Westminster Public Schools’ dramatic reform effort and the creation of an authentic Competency Based Education system has been an ambitious undertaking. It was at times daunting and exhausting, but students, teachers and parents will tell you it has been worth the effort. WPS’ reform efforts were driven by what became known in the community as the “moral imperative” to do better for our students.
Early History/Discovering CBS
After years of changing demographics, falling achievement scores and a declining enrollment in the school district, the Colorado Department of Education placed Westminster Public Schools on “Academic Watch” at the end of the 2006-07 school year. It became crystal clear that simply tinkering around the edges was not the answer. Educators began looking for alternatives.
Board of Education member Marge Rinaldi attended a symposium hosted by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) that talked about Competency Based Education. The model, which had been successfully implemented in a small school district in Alaska replaced grade levels with performance levels, and time becomes the variable, with learning the constant. Education was built around student needs and “social promotion” became a thing of the past. Rinaldi thought this might be what the district was looking for.
Intrigued by the promise of genuine systemic reform, the district teamed up with RISC and renowned educator Dr. Robert Marzano to envision what CBS might look like in a district of 10,000 students. In early 2008 a team of educators traveled to Alaska to learn first- hand how it worked and the challenges involved. The folks at RISC warned them, “It was not easy.”
One of the important lessons learned was that such dramatic reform could not simply be imposed from the top down. It was essential that teachers, parents and community leaders buy into the theory. It was teachers who were going to do the heavy lifting, so they were polled to find out what they thought. In February 2008, more than 85 percent of them voted to move forward with CBS, even if it meant leaving their comfort zone. In the spring of 2008, the Board of Education and The Westminster Education Association endorsed the implementation of CBS.
Making it Happen
In the 2008-09 school year, Westminster Public Schools “piloted” its CBS program at one elementary school and in selected classrooms throughout the district. The mantra in the district became “PDCA”: Plan, Due, Check and Adjust. The lessons learned in that first year were analyzed and fine-tuned for a district- wide roll out of SBS in the 2009-10 school year at the elementary and middle school level. The decision was made to phase in CBS at the high school level beginning with the 2010-11 school year. In the fall of 2009, Dwight Jones, the commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education wrote a letter to the community explaining the reform effort and praising the district for its bold actions. He wrote “For Education Reform to Occur, We Must Actually Re-Form Education.” No one expected test scores to improve immediately, and in fact they dropped that first year but teachers were quickly convinced there was a new kind of learning underway.
One of the key tenets of CBS in WPS is continuous improvement: getting better at what we do each and every day. The second full year of CBS saw test scores rise, especially at the elementary school level. In April of 2010, the Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to support the continued implementation of CBS for the next five years. Teachers, administrators and school board members all saw the value of the reform efforts. But the most meaningful response was what came from parents and students.