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Why a High-Achieving School is Reinventing Itself

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By Sarah Scott, Principal at Chipeta Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11

"If you get preoccupied by a certain type of achievement then you don't look for other things people might be good at." -Sir Ken Robinson

As a high achieving school in Colorado Springs School District 11, Chipeta Elementary has embarked on a school-wide change process. Why, some ask, would you change when you are already a very successful, high achieving school? The simple answer is that we can always do better. The real answer, however, is much more complex and challenging.

We have a long history of success--in large part based on consistent instructional practices that were largely teacher-directed learning. Compliance was important in our system leading to instruction that was, on the whole, prescriptive and fairly linear. Teachers used the standards as a guide and instructional goals centered on continuing high achievement on the state standardized tests.

A few years ago, the Chipeta staff and community members began to examine our strengths and weaknesses. In the process, we explored and defined why we do what we do each day using Simon Sinek's work as a guide. We worked to define ourselves as a school and to determine collective goals. This resulted in a short but important guiding statement.

Chipeta: Self-directed learners collaborating, taking risks, and problem solving to change their world.

The statement links our purpose with our beliefs and helps us to continue to refine our practices. Our school ought to be a learning lab where students and staff are willing to experiment. In this process, students and teachers have more autonomy, learning becomes more interactive, student agency increases, and an appropriate balance of foundational skills and application or transfer of learning occurs.

We changed how students engage in learning by giving more ownership, increasing choice and voice, and creating more authentic and hands-on learning. This allows students the opportunity to become self-directed, to collaborate, take risks, and solve authentic problems.  

Change is exciting--and challenging. Our teachers and students are in the process of embracing these challenges--sometimes with excitement and sometimes with trepidation. We work to empower students and teachers, to meet them where they are now and help them move forward, and to collaborate more effectively on ways for them to learn and demonstrate learning. This comes with a mix of success and challenges.

While far from perfect, our community of learners is working hard to learn and grow. We strive to balance the many aspects of learning with students, to empower ourselves and each other, and to find the path of change that isn't overwhelming.

Chipeta Elementary is thriving as a successful school community. The pace of change is inconsistent but overall the learning environment is very different than it was five years ago. We are well on our way to being a place where learners are self-directed, collaboration and risk-taking are the norm, and learning is authentic--all while continuing to be a high-achieving, successful school.

* Chipeta Elementary is one of twelve next generation learning pipeline schools in Colorado Springs School District 11

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