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What’s school without grade levels?

Northern Cass students Jaenna Wolff (left) and Abby Richman work on history and physical science, respectively, at the Jaguar Academy.

Northern Cass students Jaenna Wolff (left) and Abby Richman work on history and physical science, respectively, at the Jaguar Academy.

Meanwhile, even the handful of schools that have successfully ditched grade levels, such as Waukesha STEM Academy, a charter school about 20 miles west of Milwaukee, must still keep age-based groupings in the background to sort students for standardized testing.

“We take the tests. But we don’t think much about them, quite honestly,” said James Murray, Waukesha’s principal.

Steiner plans a similar approach. For testing and student data reporting, Northern Cass will still link students with an expected year of graduation.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do for testing,” said Steiner. “But we won’t put any extra effort or incentive into them. They’ll be something we have to do and move on.”

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Jaguar Academy is often library-quiet. Prepackaged lessons from an online curriculum provider comprised about 80 percent of students’ work in the first year. Steiner wants to cut that online learning quotient way back, to 20 percent, partly by expanding the number of seminars in which teachers lead a deeper exploration or a lab on select topics.

Still, it has been hard enough to schedule just one weekly seminar, he said. Students often skip a non-Jaguar Academy class to attend, and there have been no math seminars, because none of the academic advisors are math teachers.

And seminar scheduling is just one of the logistical headaches Northern Cass will face as grade levels disappear.

“Competency-based schools still need structures — they just need new structures,” said Sydney Schaef, a mastery learning designer for reDesign, a Boston company that guides school overhauls. “We still need ways to identify where kids need to be when they come into the building in the morning.” And when kids should stop going to elementary school and start attending a middle school across town. (Because the Northern Cass district is in a single building, they dodge that particular challenge.)

“Even reimagining space is bigger than any of us thought,” said Steiner. “Classrooms that used to be owned by a teacher will have to be more flexibly used. We’re looking at one of our gyms and asking, does it have to double as a classroom space?”

Then there’s the question of whether to place limits on how quickly or slowly students move through competencies. For instance, another of the districts mentoring Northern Cass found that just letting students work “at their own pace” led some kids to slack off and disrupt classmates.

Northern Cass student Myles Froehlich works out fractions with the help of dominoes.

Northern Cass student Myles Froehlich works out fractions with the help of dominoes.

“I remind teachers that we need to put some controls on this,” said Bill Zima, superintendent of the district in question, Maine’s Kennebec Intra-District Schools regional school unit #2 (RSU2). “First-graders are not ready to completely manage their time. Nor are seniors. Nor are adults, really.”

The solution for some is grouping kids who would traditionally be in two or three different grade levels together in a single classroom, a longstanding practice of Montessori schools.

“A lot of schools are finding ways to blur grade levels rather than getting rid of them,” said Karla Phillips, policy director for personalized learning at the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, or ExcelinEd.

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