The median high school size in the U.S. is about 600 students. Of the 26,400 public high schools, there might be a thousand with more than 2,000 students and a few hundred with more than 3,000.

Despite coming with challenges, some communities choose big schools for some of the advantages they offer. And hundreds of those big suburban schools across the country are innovating to personalize learning and connect youth to meaningful postsecondary pathways.

Serving more than 3,000 students in a fast-growing suburb northwest of Chicago is Huntley High. Innovation at Huntley began in 2011 with three teachers piloting blended learning strategies. Scott Rowe became principal in 2013 and facilitated school-wide connectivity.

When I visited in 2016, I saw students taking courses in traditional, blended and online formats. Rowe, who is now superintendent of Huntley Community School District 158, explained that “Our blended classes meet at minimum twice per week with three days of online work. Our students have control over the time, place and pace at which they work because of this structure. When their class does not meet, they have the flexibility to work in our HUB (featured image), they can leave campus or meet with the teacher of their blended course for individualized learning assistance.”

In addition to blended and personalized learning, the Huntley faculty developed four career academies and a new competency-based pilot program.

Career Academies

Formed in 2011, the HHS Medical Academy offers preparation for college and careers in the health sciences. The academy has grown to become the state’s largest provider of PLTW biomedical curriculum, offering a dozen courses spanning several interdisciplinary subject areas.

Colleges and universities offer credit and/or scholarship incentives to students who earn a certificate or transcript designation for coursework completed in the Medical Academy.

Medical Academy students have a distinctive opportunity to participate in intensive job shadowing and real-world experiences at Northwestern Huntley Hospital. Watch the video below and this episode of Huntley 158 Today for more.

The Engineering Academy provides opportunities to help prepare students for admission to collegiate engineering programs and careers in the engineering field. By combining the foundation of engineering principles through rigorous coursework with real world experiences, students leave Huntley High School with an understanding of engineering careers and a hands-on experience few high school students have.

A combination of coursework, work-based learning, extracurricular activities, and a final presentation can earn students a transcript endorsement.

Like the Medical Academy, the Engineering Academy is working to develop real world internship experiences like the Youth Residency.

In its second year, the Global Academy enables students to explore global issues and cultures. Students completing the course of study, service learning and a capstone are recognized as an Illinois Global Scholar.

Students and staff attended the Global Student Leadership Summit last year. A delegation will attend the Summit in London in April.

The Fine Arts Academy is also in its second year, and offers students interested in the arts opportunities to immerse themselves in their passion to create while in high school. Opportunities to act, direct, lead behind the scenes creation of technical theatre, as well as develop showcases of student-created art are on the horizon.

Vanguard Vision

The 2016 Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act included a Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program. As one of 45 participating districts, Huntley created a program called Vanguard Vision.

“We are learning a lot and engaging students on a totally different level,” Superintendent Rowe said about the program. “The feedback from students centers around a feeling of deeper connection with their teachers as they work together on a negotiated pace. The teachers feel more empowered than ever and call last year’s inaugural year as their best teaching year ever!”

There are about 100 freshmen and 100 sophomores in the pilot. The goal is to continue to add 100 students for the next two years, for a total of 400.

Interested eighth grade students are encouraged to apply. The goal is to make the program accessible to all students that feel the program will best meet their learning needs.

Every competency ends with a performance assessment, where students demonstrate their learning in unique ways. “We are in the process of adding additional unique and innovative learning opportunities outside of the traditional school day,” added Rowe.

Students take core classes in the pilot program and can access electives in traditional or blended classes outside of the program.

To the original Huntley Habits of Work and Learning (HOWL), the competency team added another “L” —for life and an “S” for success. “This is the center of a lot of work spawning from this pilot,” said Rowe.

Vanguard Vision has a robust social-emotional learning program that focuses on the habits of work, life, learning, and success (HOWLLS), which are transferable to skills and jobs that do not yet exist.

“We are trying to focus in on building use of the HOWLLS to show skill acquisition to support life after high school and translate them to college admissions as well as portfolios for employment,” explained Rowe.

Vanguard Vision is already having an impact on the school. Some teachers have replaced traditional assessments with the performance assessments. “We are further aligning our curriculum to competencies that will make students successful after high school,” added Rowe.

“As the workforce and higher education continues to focus on one’s individual skills and ability to creatively think, our Vanguard Vision students are already building personal learner profiles and skill-based portfolios,” said Rowe. “As these learner profiles and portfolios are in ever-increasing demand from the workforce and higher education, it only makes sense that we will expand this practice to all students as well.”

Most promising, said Rowe, was students taking ownership of their learning—and the district plans on scaling strategies that promote agency beyond the Vanguard Vision program.

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