Seminole County continues push with competency-based learning

PSI High

At PSI High, Seminole County Public Schools imagine students will leave conventional classrooms behind, spending more time in conference rooms and small groups. Screenshot from school concept video produced by the school district.

Descriptions make a new elective offered in one Central Florida district sound distinctly different from a typical classroom.

Students work in an environment that resembles a high-tech office. Instead of sitting in rows of desks in front of the teacher and taking tests, they solve real problems in the community.

Seminole County Public Schools call the new class PSI High. Pronounced Sci-Hi, the acronym stands for Problem Solving Incubator. Students apply their skills to make change in the real world.

The elective is part of the school district’s push to help students learn at their own pace. Seminole is one of three districts in Florida that are preparing to test-drive the concept of competency-based learning. School officials want students to advance to higher levels of learning based on their mastery of the topic — rather than the amount of time they spend in class.

The elective will offer students course credit based on completion of the class objectives, as opposed to a traditional individual grade. They’ll also have the option of receiving a letter grade or pass/fail.

Seminole County offers the elective at three high schools. It’s the first step in the development of a new school concept. The idea won the district a $1 million grant in a national competition to design the high school of the future.

A video describing the district’s ideas features a student named Brandon. He walks among couches and conference rooms on a re-imagined campus.

“It’s a place where all opinions are welcome, and where teachers don’t dictate the methods of learning,” he says. “People aren’t confined to the setting of a traditional classroom.”

There will likely be more efforts like this. A 2016 law created a pilot program for Pinellas, Palm Beach, Seminole County school districts, as well as P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, to experiment with competency-based learning, which dovetails with personalized learning. It allows them to apply to the Florida Department of Education for waivers from state regulations that might stand in their way.  A fourth district, Lake County, has backed away from the initiative.

Seminole officials acknowledge they’re early in the personalization process.

“We are starting with elective courses that are aligned to social-emotional learning outcomes,” said Derek Jensen, the district’s manager of digital and blended curriculum. “We are making the real world a classroom and doing more community-based projects, (integrating) a variety of disciplines.”

The elective will give students the chance to work with businesses and community groups. Projects might range from something mundane, like improving a business workflow, to tackling issues like food deserts, Jensen said.

“We care about students’ passions and interests,” he said. “Students assess projects that align to their interests.”

As a result of the course, students are expected to develop skills such as communication, social responsibility, and collaboration. Jensen said the district will monitor the program and make adjustments as it learns.

“We are going to do what is best for our kids,” he said.

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