Located near downtown Houston, Austin High School in the Houston Independent School District enrolls nearly 2,000 students. In 2015, members of the school’s leadership team recognized literacy challenges across the campus and sought to redesign the learning experience for students. Austin High’s pilot is designed to shift from a one-size-fits-all model of instruction to student-centered, personalized learning with a focus on reading intervention, student-culture building, and social-emotional development designed to increase student ownership of learning.
“I would definitely recommend the Mini Academy. Me and my friends, a lot of us struggle with math. Flextime and mentorship time is when to get it done. You work at your own pace and you have teachers that are there to help you at anytime of need.” – Kayla Kaufman, Sophomore at Austin High
The Austin High Mini Academy pilot targeted a pressing need in literacy; nearly half of the high school student body was reading at an elementary school level. The chronic issues in reading were compounded by students’ low engagement and ownership of their work. In response, the Austin High team designed a pilot to increase personalized learning and cognitive rigor. This involved providing students explicit time to participate in reading intervention if needed and allowing all students to participate in daily mentoring time to increase engagement, motivation, and agency over their learning experience.
The Austin High team began by piloting a 9th grade Blended Learning Mini Academy in all core classes with 125 students who were demographically representative of the high school population. In year two, those 125 students progressed to a personalized experience in 10th grade, while the Mini Academy scaled to include 125 new 9th graders. The Mini Academy is in the same building as the mainstream high school but in its own hallway.
Mini Academy students move through their core classes and then participate in elective classes in the last two periods of the day. During the time in the Mini Academy, students experience an individual rotation model where they move at their own pace through an online pathway built into the district’s learning management system. Students have a daily mentoring time where they set academic and non-academic goals with their teacher who supports them to work at their own pace through the content. As students move through the content, formative assessments are used to ensure mastery and flag areas where students need more support. Students also receive ongoing support from teachers through strategic small group instruction. Additional instructional modalities include collaborative group work, socratic discussions, and project based learning. At specific times during the week, students are able to select their own class and target areas where they need help. This time is called FlexTime and gives students the ability to own their own learning and ask for the support they need most.
Students reading below grade level are eligible for daily reading intervention support with a reading interventionist. All students are screened using a one-on-one reading assessment at the beginning of the year and those receiving intervention are progress monitored every two weeks to communicate the data to students. Students set growth goals with the interventionist and once they are close to on grade level, students are exited from reading intervention.
Rigor & Relevance
Design pillars are used among all Raising Blended Learners sites to identify the essential design elements upon which each site’s student experience is based. The Austin High School design pillars are: Student Agency and Mentoring/Goal Setting, Rigor & Relevance, Data-Driven Instruction/Flexible Instructional Grouping, and Competency-Based Learning.
Student Agency and Mentoring/Goal Setting is the backbone of the Austin High model. The trusting relationships developed between student and teacher allows the students to set goals and drive their own learning throughout the day in all of their classes.
In order for instruction to support students to master the content, Rigor & Relevance is essential. The work needs to be engaging, relevant, and at a level that students can access in order to keep them invested in the work and simultaneously set them up to be successful.
Data-Driven Instruction/Flexible Instructional Grouping is a systematic approach to assessing, analyzing and acting that gives both students and teachers an understanding of where students are and what they need most. This method supports flexible, personalized instruction that uses data to develop purposeful progression for students.
The final pillar of Competency-Based Learning includes systems of ongoing assessment, grading, academic reporting, and instruction based on students demonstrating that they are meeting learning expectations based on the important academic milestones.