This post is by Daren and Todd Dickson of Valor Collegiate, interviewed by Ryan Hall and Jeff Wetzler of Transcend.
How do you scale an innovative social and emotional learning model? And how does a school successfully adopt--and adapt--that model?
In our previous interview with Valor Collegiate Academies, we explored how they created a model that integrated SEL and rigorous academics to transform the traditional learning environment. Valor is making huge developments in cultivating the whole child with a focus on Big Heart, Sharp Mind, Noble Purpose, and Aligned Actions. We are inspired seeing their progress in tackling the Eight Great Leaps needed to forge new ways of learning.
Now they’re sharing their successful approach.
In this continued interview between Transcend and Valor, we’ll explore how and why to share an innovative school model and the critical lessons Daren and Todd--Valor’s founders, and twin brothers--have learned along the way. Here’s the rest of the conversation.
Transcend: You both talked about the national attention and mentioned being surprised at how fast people were calling this innovative and wanting to visit. Can you talk us through how you decided to share Compass with other communities?
Daren: I think it was spurred, most simply, by people we respected asking us to share it and wanting to learn more about it. That was what led us to host our first formal visit day as we got requests from people who wanted to see more and know more.
One of my favorite parts of the education reform movement, or whatever it’s called these days, is that it’s very open-source and people really do go out of their way to share materials. We really like that ethos and wanted to be a part of it. We did learn, however, that we needed to formalize that sharing over time.
Once we had some conversations with some funders we learned pretty quickly that they were interested in funding us to do that, and we saw the benefit of learning to codify and formalize the system for our own schools. There were a lot of things that made sense pretty quickly when we started to discuss sharing this with others and so we embarked on formalizing our sharing.
Transcend: There’s a lot of different ways someone could share a model. You all chose “Compass Camp,” which I might categorize as a cohort-based, capacity-building approach. Can you talk a little about that approach and why it’s appropriate or powerful for this type of model?
Daren: We’re still very early on in learning to share all this but our initial thinking was a recognition that the work we’re doing really boils down to culture building. We asked, “How do you build a culture from inside of an organization?” We felt really strongly that the principal in the school is the spiritual leader of that culture and knew we needed to change the heart and mind of that leader. We focused on building the capacity within that leader and then equipping the leader to build that capacity in the faculty and community--this was our theory of change.
We focused on building cohorts of principals who are going to be doing this work and helping them understand the practice in a personal and practical way so they could move it into their schools as a whole.
Transcend: Talk to us about how that’s played out this past year. Who participated? How has it worked? What’s starting to come out of it?
Daren: We just wrapped up our first year with our first cohort, which included three networks and eleven schools. Achievement First was our biggest partner in the northeast, and they put eight schools through. Summit Prep on the west coast put two schools through, and then Republic here in Nashville put one school through.
For the first year, we hosted six two-day trainings, most of them here in Nashville and one in New York. The basic model was to train the principal and one other key leader from the school--so two folks from each school that were consistently there for the trainings, along with what we called “network support champions.”
We trained them deeply in both participating in and facilitating Circles and understanding our Badge Work curriculum. We also did more technical training on all the systems that support strong implementation in their schools. That was the Cohort One process.
Transcend: Are there any results you can share from this first year? Whether they be anecdotes that are exciting or inspiring or any other data points you’d like to share.
Daren: We’ve collected a lot of data and are still analyzing it from the end of the year so we don’t have much quantitative data available yet but there are a lot of good indicators that it’s going well. I think one of the biggest takeaways was that all eleven schools that piloted the program are continuing in year two, which we think is a strong sign. For the bigger networks, they’re expanding to more schools within their network. We see those two things as really positive signs.
An anecdotal takeaway for me which was the big unanswered question when we were starting was, “Is this something that’s transportable? Can a school that has a very different culture and background take this model--which seems kind of context heavy--and put it in their own culture?”
The resounding answer, I think, has been “Yes!” There have been really strong faculty Circles and student Circles happening all across the country in lots of different types of schools with different school leaders. I feel significantly more confident now in saying this is transportable.
Transcend: Are there any stories or things that you’ve seen or heard that have impacted you personally or inspired you?
Daren: I had the opportunity to visit a school in New York that was using our Compass program and sat in on an eighth-grade boys Circle. I watched a group of eighth-grade boys, who are not generally going to sit and share about their inner lives, sit together five weeks into their school year and practice intentionally getting to know one another at a deeper level.
One boy, in particular, began sharing part of his life story and talked about some difficult, traumatic experiences he had experienced, and a few of the boys in the Circle resonated with him and connected with something I imagine he never had the opportunity to share in school before.
Later that day they set up a group of kids to talk to me during lunch about their experience with Circle and this particular boy happened to be in the group. He told me, “What I like most about Circle is that I get to be with just boys. As boys, we always joke around but this is a chance to talk about real stuff that’s going on in our lives. It’s different and something I’ve never done. It helps me feel like people have my back.”
For the first time, this boy was able to talk about more real-life experiences through being given the opportunity and framework to share his story. It’s a powerful testament to what these eighth-grade boys got to experience and maybe they do want to talk about more real life things than they normally get to.
Transcend: And the fact that that was five weeks into school at a non-Valor site is pretty powerful. It matches my own experience in observing Circles at multiple schools this past year. What about any stories from adults?
Todd: There’s one story that’s resonated with me that shows the potential of Circle in other schools as well as the spiraling positive impact in general of sharing and learning. When we share with other schools we’re able to learn from them in a way that helps make our program better, as we turn it around and use their insights to make our school even better.
For example, an Achievement First school decided to have more parents come in to be a part of their Circles, and the parents were so moved by this sharing by the students that the parents then asked to set up regular parent Circles at the school. That’s something that then got back to Valor to our principals and leaders and we thought, “Oh, that’s a really unique idea, and we need to learn from them how they’re doing that so we can incorporate that back at Valor!” It’s a good example of what that cycle of sharing and learning can do to make everybody stronger.
Transcend: If you had to speculate, what’s your theory that something so magical and special that takes place in your context can spread so well? What is it about Compass or the sharing model that’s making this possible?
Todd: I would add that through watching it unfold over the last few years, I think it resonates and has the potential to spread so well because it’s so at the essence of the human experience and what it means to be a human being. So on some level, it resonates immediately because it’s within all of us--so when you see it or experience it there’s a natural resonance with nearly all people. That piece is what is special and why people gravitate towards it, and it gives it the potential to be used in a lot of different settings in a lot of different schools.
Daren: I agree that, ultimately, it spreads because we, as humans, are hungry for connection and really want ways to connect. Technically, though, I think it’s important to take a complex process and make it simple and trainable.
I’m speaking as an insider/outsider on this but one of the things that has been really helpful for me is learning through the high-performing charter world how to codify and teach things. There’s a common way of breaking complex things down into simple chunks and training them in a way that’s repeatable that we learned and applied to Circle. We defined the practice in a way that was then trainable. We spent the time and leveraged people who already knew how to do that really well and made the Circle practice much more trainable than it had been before, which was a huge improvement.
By doing that we created a practice that could take something that’s conceivably scary or dangerous or difficult, where we’re potentially talking about our own life stories, and structured it in a way that makes it significantly safer. It’s able to be put into contexts that allow people to have positive and connecting experiences even with a facilitator who’s not super experienced.
Transcend: Are there other lessons you’ve learned or adjustments you would make or maybe do differently after this year of sharing? Secondly, how has the sharing made Valor stronger?
Daren: We learned a lot about how to share through our first cohort. Any first cohort is a guinea pig of sorts, and we learned a lot from them. One of the key lessons we learned was that in training larger networks, while the principal can be the agent of change for a particular school, we also needed to focus on a network champion who can build capacity and be responsible for spreading the culture throughout that network. So in the second cohort, we are focusing a whole new set of trainings on that network champion and developing those capacities in that person. That was a big switch, and I think we’re going to learn a lot this year on how to develop that change in the network champion and how to think systematically about the change.
We also structurally had not developed a lot of tools about how to implement the Badge Work and what the right sequence was and how to measure what/when during the year. We learned a lot from partners asking for different tools and learning that we needed to create the tools for them. We developed a lot of better systems this year.
Even the Badge Work itself was under construction so we’re a year down the road of having that more refined and tested. A lot has gotten better over the last year.
We’ve learned a lot by trying to train someone else in what we’re doing. We’ve seen many of our shortcomings and what we have and don’t have. We’ve been able to improve a lot and bring those things back into our own schools. The systems and trainings are significantly better as well.
Todd: I would say it’s not an exaggeration to say our Circles at Valor are twice as good as they were before we started sharing. From the quality of the training and the walkthrough data and coaching that we now do, we’ve significantly improved the processes.
Transcend: Could one of you talk about the partnership with Summit Public Schools and how working with them to digitize Badge Work has also benefited you all as well?
Todd: Summit has been a really great partner and I, of course, have a soft spot for them since I worked there for a really long time so it’s been a thrill to work with them again. They’ve also been extremely helpful for us in terms of determining how to share and learn with others. One of the interesting and exciting opportunities this year is that we’ve taken Compass and put it onto the Summit Learning Platform, so all of the curriculum is available on a digital platform. We’re going to pilot it in our own high school in the next year and they’ll pilot it internally as well. We’re hoping to learn a lot over the next year so we have the opportunity to make that available to thousands of schools around the country.
Daren: I would add that the other hugely helpful thing that Summit has brought to our partnership is a deep expertise in delivering curriculum in a self-directed way. Our Badge Work is a self-directed curriculum but we didn’t have that kind of expertise and running it by their team and hearing their feedback has been immensely helpful. They’ve shown us a lot about breaking the curriculum down into chunks and thinking about things that are more palatable for the student. They’ve also helped us test our desired outcomes and see if the curriculum is really teaching what we’ve hoped it would.
Transcend: Can you talk about what things are coming next?
Daren: We’re excited. We have our second cohort enrolled right now with eight schools from five networks, as well as nine other schools enrolled in a “leader study"--so we have 17 schools going through it in total this year. We’re already significantly further ahead than our cohort one just because of how much we’ve learned this last year.
Our basic theory is to go slow with a smaller cohort this year while we are building some internal capacity to train even more schools. We’re building towards an even larger cohort three and are looking at about 20 networks, and up to 100 schools, for that cohort.
In the future, we’re looking to also diversify and target more than just the high-performing charter schools. In cohort two we have our first traditional public district school. We’re excited and looking forward to work with even larger networks.
Todd: I would add that we’re interested in looking at organizations that don’t serve students. We have a few organizations that are interested in this as an adult organizational culture tool. Multiple folks have also approached us about doing the program at the ground level where we focus on working directly with teachers and have the strategy bubble up through the work with teachers. There’s plenty on our plate that we’re working towards!
Our vision for the next three years would be to work with 300 schools or about 120,000 kids around the country.
Transcend: Can you share what kinds of schools would be good candidates for the program?
Todd: Right now we’ve found through the first year and our own experience that this is not for schools that have unstable cultures. It’s not necessarily a fix for that. We are developing separate foundational modules that will help schools that are in that environment but that’s down the road a little bit.
Right now we’re looking for schools that want to go from a solid, stable culture and academic achievement to make a big jump forward towards an exceptional culture. We’ve found that schools that already have strong academics have the ability to implement our program more effectively. Optimally we’re working with a leader who has been there for a few years and has the basics under control and is ready to add a new layer to take a big step forward.
Transcend: What would your advice be to schools with an innovative approach who is considering sharing their model?
Todd: On the internal side what we’ve had to be disciplined about is that we wanted to be able to answer affirmatively the question, “Is this going to help strengthen our core?” Meaning, if we’re sharing with other schools, will the act of doing that make our own schools better? We strategically set it up so that it would be helpful to other schools and ultimately to help as many kids as possible but also to be disciplined to make sure it’s going to positively impact your own community.
Daren: The other thing I would recommend that was helpful for us with sharing Compass was to define what exactly we were sharing within our model. We clearly identified what we were sharing and what we were not sharing and drive it down to the level of practice. It’s difficult to train a philosophy, but it was easier to get it down to a couple of key practices--Circle and Badge Work--and how to implement those.
Transcend: Great, that’s super helpful. Thank you for sharing all this. It’s been fun to sit down and talk.
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