CHARLESTON -- While a new teaching approach was fine with Charleston High School freshman Shannon Corray, she noticed some of her classmates had to learn the hard way.
But students in her Spanish class who "were not doing anything" with the more independently paced program soon learned that wouldn't work, she said.
As for Corray, she said she benefited from the change and thinks it will work in other classes, too.
"I liked the independence and being able to work with your peers," she said.
Some Charleston schools are already using aspects of what's called competency-based education that will be place more extensively during the next school year.
It emphasizes "mastery of content" instead of classroom "seat time," as school district Assistant Superintendent Kristen Holly put it.
In the CHS Spanish class, freshman Gavin Kirby Johnson said he thinks the approach worked well for that subject, but he wonders if it will fit with others. More independence did help him learn time management, he added.
"I loved it because we got to change activities and it helped us more," he said.
Spanish teacher Ruth Hughes is part of committees working on implementing the program and will be a pilot teacher for it during the 2019-20 school year.
She said competency-based education is a balance between letting students work at their own pace and still meeting deadlines.
As part of the process, Hughes and other committee members have visited other schools that use the approach.
She said she was impressed by the maturity of the students, how they're taking more responsibility and the "overwhelmingly positive" atmosphere that's resulted.
"Everyone is focused on how to get these children to grow," she said. "I think it's the best thing to happen in education in my 30 years."
Holly said it's been a common practice for teachers to use what's called "differentiated instruction," adjusting lessons for students' learning paces.
Competency-based education is a similar concept but an extension, she said. The district set it as a goal last year to go "hand in hand" with more vocational options, she added.
"We felt like it was time to move to the next level, which is more personalized learning," Holly said.
She acknowledged the approach is complicated. It's understandable to think that "mastery of content" will mean a "free for all," but it won't, she said.
"An educator still has an important role," Holly said, and teachers will be "constantly assessing" students' progress.
Keeping students on task will go hand in hand with making sure they have the support they need, she added.
She also thinks the approach is better for the way kids learn today, when they have access to a vast amount information through technology. Learning how to use that information will be more valuable to them, Holly believes.
"We have to teach them and support them," she said.
Hughes also acknowledged there could be concerns. A student might take longer than four years to graduate high school, but could also possibly finish in three years, she said.
She said she realized she had to help students with their work pace because "the kids did not know how to manage their time."
However, students will become more accustomed to the approach after they start experiencing it in earlier grades, she added.
Part of the work now is to develop the actual "competencies" or skills students will have to master, Hughes said. If a student completes a specific task but doesn't reach the competency, other tasks will be used, she added.
In her classes, Hughes replaced lecturing students on Spanish words and dialogue with having them learn how to order food at a Spanish restaurant and use the language to explain their family trees.
The goal was to teach them how to speak Spanish in "real situations," she said.
Holly said the approach could, for example, help a student who plans a career in construction learn geometry in way that's applicable.
There can be flexibility in graduation requirements and the ability to design a program that "suits that student's strengths and goals," she explained.
There can also be more "project-based" education involving business partnerships, and that's why the local business community is part of the effort, Holly also said.
Paul Tomshack, owner of Clarence Miller Insurance Services in Charleston, said he agreed to be on the planning committee as a business owner as well as the father of two school-age children.
Tomshack said he hopes to provide input on "how it's going to affect our children and our community."
He added that he's excited that the partnerships will get students "out in the real world."
It's a "common thread" when talking with others in the business community that students often don't have the interview and related skills they need, he also said.
"It will take everyone to truly start a new way of thinking," Tomshack said. "Our goal is to provide students with better opportunities."
Holly said the school district is using federal funds for this year's teacher training, materials and visits to other schools using competency-based education.
There will be future expenses for technology to use to manage information, track student progress and more, she said.
Contact Dave Fopay at (217) 238-6858. Follow him on Twitter: @FopayDave
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