RTHS selected to take part in competency-based learning pilot program

RANTOUL — The positive re-shaping and re-imaging of the village of Rantoul took another step forward on Monday.

In Peoria, Rantoul Township High School was officially announced and introduced by Illinois State Superintendent Tony Smith as one of the 10 school districts in Illinois selected to participate in the first cohort of the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program.

RTHS will assess and advance students based on demonstrated mastery of specific skills, abilities and knowledge, rather than on time in the classroom.

“How we do traditional schooling right now is that time is the constant, and learning is the variable,” RTHS Superintendent Scott Amerio said. “What I mean by that is, if we have kids who are in Algebra I first semester, everybody sits in the same class starting in mid-August and finish in mid-December, and they’re all in there for the same amount of time. So the learning is the variable; so the learning is not the same. Some students may learn more algebra in that time, and other students may not learn as much algebra in that time.

“What this pilot is looking at doing is changing that,” Amerio said. “The learning becomes the constant, and the time becomes the variable. In our classes, we would (say), ‘Here’s the information that you need to be able to demonstrate to us that you know in certain classes. Here’s the specific information you need to demonstrate you know before you (can show) you know the Algebra I content (for example). So the time on that content can change from student to student. Some students may understand it in 15 weeks, and some may get it in 18 weeks (for example).”

Amerio described the pilot program as “flipping the script on how we do education,” and it is a program that he hopes “will become more statewide as we go through the years here.”

The program — which, in Amerio’s opinion, is how education was always meant to be operated — is not something that will be a four-to-five-year experiment and fizzle out, Amerio said. It is something that is here to stay, and if it doesn’t work out in the first few years, “we’ll look at why it didn’t work and make changes so that it does work.”

It was not until last spring that RTHS found out about the program. And it was not supposed to be until this summer when the requests for proposal to apply for the program were set to come out. But Smith moved the time lines up to November with the proposals due in January.

The number of schools that applied to be a part of the program were not released to the RTHS staff.

“It’s exciting, and it’s kind of scary to be part of the first group,” Amerio said. “But really we were set up pretty well to apply for this. Our staff has been diligently working on stuff that led us to be able to apply to this for the last five-six years. I think that’s why there’s not a lot of school districts that could even apply for this first cohort because they weren’t in the position to do that.”

Goals of the program
Signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner and passed unanimously by both legislative houses, The Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act established the pilot program in 2016.

The Illinois State Board of Education launched the program to spur innovation in the way high schools prepare students for meaningful careers and to support Illinois’ goal of increasing the proportion of adults in Illinois with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.

The initiative will begin in the 2017-18 school year, but that first year will be more of a preseason of sorts in which the teachers and staff will be planning for the 2018-19 year in which full implementation of the program will take place.

Amerio said he does not foresee any noticeable changes in the classroom during the ‘17-’18 school year, as that will be a year the teachers and staff will set the standards for the program.

“It’s more just kind of planning the implementation of it,” Amerio said of the 2017-18 school year. “One of the nice things about being part of the (first) cohort is there are nine other schools out there. (We will) be able to use them as a resource as we’re going through it and discovering obstacles or challenges — and I’m sure they’ll be going through the same ones — and (see) how they’re dealing with it and just be able to have people in the same boat going through it. That’s going to be a big benefit for us.”

One of the main ambitions of the new program is to better prepare students for life after high school and to set them up for success in either college, another postsecondary school, the military or the workforce.

“The ultimate goal for us, initially in this project, is to be able to, hopefully, accelerate getting kids through all of our graduation requirements so that we can introduce them to some post-secondary stuff here at the high school,” Amerio said. “We do that a little bit with Parkland right now, but we’d really like to expand on that and partner with some other institutions — possibly the U of I, possibly ISU — and get kids going on that post-secondary path before they graduate high school.

“I’m most excited about the opportunities it’s going to afford our kids once we get into full implementation — getting those post-secondary opportunities while they’re still under our roof. … If we can get them through our graduation requirements at a quicker pace, they can resource something while they’re at the U of I or ISU while they’re still here, or they can go out to one of the manufacturing plants and learn how to work with or fix the machines out there. Maybe they can decide to do that as a career.”

Personalized education
If a man goes to buy a suit, he can either buy one off the rack, or he can get it tailored to fit himself better. Either he fits the jacket, or the jacket fits him.
Both ways work, but the tailored version works a little better.

The latter option is the general idea with this new program. It is set up to be a much more personalized way of educating high school students.

“There will be more personalization in how we approach students because you’re going to have some kids that are moving at a faster pace in the class,” Amerio said.

“It will allow the students not moving at a faster pace to spend more time with them and help them get to the level they need to get to and understand the content of the class. Once we get implemented and running, that will be one of the biggest changes in the classroom. … We have to be able to let students explore the curriculum on their own at their own pace and teach them how to be lifelong learners. That will be part of this process as well.”

Impacting the community
Another positive aspect of the program is its potential to continue to build the positive image of Rantoul, which many people, including the schools, have been working for.

“We want to be part of this pilot because we think it’s going to be beneficial to our students, first and foremost,” Amerio said. “But when you look at it through the lens of branding the community or helping re-image the community, what we’re really hoping for is, … is getting our name as one of the trendsetter schools out there.

“And being able to have these other schools look at us and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing some really cool things over there.’ That’s kind of what we’re hoping for with that. But at the same time, looking at the overall community, communities are a reflection of the schools. So if people say, ‘Hey, they’re doing really cool things over there at the high school, and they’re at the forefront of what education is going to look like in Illinois,’ that will help the image of the community.”

RTHS’ work with the village through Rantoul Tomorrow, Amerio said, was a huge help in being awarded with becoming one of the 10 school districts to be a part of the pilot program. And it will take the community’s aid to ensure the program’s success.

“It’s going to be a huge effort on our part and a huge change for the school,” Amerio said. “It’s going to take the community to help us out, too. We talk about post-secondary opportunities. Some of our kids are going to go into technical-type careers, so (we need) to be able to get them that experience. In manufacturing, for example, there’s a plant out on the west side of town. How can we partner with them so that maybe our kids can do some mentorships/internships while they’re still in school? It’s something that we’re really hoping has a positive impact on the community as well, not just the high school. But we’ll see as we go through. It’s exciting. We’re excited and nervous at the same time.”

news@rantoulpress.com

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