Academic Design

In the Ignatian tradition, we treasure the individuality of each child, and we are committed to addressing the academic challenges and strengths of each student. Given our commitment to Cura Personalis and high individualization for every student, we have established an academic design and strategies that establishes a personalized education for each of our students. The core pillars of St. Ignatius’ academic model are five inter-related, innovative approaches that complement one-another and combine to create an individualized, rigorous learning environment where every student is supported to grow and succeed across academic subjects. We have spent time researching, visiting other schools, and learning about these instructional methods, and we are confident that they will support our goal for each student to reach his/her highest potential.

THE FIVE PILLARS ARE:

#1: STATION ROTATION & BLENDED LEARNING in math and English & language arts;

St. Ignatius uses station rotation and blended learning as the foundation of lesson planning in math and English and language arts (ELA). Station rotation is a classroom design model in which students in small, ability-differentiated groups rotate through various classroom activities, including a technology-enabled blended learning activity. This type of instruction allows us to:

  • Tailor instruction to students’ individual needs, supported by teachers in a small-group setting;
  • Respect differences in students’ learning styles by providing opportunities to learn a skill or subject via different modalities and activities;
  • Create structures to enable effective ability grouping across age levels and between classrooms; and,
  • Foster a more engaging classroom environment by dividing an instructional block into multiple, dynamic activity blocks.

Our rotation model includes 3-4 activity stations, 1 teacher-led, 1 technology-enabled, and 1-2 collaborative stations, in 60-90 minute blocks. Students will be grouped according to their skill mastery in the subject, and groups will change dynamically throughout the year.

Station Rotation & Blended LearningAt the middle school level, St. Ignatius incorporates more independent work opportunities for students and flexibility for teachers to experiment with what models work best for achieving student growth goals. Elements of student choice and agency are integrated into station rotation, for example, by offering multiple choices of collaborative activities.

Blended learning is facilitated by adaptive learning software. A 2015 study by the Rand Corporation and the Gates Foundation found that technology-enabled personalized learning approaches have a significant positive impact on student academic achievement, especially in elementary school math.

At the end of an instructional block of station rotation, teachers have a wealth of information to inform their assessment of each student’s work and progress, and shape plans for groups and activities in the next lesson. First, they have their own observations from working closely with every individual student in small groups. Second, they are able to review the work products from the collaborative activities. Finally, teachers have detailed data and progress reports from the blended learning software.

This innovative model is critical to creating an individualized, rigorous academic experience for our students and pushing them to reach their highest learning potential.

#2: SKILLS BASED GROUPING ACROSS GRADE LEVELS;

At St. Ignatius, we want to meet each student “where they are”. We don’t want student learning to be limited by grade level or age. We believe that each individual student’s mastery of a subject matter should dictate what and how they are learning any given subject matter.

Accordingly, St. Ignatius students from multiple grades are often combined into learning groups based on their mastery level in a certain subject area (rather than grade level). Students will be mixed across ages, according to their skill level. This structure enables students who are behind to get extra support, and students who are ahead of grade level to reach even further ahead and learn from similar ability peers.

The leadership team of St. Ignatius has many goals for piloting this approach, including to:

  • Enable more differentiated instruction through ability groups, increasing teachers’ focus on each individual student’s learning progression instead of grade-level labels;
  • Foster a “family” style learning environment in which older students set an example for younger students, who naturally look up to and emulate them;
  • Encourage collaborative lesson planning and use of space among teachers.

#3: INQUIRY-BASED LEARNING in trimester-arcs for science/STEAM instruction, and infused across the curriculum;

Inquiry-based learning is an instructional philosophy that employs certain teaching methods, lesson planning, and curricular techniques that will bring student curiosity and agency to the forefront of learning. In an inquiry-based classroom, teachers’ primary activity is facilitating learning, rather than delivering content or prescriptively delineating skills. Elements of inquiry-based learning are infused in all subjects at St. Ignatius, but are the primary organizing principle in science, and help bring to life the STEAM emphasis in the school’s academic approach.

St. Ignatius’ goals in adopting an inquiry-based approach are to:

  • Engage students in their learning process, and center each individual student in his or her own learning;
  • Develop cross-disciplinary critical thinking skills, which students will be able to apply independently and in groups; and
  • Provide extensive opportunities for collaboration and teamwork among students.

Science instruction at St. Ignatius follows several trimester-long inquiry-based learning arcs. These inquiry-based learning arcs are driven by student questions about the world around them and facilitate extensive, collaborative work.

In an inquiry-based project, students follow a four step cycle:

  1. Explore questions and topics,
  2. Investigate questions and experiment with answers,
  3. Exhibit what they have found or created, and
  4. Reflect on their learning to guide their next projects.

Inquiry Based Learning
In science, St. Ignatius uses an open inquiry model. In open inquiry, every step of the project, from the development of questions onwards, is student-driven. Teachers provide a grade appropriate level of structure, guidance and support along the way to facilitate student learning. Inquiry arcs are aligned by trimester, and include elements of community engagement in the exploration phase, and community service in the exhibition phase. This approach infuses the Ignatian values of service to God and others through social justice into instruction. Students do not just explore any question that interests them – they are asked to explain how answering that question will improve the world. Collaboration is underlined at each stage of inquiry, and various team configurations give students a chance to work collaboratively in mixed-ability groups.

#4: INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING PLANS & STUDENT-LED CONFERENCES including multi-year and trimester academic and non-academic goals and progress metrics across grade levels;

To further support the whole student approach to St. Ignatius’ educational philosophy and the individualized approach to student instruction, each St. Ignatius student has an individualized learning plan, updated each trimester, and maintained over the long term as a record of growth. The ILP is reviewed and discussed at student-led conferences, where students, teachers, and parents evaluate student goals and progress in depth.

St Ignatius’ goals with Individualized Learning Plans and student led conferences are to:

  • Support individualized learning by providing teachers, families, and students with a clear roadmap for students’ development goals and learning styles; and,
  • Allow students to take accountability for their own learning, performance and behavior in school, and think deeply about their own goals, academic and otherwise; and,
  • Elevate the importance of character values alongside academic content knowledge, while providing meaningful and targeted feedback in each realm; and,
  • Improve student presentation and communication skills and effectively communicate progress to parents about students’ goals, strengths, and areas for improvement within and beyond academics.

Research on individualized learning plans suggest strong evidence of their non-academic benefits for student engagement in school, student self-knowledge of strengths and areas for development, increased teacher awareness of student individual performance to enable individualized learning, and improved family engagement and communication. There is also some evidence that Individualized Learning Plans can have a concrete impact on academic achievement levels.

The design concept of St. Ignatius’ ILP has 3 main sections:

  1. Cura Personalis: This section is intended to evaluate long-term intellectual, physical, and spiritual/emotional goals. Students will have two-year goals supported by an action plan for achieving these goals. The goals and action plan will be developed by the student with teacher support. There will be space for student reflection regarding progress on goals, supported by a portfolio of evidence.
  2. Academic Progress Report: This section will document academic subject-specific goals and progress. For each subject area, the student will have an annual growth goal based on the student’s current standardized test result and interim assessment results from instructional software. Teachers and students will create specific action steps for the students to achieve their growth goals.
  3. Gradebook: The gradebook will compile student summative performance on a 5-point scale for each course/subject and trimester. This will be an at-a-glance, summary review of student academic performance, as determined by a teacher review of their work products against St. Ignatius’ standards for academic progress.

Having multiple measures of success and multiple opportunities to acquire and demonstrate skills and knowledge is an important tenet of the grading philosophy at St. Ignatius. Challenges with behavior and responsibility are incorporated into the ILP and addressed appropriately, but they do not impact student academic grades. This way, grades in academic content areas accurately reflects student knowledge and skills, not classroom behavior or accountability. Those components are valued and discussed as separate, equally important areas for student growth.

Student-led conferencing is an increasingly popular alternative to traditional parent-teacher conferences. In a student-led conference, students present their goals, progress, strengths, and areas for improvement to their families and their teacher, and the group has a discussion. While these conferences only occur a few times per year, they reinforce the ILPs and bring them to life.

Research on student-led teacher conferences shows increased satisfaction with this model over more traditional models where teachers talk about students with parents. The student-led conference model presents a valuable opportunity to reinforce St. Ignatius’ core academic and non-academic values, and build strong relationships between teachers, students, and families.

Conferences at St. Ignatius are entirely student-led and closely tied to the structure and content of the student’s ILP. The specific model of the presentation vary somewhat by grade level, but even the youngest students are able to discuss their goals and progress with their parents. Each homeroom teacher facilitates the conference and helps students prepare. Other teachers are invited to attend as needed. Conferences are held face-to-face at least once per year, at the end of first trimester.

In the process of preparing for the conference, students are encouraged to think deeply about each aspect of their ILP and decide how to discuss their goals and progress with their families and teacher. Families have an opportunity to hear and understand more from their own child, with help and support from the teacher.

Outside of student-led conferences, families are encouraged to communicate with their child’s teacher formally and informally. Under no circumstances are conferences be the only opportunity for parents and teachers to discuss student learning goals.

#5: FLEXIBLE SEATING & LEARNING SPACES which easily enable cross-class collaboration in addition to students’ ability to care for their bodies at the same time as their minds.

The St. Ignatius facility was designed to enable flexibility within the school for students and teachers to be mobile rather than being constrained by four static walls. Each classroom has a “garage door” fourth wall that opens to a shared “pod” space. This space can be used by one class when more space is needed, or across classrooms when they are collaborating. This design flexibility is especially important for ability grouping, station rotation, and makerspace activities which may require more space for interaction, experimentation, and exploration. This facility enables easy movement of students among the classrooms, and enables use of the pod space for learning as well.

In addition to a building that fosters flexible learning environments, the furniture throughout the building enhances this goal for flexibility. Specifically, student seating fosters frequent movement and collaboration. All of the classrooms offer a mix of moveable desks, standing and sitting height tables, plush seating, and wobble stools. The middle school classrooms have furniture relevant to the subject area. For example, there is a presentation room designed for students to display their work proudly to peers and a math room with white board tops on all of the surfaces and many of the walls.

The building design also features two outdoor learning environments. Both the library and STEAM lab feature overhead doors that open to a secure outdoor area with tables and outdoor furniture. These rooms offer the ability to extend the learning environment seamlessly to the outdoors. The pleasant temperatures and plentiful sunshine in the fall and spring seasons in the Treasure Valley make these flexible environments ideal

These 5 pillars mutually support and complement one another, all contributing to a personalized learning environment in which every student across the spectrum of gifts, skills, abilities, and preferences is supported to reach his or her full potential, in the classroom and beyond.