By Nona Tepper
When administrators at Proviso East High School opened teacher sign-ups for summer training, they expected about 23 people to enroll in the one-week course.
But as the sign-up lingered the signatures rolled in, with eventually half the teaching staff offering to give up part of their summer to improve their understanding of personalized competency-based education, more than double what Principal Patrick Hardy expected.
"I'm really proud of my teachers for this; I'm floored," Hardy said. "I don't think they realize how they're driving the discussion. We have 23 to 25 freshman teachers; that's what we planned for. Sixty showed up."
Earlier this year, Proviso East secured a two-year, $200,000 contract with Marzano Academy, a nonprofit that helps schools implement personalized competency-based education, a system that empowers students to study and master skills at their own pace, and turn to peers, the internet, library and other outlets before they lean on teachers for help.
In this system, students can show proficiency in a topic through projects, presentations and even activities outside of school, along with traditional testing.
"The Office of Academic's commitment to high levels of academic proficiency for all students requires a personalized approach to the delivery of instruction, so that all students have the time, resources and supports needed to master the graduation competencies," Nicole Howard, assistant superintendent for academics and student services, said in a statement.
Howard added that her office believes Marzano Academy will help Proviso East evolve its curriculum into a wholly competency-based model.
In April 2017, the Illinois State Board of Education selected Proviso East to be part of the first cohort of districts to roll out the competency-based system. Over the next four school years, officials plan to turn the entire school into a competency-based program, phasing the system in slowly, Hardy said, so the community, faculty and staff will have time to process the major instructional change, and the school can be precise in its implementation, because graduation requirements change under the system.
Hardy called last school year a "learning and research year" with 17 teachers piloting competency-based learning in their classrooms. He said 2018-19 will be the first year the program is rolled out for the entire incoming freshman class at Proviso East.
As part of educational overhaul, Proviso East contracted with Marzano Academy for support, and is the only school in Illinois to partner with the nonprofit, Hardy said, adding that it's the first comprehensive high school aiming to become a Marzano Academy in the nation, with the some 700 other academies being small charter schools that don't offer sports programs.
"This is an awesome thing that this school and this community has chosen to do and I'm proud to have been a part of that decision," Hardy said. "It's OK to be the innovator, and it's OK to go first. It's also scary … we don't want that fear to be the thing that stops us for doing something that could be marvelous for our community."
At the beginning of the summer, staff attended a one-week training program hosted by Marzano, which outlined competency-based education, how to promote student agency and what grading looks like under the system.
The training questioned traditional methods, like always testing students on Friday, and taught that, in some cases, students will be assigned a number of between 0 and 4 and will be given a description of their skill set as their grade.
Hardy said this offers teachers and parents more information on what concepts students do and do not understand.
"If we continue to expect that school must look like it did when my grandma went to school, when my father went to school, and when I went to school, we might continue to struggle to move the ball downfield," Hardy said. "So when the kid is bringing home a proficiency scale and saying, 'I'm a 2 and this is why,' that's different than saying, 'I'm a 70.' So we've got to be ready for it to look different, feel different and ask different questions."
The contract with Marzano is for two years and at the rate Proviso East's teaching staff has embraced it, the entire faculty might be schooled in competency-based best practices earlier than expected, Hardy said.
"We thought it might take us the full four years to get everybody in, but it could be a much shorter and accelerated process because our teachers stepped up to the plate and said, 'I'm not waiting,'" Hardy said. "It's very exciting,"