Suburban districts testing new ways to help students learn, graduate

Suburban educators are challenging the traditional learning model of students cramming tons of information each class period, being overburdened by assignments and homework, and tests and letter grades determining their futures.

That's where a statewide initiative - to revise high school graduation requirements so students are better prepared for college and careers - comes in.

Huntley Community School District 158 and Round Lake Area Unit District 116 are among 10 school districts chosen for a pilot program to test competency-based graduation requirements. Competency-based learning means educators assess and advance students based on demonstrated mastery of specific skills, abilities and knowledge instead of merely classroom time.

"It's not about going faster," State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith said. "We are talking about deepening their experiences. For some kids, it may mean that they finish high school in less time, but for all children we hope that they will have more opportunities when they leave high school."

Participating districts last week shared how far they have come in developing plans for next school year.

At Huntley High School, 120 incoming freshmen will be part of the pilot program voluntarily this fall, Principal Scott Rowe said.

This first group of students will learn core subjects - English, mathematics, science and social studies - in separate classrooms guided by four teachers providing individualized instruction. They will join the rest of the freshmen for electives, physical education, health and other classes. Students must show proficiency in a content area before being allowed to move on.

"This is our attempt to personalize learning for our students," Rowe said. "It's not a cookie-cutter situation. Kids will be able to progress at their own pace. They will be able to demonstrate a depth of knowledge which for some students the traditional classroom cannot provide."

Students could be assessed differently through creative projects and papers that show mastery in more than one subject area. They still will be required to take standardized tests and the SAT college entrance exam - as mandated by federal and state laws - and they will receive a grade-point average score on their transcripts for college admission and scholarships.

"We will actually use that as a measuring stick to see how they are performing in comparison to the rest of the classroom," Rowe said.

Huntley High School already offers a blended learning program through which students can take roughly 60 courses in a flexible weekly schedule combining online and face-to-face instruction. More than 2,100 students currently are enrolled in at least one blended course. Students are able to control their learning path, pace, time and place, Rowe said.

Round Lake High School began using standards-based grading and mastery learning about seven years ago as part of an overhaul to boost lagging student achievement.

While some students need more time, others need less, so classroom structures and instructional practices need to change, said Susan Center, District 116 director of teaching and learning.

"One of the biggest things that we are able to do is provide additional flexibility for students in terms of them deciding their own learning pathways," she said.

Once students master a subject area, they can use their time to work on other projects, go to the library or commons areas, or support other students, Center said.

This fall, officials aim to begin developing personalized learning plans for students starting in sixth grade, provide more flexible class scheduling, and develop extensive internship, job shadowing and service partnerships, Center said.

The state is accepting applications from districts interested in participating in the second round of the pilot through Feb. 16. For information, visit

Round Lake High part of state push to better prepare graduates

Huntley High Principal Scott Rowe says the cookie-cutter approach to learning in traditional classrooms does not work for some students.
Susan Center, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 director of teaching and learning, says flexible scheduling and personalized learning plans are key to helping students direct their own educational pathways.
Illinois State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith say a new pilot program aimed at creating competency-based graduation requirements will deepen students experiences and knowledge. Associated Press
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