Prior to launching their pilot, the Austin High team spent four weeks in the summer with their founding teachers planning for the pilot. Although this planning time was outside of the scope of what the district requires and subsidizes for teacher professional development, the school’s leadership team knew how much would be required to redesign their model and plan for the first year of implementation and made a campus-level financial decision to invest the funds that would allow for the extra planning time.
During the four weeks, the team collaboratively wrote all vision documents, implementation resources, and content required to start the pilot. The team first wrote the core values for their students based on their school design pillars, then spent multiple sessions drafting specific systems and curriculum documents. Austin High’s assistant principal and lead teacher also ran PD sessions on culture, planning rigorous lessons, and evaluating student work, and the team began to write new grading criteria, rubrics to evaluate student work, and a framework for how the content would be organized on the HUB (the district’s Learning Management System, or LMS).
Additionally, the team intentionally built a strong culture within their group through personality and workstyle reflections, intentional collaboration, and informal time together outside of school. Once the year started, they continued this collaborative planning practice and met daily to reflect on and revise their systems and supporting resources for the pilot. The team attributes a significant amount of their initial success to this investment in teacher capacity and team-building prior the start of school.
The Austin High team knew that handling a drastic increase in student ownership and autonomy (control over learning and time) would initially be challenging for students who, for years, had been in schools with traditional instruction and school discipline structures. Additionally, all students, but especially students who had historically struggled academically, would need specific supports around processing their academic data, setting academic and non-academic goals, and working independently toward long-term deadlines.
To help them adjust, during the first 25 days of school, the cohort of 9th grade students engaged in a 25-Day Launch program that was strategically designed to help them internalize the new pilot’s values, systems, and routines. During this process, they learned how to operate within a small, consistent learning community (cohort) with progressive restorative practices and how to make appropriate daily choices about how to spend their class time. This also afforded both students and teachers the opportunity to learn about and practice essential culture items.
The 25-Day Launch experience was structured around a series of targeted learning activities such as community circles and mentorship, where students were introduced to the Austin High goal-setting procedure and the use of the Character Strength Rubric. The pace at which academic content was taught was slowed to ensure that non-academic skills could be taught through academics, and the team decided that it was permissible if teachers temporarily fell behind in teaching their academic standards in service of teaching non-academic skills as well.
Prioritizing agency and cultural competencies over academic content at the beginning of the year allowed students and staff to develop a shared vision and common language for the culture (academic and non-academic) of the pilot, resulting in a more effective and positive first year of implementation.