusters , so we open doors for multiple partners from business to agriculture. If a student receives a badge and we don’t have a partner for the specific badge, it still gives the student the criteria they need to know to be successful in the workforce, so they’ll have a better understanding of what they need to do be to be successful in their specific field and they can plan toward that.

What distinguishes a badge from a skill listed on a resumé? How are these two things different? 

Dukes: The big difference is on a resumé you may have the language “I’m a critical thinker” but on a badge you have the evidence that shows you’re a critical thinker. So when you post your badge on say LinkedIn…a student can show examples of them demonstrating critical thinking.

Riebau: It’s that added level of accountability because there’s evidence and it’s not just words you put on a resumé, it’s action.

What factors will you measure at or what will you look at to determine if digital badging is succeeding at APS?

Dukes: We’ll look at the type of badges that are earned and how badges are being used. And how these badges and the use of badges are having a positive impact on behavior, attendance and ultimately graduation and college matriculation or workforce matriculation.

Riebau: Also, we’ve established a feedback loop with our business partners where we get input for them. For instance, say a student got an internship because they cashed in certain badges, then we can put from the industry partner who says…the student has demonstrated these skills and they are an asset to our company and we would eventually like to hire them.

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”