This post is by Daren and Todd Dickson of Valor Collegiate, interviewed by Ryan Hall and Jeff Wetzler of Transcend
What does it look like to create a deliberately diverse school with rigorous academics and comprehensive human development?
More and more schools and organizations are recognizing the need to adapt to what the 21st century requires of students. At Transcend we’ve described these as the Eight Great Leaps needed to prepare children to thrive in and transform our world. One learning community with whom Transcend partners closely--Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, TN--touches on nearly every leap.
For example, Valor has expanded the focus of school (Leap #1) to include development of habits of success and personal leadership. Valor challenges the entirety of its intentionally diverse student body to be at the very top in terms of academics and human growth (Leap #2). Through self-paced badging, learners drive their own path (Leap #3). Leaps four through eight are evident as well, but we’d prefer you hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Ryan Hall and Jeff Wetzler of Transcend sat down with Valor’s founders--brothers Daren Dickson and Todd Dickson--to talk through their learning design. Their new program focuses on SEL paired with rigorous academics and a “Compass” model that has resonated with educators, parents, and students in transforming traditional education.
Here’s a window into their conversation:
Transcend: Let’s start with the origin story of Valor. What’s important for our reader to know about why and how you two came together to start Valor?
Todd: The origin story of Valor started about 13 years ago. I was working as a founding teacher and school leader at Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area. We had some success getting kids into college in the high-performing charter network. At the same time, Daren was working at Seneca Center, an organization doing amazing things for some of the most disadvantaged kids in the Bay area. He was doing a lot of interesting work in the SEL [social-emotional learning] sphere.
I went to visit Daren at Seneca at observed one of their “Circles”, and it truly amazed me. The kids in the Circle were doing things that were far beyond what our Summit students were able to do in terms of SEL--and honestly a lot more than what I thought most adults would be able to do. This sparked a question for us: “What if we melded these two worlds together and really pushed what SEL could mean in a public school setting?” That started the groundwork for what became Valor, and over the next ten years we began to build the framework for combining high performing academics and SEL into an integrated school model.
Transcend: Tell us a little about your Compass model and how it relates to human development?
Daren: Our Compass model is a really simple model founded in the foundational elements on what it means to be human. The basic model originated from indigenous cultures that have used a directional model for thousands of years. The four directions in this model represent the mind, the heart, the spirit, and the body. We took that idea and recognized that if we wanted our own kids and kids we were working with to be growing as whole human beings in a comprehensive way, they needed to develop all those capacities within themselves.
Our oldest cousin, Burke Miller, helped us adapt this directional model into what we now call the Valor Compass. He had been using the basic directional model as a model for leadership development in his own consulting work and his insight was invaluable in helping us think through how to apply the model to education. The first step we took in creating the Compass was defining what excellence would look like in each of those dimensions. That’s what we call our Compass Disciplines. It boils down to having a Sharp Mind, Noble Purpose, Big Heart, and Aligning our Actions to that Noble Purpose. All that is dependent on finding what we call your True North. True North is finding a balanced and present way of being in the world that allows you to integrate your growth across all those different dimensions.
It’s essentially bringing your whole self to bear through the education process, and ultimately we’re looking to call the entire education world to a bigger task. We don’t need to just develop kids’ Sharp Minds. If we’re serious about these 21st century, comprehensive outcomes for kids that will help them succeed on a bigger level--and more importantly as parents, if I want my child to be happier and more fulfilled in their life--then we really do believe they need to be developed in all these different dimensions.
Transcend: Can you talk about how it works in action?
Daren: The simplest way our Compass model plays out in our schools is through our Compass Badge Work and Circles. Everyone in the community, adults and students, is working through their own self-directed set of Compass Badges and everyone participates in a weekly Circle. The Badge Work curriculum is aligned to our Compass Disciplines and invites individuals to do the inner work of Compass development through engaging in various readings, activities and tasks. An example of a piece of Badge Work is a Life Story. Every year, everyone in our community works on a revised version of their life story and has time to tell their updated story in their Circle. We believe doing our own inner work and then bringing it to our community and having them “resonate” with our work is a powerful formula for individual and community growth.
Our school discipline system is also grounded in our Compass metaphor. We design all of our culture-building activities from a “relationship-based approach” and train everyone to use every interaction as an opportunity to strengthen relationships. When a student (or adult) is “Off-Compass”, we see that as an opportunity to use our relationship to support and/or teach them how to get back “On-Compass”. This leads to restorative conversations and practices, and ultimately, to growth, which is the focus of our Compass model.
Transcend: There’s a lot of talk in the field right now on SEL--social-emotional learning--and you all use a different term--comprehensive human development--to wrap around what you just described. Can you explain the significance to call it “comprehensive human development” as opposed to SEL?
Daren: Sure, we moved to that in the last couple years. We felt it better captured the comprehensiveness of our Compass. Social/Emotional can often refer more to the “big heart” part of our Compass model and not as much to the Noble Purpose which has a whole set of activities around identity development. Identity development, or purpose, can be left out of Social Emotional Learning sometimes. The Sharp Mind can also be left out of Social Emotional Learning and that’s integrated into our Compass as well. So we felt that Comprehensive Human Development described better what we were trying to do.
Todd: I would add that we saw a trend somewhat in the SEL field of a lot of SEL models that we really like and can be effective but they tend to be more reactive and rehabilitative. After a child struggled they would introduce these processes and skills. We felt it important to differentiate and be more proactive and developmental. That’s another reason we decided that Comprehensive Human Development was a better term.
Transcend: Great, so let’s shift now to talk about how it’s playing out. When you think about the totality of Valor and the impact that it’s had across multiple dimensions, can you share with us what you’ve noticed and measured in terms of the impact so far?
Todd: The impact so far has been really positive and strong. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the impact from the model. I think one reason people have been so interested in our model is that our academic results have been very, very strong. That’s something we’re very proud of, and we think we have a strong academic program on its own merits. But we do believe that having the mixture of our strong Compass work integrated with our strong academic program has allowed us to have stronger results than if we just did our academic model. Some of those examples are that our schools have been ranked consistently in the last three years as being in the top 1 percent of schools in Tennessee if you look across academic achievement and academic growth across subgroups.
We do believe that it’s the combination of a Noble Purpose, Big Heart, and Aligned Actions, that help propels students to have a really Sharp Mind.
Stakeholder experience is really high and that’s really important as well. Compass has laid the groundwork to create those strong bonds and relationships which has definitely shown in the survey results across teachers, families, and scholars. They note that they feel safe, productive, known, and connected to their community. Those are things we think are a result of doing Compass work really well.
We’re also seeing that it’s resonating with a lot of educators across the country, teachers, school leaders, district folks, CMO leaders. Particularly in high-performing charter schools, there’s a hunger for student investment to match strong academics. There’s a strong resonance in the field of looking for that piece to add into the school experience.
Daren: I would add, on the faculty and student culture side, that we’ve tried to be really intentional about using consistent and aligned language and systems in our community. That has played out in a way where we’ve built a tight-knit community with folks who are really clear on who we are and what we’re trying to do. That’s translated into a really strong sense of belonging within our faculty as well as our scholars and we’ve seen that measured in data, but more importantly, it’s something you can really feel in the building.
I was very surprised in the first couple years that people found what we were doing to be so innovative because I had been doing this type of work for years before Valor. But the approach hadn’t been used in a public school setting, and that really sparked an interest in the concept of integrating new ideas in a public school setting to reach more kids and adults. That’s been awesome to see.
Transcend: Can you speak to one additional aspect of impact, which is how Compass intersects with the intentional diversity part of Valor’s model?
Daren: We do have an intentionally diverse by design model, which means we’re getting kids across various lines of difference together in a building. But we recognize that just having diversity on its own without knowing what to do with it can actually be harmful. Just putting different people from varied backgrounds in the same room won’t necessarily result in great things. That’s where our Compass model and our Circle model are essential. Via Compass work and CIrcle, we learn how to bring our Big Hearts and Sharp Minds into relationships; to really listen to other people’s stories, to resonate with their underlying values, and to recognize ways they’re similar as well as how they’re different. The model of diversity here is aimed towards building strong relationships that lead to true inclusiveness and equity among students. We believe progress is built through really knowing one another deeply and respecting each other.
Todd: The three core pillars of Valor are: diverse by design, top 1 percent of academics, and powered by Compass. An example I often use is: If you’re in a Socratic seminar in a class and have an outstanding teacher with a great curriculum you could have a great experience. If you also have a strong SEL program where students have time to self-reflect on their own identity as well as the identity of others within a safe culture in the school, then that can turn into an exceptional experience. If all of that takes place in a diverse by design school, where students can reach across lines of difference and understand different perspectives, that can turn into a transformational experience for the scholar. That’s where the magic happens, in the combination of those three things working together as a chorus.
Valor has begun to share their model with partners and through cohorts of education leaders across the country. Their innovative approach to bringing this model into other schools is something we’re going to explore in our next post. Stay tuned!
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