Huntley High School to start competency-based learning program in fall

HUNTLEY – Eighth-grader Delaney Cairns said she isn’t always the best test-taker. Sometimes she learns a subject much faster than her peers, and sometimes she needs extra help.

Huntley High School is abandoning some traditional classroom instruction and will try to reshape the way students learn through a new competency-based learning program called “Vanguard Vision.”

The program allows students to develop skill sets at their own pace. Students show proficiency on a topic not only through a static moment’s test, but by doing projects, presentations or activities outside of the classroom.

“I really liked the independent aspect of it and how you can make your own schedule and decide your own learning style,” said Delaney, of Lake in the Hills. “I really like to do projects and work with others.”

Delaney is one of 120 incoming freshman students starting the program in the fall. Students were selected through a lottery system after parents and students declared interest in the program by Jan. 5. Traditional learning and blended learning programs still will be available. Blended learning is an education program where students learn in part through online instruction, and in part at a brick-and-mortar location away from home.

In the competency-based learning program, teachers will advance students based on how they demonstrate mastery of a specific skill instead of merely on classroom time spent or a grade on a test.

“We don’t want gaps in your learning,” Principal Scott Rowe said.

Huntley School District 158 is one of 10 districts chosen in Illinois to test the competency-based learning program. Other schools participating include Ridgewood High School District 234 in Cook County and Round Lake School District 116 in Lake County.

Delaney’s mom, Melissa Cairns, said she was excited to hear about the program because Delaney is an independent learner and is very creative. The program will allow her to pursue subjects, such as writing, more than in a traditional classroom, Melissa Cairns said.

“She’s kinda shy and a little bit reserved, so sometimes she gets lost in a traditional classroom,” Melissa Cairns said. “So from that respect, I like the idea of being able to take ownership of what she wanted to learn and how.”

How it compares with
traditional learning

Students will learn four core subjects – English, math, science and social studies – by four teachers. All other classes, such as physical education, lunch and electives will be held as normal with the rest of the freshman class.

The program focuses on big-picture concepts instead of only jumping through hoops and averaging up a bunch of point scores, Rowe said.

“It’s a change we’ve known has been needed for quite some time,” Rowe said. “We know that students learn at different paces and process information differently.”

Differentiating between all the students learning at different paces and grasping subjects at different levels will be the hardest challenge for teachers, said Kris Grabner, a math teacher in the district.

“If I don’t understand a unit right now or don’t do well on a test, we can’t stop for me currently and have to keep going,” Delaney said. “But here I can focus on it longer instead of skipping over.”


The typical competency-based learning program says goodbye to GPAs, letter grades or number scores. Students receive a standards-based report that could be translated into a GPA for colleges.

Reports will include a student’s habits of work and learning that show a student’s commitment to learning, such as if they are turning in their work, their attendance rate, communication skills, creativity and collaboration.

​“It’s no longer, ‘You didn’t do those three assignments, so you didn’t do well in the class,’” Ellysa Cassier, a social studies teacher, said. “Now, it’s separated where one side is strictly academic and the other is what type of worker you are.”

At the end of the program, students will have to complete a capstone graduation project that will encapsulate all they’ve learned.

Rowe said the high school has been in contact with state universities such as the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois University about how it would affect admissions, and all schools said they are OK with the program.

Rowe said he had to make a change to the program that would include a GPA on a student’s transcript because colleges were apprehensive about how to award scholarships without a GPA.

During the program’s second year, students will be able to earn credit for civic projects done outside of the classroom by showing what competencies they are addressing, such as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

Illinois has lagged behind other states in launching competency-based education, with Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont leading the way. It is a requirement for all three states’ high school curriculums to be built based on competencies, Rowe said.

Illinois has no policies in place yet, but launched the pilot program in 2017. Applications are now open until Feb. 16 for more districts to join the program. No additional state funding is appropriated for participating districts.

Vanguard seminars will be held to teach the students how to be successful in the new type of learning environment.

Grabner said planning new curriculum has been an “extensive” task.

“We’ve had 25 hours of conversations just on grading,” Grabner said. “Creating Algebra 1 competencies took me a semester to plan. It’s not also a different style of curriculum, but also looking at personalized learning and how we’ll do that.”

Cassier said the program has to adjust how teachers think about school in relation to how the world actually works.

“In school, you sit for X amount of time and don’t necessarily see those connections outside of this building, but within the program, we break down the walls and show them that what they’ll be doing in the real world relates,” Cassier said.

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