How Differentiated Instruction Transformed a Charter School

Image: Peak Charter Academy. (Courtesy of Steve Pond)

In August 2017, Peak Charter Academy, a K–8 public charter school, opened its doors outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Located near the borders of Research Triangle Park (RTP)—a global business community of 300 different organizations, academic entities, and government agencies—Peak attracted families from 39 different countries speaking 25 different languages. That’s due in part to the global reach of RTP’s employers, who have enhanced the level of diversity in the surrounding community.

Peak’s opening as a new school revealed that its scholars previously attended over 40 different schools and that the types and quality of the learning experiences provided in those public, private, charter, and home schools varied greatly.

The Need for Differentiated Instruction

An unanticipated one-year delay due to construction and development issues allowed me to spend time engaging with stakeholders who shared their hopes and desires for the school. Feedback received from parents revealed the community’s fervent desire for Peak to provide its students with various levels of engagement and enrichment regardless of their disability or ability.

After our leadership team continuously heard from parents and guardians that they wanted their children’s learning to include more individualization, support, and rigor, we announced that differentiated instruction would now be a guiding focus at Peak. As preparations to open Peak continued, our leadership team developed or adapted a series of systems, frameworks, and instructional tools to help promote this initiative and prepare to embed the learning model and mindset of differentiation into all facets of the learning community upon its opening.

Our educators learned that the delivery of generic instructional lessons is likely to fail to meet students’ needs. We instead emphasized a learning model that has been shown to consistently enhance student learning. Our staff engaged in more than 40 hours of differentiation-focused professional development exploring topics ranging from pre-assessment to tiered planning and teaching to cross-content integration and workshop-based instruction across disciplines. We committed ourselves to student growth with the idea that this could occur exponentially, rather than simply working to reach minimum proficiency. This mindset was new to many of our students. In the past, simply passing the test had been the highest expectation set for many of them.

“Our educators learned that the delivery of generic instructional lessons is likely to fail to meet students’ needs.“

Taking Action and Seeing Results

Throughout its first year, Peak teachers created and facilitated workshop-based, differentiated, and small-group learning experiences in all content areas; trained and engaged students with experiential, rubric, and project-based learning activities to demonstrate their learning and growth; and continued to provide one-on-one weekly support and differentiated coaching to every staff member.

The more comfortable the educators felt, the more confident they became in the classroom, which enhanced their students’ engagement. At the end of that year, the performance of its teachers and students surpassed the district and state averages. The school “met” state growth expectations and earned a “B” on its first-year state report card. We accomplished this through key pedagogical practices that allowed our staff to maximize learning opportunities. They were taught the same Common Core standards as students at every other school but in new and unique ways.

In the hope of continuing its growth, I attended the 2018 Model Schools Conference (MSC) and shared what I learned with my team at Peak. This included ICLE’s Rigor, Relevance, and Engagement Rubrics, which we incorporated into our lesson planning and facilitation cycles. Our leadership team also developed a web-based tool based on the frameworks that allowed us to track, monitor, and analyze our regular informal classroom walkthroughs through the lens of the ICLE rubrics. The data we collected provided our leadership and educators with timely and specific data that identify our strengths and areas of improvement.

The assimilation of these tools into our existing differentiation model helped Peak’s staff and scholars experience even greater growth and success in its second year, during which the school earned an “A” on its North Carolina State report card, as well as state-level recognition for exceeding expected growth. Peak Charter Academy was now ranked in the top 5% of all public schools across North Carolina.

That summer, Peak brought a team of 10 educators to MSC 2019, and I also presented three sessions where I shared Peak’s strategies for implementing workshop-based, differentiated, and tiered instructional models and examined the profound impact that the ICLE frameworks had on Peak’s successes. That winter, we were also named a 2020 Model School by ICLE. Peak Charter Academy attributes a great deal of this growth and success to the incredible impact that the ICLE frameworks have on the quality of learning and teaching within our school.

Differentiated Instruction During COVID

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 caused great disruption in the global community, and specifically in the lives of students worldwide. Although no year-end state-level testing was given in North Carolina in 2020, our students collectively grew another 8% in reading proficiency and 10% in math proficiency, as measured by North Carolina’s standardized check-in assessments given prior to the switch to virtual learning.

After the school closed on March 13, 2020, Peak staff converted the following Monday and Tuesday to professional development days, during which they engaged in intensive training to learn to use Google Classroom, host Google Meets, and use Google Forms to develop assessments. Peak Charter Academy reopened on March 18 and began to offer live instruction daily for all learners at home. We distributed on-site Chromebooks to all students who needed one to ensure a one-to-one device-to-student ratio and received additional Chromebooks from National Heritage Academies.

We began to virtually engage in daily, live, online learning experiences. Not only were these experiences active and aligned with the pacing guide for each grade, but our teachers continued to differentiate instruction as well. This approach continued through the end of the 2019–2020 school year and into the current school year until students were given the opportunity to return in person in October 2020.

Socially distanced students in a classroom at Peak Charter Academy. (Courtesy of Steve Pond)

Each classroom at Peak contained a mix of virtual and in-person learners. At-home learners can log on live to engage with their teacher and classmates. If virtual learners’ family schedules don’t allow for live participation, Peak’s teachers record all classes and activities so virtual learners can watch on their own time.

Through their knowledge and comfort with instructional technology, Peak’s teachers could ensure that at-home learners and in-person learners could interact and learn live with each other throughout the day. Differentiated instruction was still the predominant learning model in Peak’s classrooms. Although in-person learners remained in socially distanced assigned seats, students could also engage with each other and their teachers in small virtual groups to receive the individualized support or enrichment needed to meet their learning needs.

What’s Next for Peak?

Since then, Peak Charter Academy has operated in fully virtual (K–8), hybrid (K–8), and full-week learning models (K–5). Its attendance and engagement rates have continued to climb, and the school has continued to use differentiated and tiered instruction—as well as the Rigor, Relevance, and Engagement Rubrics—to engage students in Quad D learning experiences.

Peak’s teachers continue to teach live lessons daily and to engage scholars in small-group instruction that’s differentiated, workshop-based, and tiered to meet students’ needs, but in a way that’s rigorous, relevant, and engaging as well. We are honored to be recognized as a 2021 Model School and look forward to seeing you all in Nashville this June!

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Want to unite with K–12 leaders and educators to inspire student learning? The Model Schools Conference 2021 is a hybrid learning event in June 2021 that features four days of keynotes, model school sessions, networking idea labs, and more!

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