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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Chugach Case Study Released

The Chugach School District, Alaska, is a district that is almost impossibly small (not one-room school houses, but close) and impossibly large (stretched over 20,000 square feet). It has become improbably central to the personalized, competency-based movement. The essential book, Delivering on the Promise, was written by Chugach emeritus educators, and the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC, now a part of Marzano Research Group) grew from that group of authors. RISC played a key part in vanguard districts in California, Colorado, and Maine.


Still, with all the acclaim and talk of influence, it’s easy to lose sight of the Chugach School District itself. In 2014 Chris Sturgis, founder of ComptencyWorks, traveled to Alaska and talked to the educators in Chugach. Her findings have been released. For anyone working to bring about personalized, competency-based educational reform, it is required reading.

I won’t summarize the whole thing, except to say that, after 24 years, Chugach still presents as an extraordinary example for other districts to follow. Their curriculum is discussed, instructional frameworks, and the improvement in student achievement. Over the course of the work at Chugach proficiency rates in ELA have gone from less than 25% to 80%. Math has gone from less than 25% to 58% (though they have been as high as 65%). 4-year graduation rates have gone from 45% to 76% in the last ten years. Teacher retention rates have gone from 55% to 80-100%.

Sturgis lays out all of Chugach’s effort with clarity and a way with words that cast the district as genuinely inspirational. But she is also clear that the cultural change that occurred in Chugach was just as important (if not more so) as the technical change. In other words, the way they do things at Chugach is as important as what they do. I’ll mention just a few things:

  • PIER review: Chugach is dedicated to continuous improvement, and enacts this through their PIER (Plan, Implement, Evaluate, Refine) system. There could be another R there, for “repeat,” because the cycle does not end. This check-and-adjust structure is embedded into the culture.
  • Everyone is a learner: The teachers of Chugach are all high quality generalists, which means they frequently encounter things that they themselves have to learn right alongside the student. Giving up the mantel of “expert” can be hard for some, requiring a level of vulnerability. As Sturgis writes, “Humility is the breeding ground for competency education. It is humility that allows all of the adults to become learners rather than decision-makers, experts, and teachers.”
  • Shared purpose and moral vision: From the beginning, the Chugach district worked at building a shared purpose and a moral vision for the district. If they were to engage in this very difficult work, it was required that they have share a clear vision of their path, and a compelling narrative that told why it was necessary.
  • Community partnership: More than any district I’ve seen, Chugach values its community and works in genuine partnership with the community. This is absolutely necessary in school district as scattered as Chugach, and with such ethnic diversity. Cultural responsiveness isn’t just a method; it’s a way of life. As teacher Jed Palmer says in the case study, “We don’t teach about the culture, we teach through it.”

And I could go on. Chugach is a district that continues to inspire and even surprise. Sturgis captures their great work in a way that allows us to grow from it. I urge you to read the case study.