State board of ed OKs plan to focus on student competencies
By Marcy Stamper
The Methow Valley Independent Learning Center (ILC) is now one of only four schools in the state where students can show their progress by demonstrating what they’ve learned, rather than having to accumulate a set number of credits.
The Washington State Board of Education granted the unusual competency waiver to the ILC on May 12. The Twisp-based high school — part of the Methow Valley School District — and two other schools now join the Highline Big Picture School, which for the past eight years had been Washington’s only school to evaluate students on the basis of demonstrated competencies.
The unanimous decision by the Board of Education came after presentations by ILC instructor Sara Mounsey, Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable and ILC junior Damien Wallis. Wallis’ classmate, Trevor Ritchey, also accompanied the Methow delegation to the board’s meeting in Yakima, where he offered his own informal observations to the board.
“The main reason we went to Yakima was to give back to the school what they’ve given me — they gave me another chance,” said Wallis, who said his interest in school and in graduating “skyrocketed” after he transferred to the ILC from Liberty Bell early this year.
The waiver allows the ILC to graduate students based on their acquisition and demonstration of academic proficiency without a specific tally of credit hours. The students will have to meet all state standards in all subjects, and will also have to take the state’s standardized exams.
“It isn’t changing standards, but how we help students show competencies,” said Mounsey. “The idea is that students will be more engaged if they pursue their interests in an authentic way.”
The ILC approach is different from the traditional high school set-up in several ways. Students work with a teacher/adviser to develop short- and long-term learning plans that build on their interests. Together they identify projects — often hands-on — that use those interests. Projects may include internships with a local business or with a community member with particular expertise.
Student projects are often interdisciplinary. For example, one student with an interest in accounting analyzed the tax plans proposed by presidential candidates, studied the tax code and interviewed a local accountant. The project taught him math, about governmental systems, and research and communication skills, said Mounsey. He will now teach what he learned to his classmates, said Mounsey.
At the ILC, students still develop the same skills in critical thinking and analytical writing as at other schools, said Mounsey. What is different is that in a traditional set-up, the teacher typically decides ahead of time how these skills will be covered, whereas at the ILC they start with the student’s interests and then look for ways to connect those interests to the subjects students must master for graduation, she said.
The Board of Education members and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn seemed generally enthusiastic about the proposal, said Mounsey. Their main concern was how the approach would work and how teachers would know that students had learned the material.
Several members of the board of education congratulated the students and teachers after their presentation, and some, including Dorn, appeared particularly moved by the students’ account of how the ILC had turned around their attitude about school — and their lives, said Venable.
After the presentations to the board, Dorn observed that the ILC’s goal is different because it is focused on the student, as opposed to course content.
“Both boys have a renewed sense of optimism about their path. They are excited to have an option they didn’t realize existed,” said Mounsey.
Wallis and Ritchey had a little practice in making their case to a group of adults when they spoke to the Methow Valley School Board in March to request the board’s support for the waiver. The school board unanimously approved the request.
Ritchey told the school board that he initially switched to the ILC because he had been failing at Liberty Bell and was merely hoping to graduate on time. But in two months, after going on a college tour with the ILC, he had focused his interest in computers into a field — cybersecurity — and identified a college where he could study it.
Wallis said the ILC had taught him to think about planning ahead — he wants to become a pilot — instead of looking only at the assignment due that day. “There’s a difference between learning material for a test and then you completely forget about it, versus learning because you’re really interested in it and it affects your future,” Wallis told the school board.
The ILC has been in existence since 1992 and has been emphasizing hands-on, project-based learning for the past three years. During that time, enrollment has increased to about 20 students, from ninth through 12th grade. On-time graduation at the ILC has increased from 62 to 87 percent, and students are looking beyond graduation, said Venable.
Interested students fill out an application and spend a day at the ILC. After that, teachers and administrators meet with the student and family to be sure it is a good fit. There are already new students signed up for next year, said Mounsey.
“The important thing for us is that students see our school as an option and that they’re prepared with choices for their future and post-graduate education,” said Mounsey.
Mounsey and co-teacher Kim Odell have been assisted by Jeff Petty, the founder and director of the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation, an initiative of Big Picture Learning. Petty is also former principal of the Highline school, north of Seattle, which has operated under this waiver for eight years.
Mounsey, Odell and district administrators are still working on how students’ accomplishments will be reflected on transcripts. However that is done, they expect the transcripts will be more informative than traditional grades, said Mounsey.
Odell, Venable, Liberty Bell High School principal Deborah DeKalb and school board director Frank Kline also attended the Board of Education meeting.
“It was cool having people listen to you. You have no idea how difficult it is to get adults to listen to teenagers,” said Wallis.