Principal Jeff Walters looks at a wall of college banners.
©Nora Fleming
Learning Environments

A ‘University’ Model for High School

In small-town Wisconsin, four schools cluster on one campus, fostering a culture of experimentation and self-directed learning for both students and teachers.

October 22, 2018

Long hallways labeled A, B, C, D, E run the length of Kettle Moraine High School Campus, crisscrossed by equally long hallways labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The recently adopted grid system—classrooms have names like E327 or A263—keeps students, staff, and visitors from getting lost in a building that houses four high schools under one roof.

Walking through the halls, it’s hard to know who attends which school. All four—one traditional public and three public charters—share teachers, sports teams, events like prom, and, notably, pedagogical practices aimed at giving students autonomy over their learning. This unique clustering of schools fosters an entrepreneurial culture among staff members, who continuously experiment and reinvent themselves as professionals by looking throughout campus for inspiration.

“We hate the word ‘traditional’ because we’re anything but,” says Principal Jeff Walters of the 1,065-student central or “legacy” high school he oversees, along with the campus at large. When a bell rings for a class change, Walters points to the ceiling. “We’re getting rid of those damn bells next year. We’re trying to remove any barrier of time to our teaching and learning.”

School Snapshot

Kettle Moraine High School

Grades 9-12 | Wales, WI
Enrollment
1065 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$11,375 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
10%
DEMOGRAPHICS:
91% White
5% Hispanic
3% Other
1% Asian

On the outside, the boxy brick building in rural-suburban Wisconsin seems indistinguishable from an average American high school. Located just under an hour west of Milwaukee and an hour east of Madison, Wales is a town of 2,500 near a scattering of small towns and lakes that locals boat on in summer and ice fish on in the winter. Parents commute for jobs in both cities or run small businesses nearby. Most of the students are white; only 10 percent are under the poverty line.

But inside, signs of innovation are everywhere. The recently renovated library features colorful couches and armchairs, 3D printers, and high-top tables where students can work with peers. Teachers regularly observe each other’s classes, noting lessons they want to replicate or ways to redesign their rooms. Some students trek off campus at midday to work at a hospital or conduct field research for a project. Others work on a social media marketing plan to help Mama D’s, a favorite local coffee shop.

“We’ve gotten into saying that we’re really more like a university campus, with schools like business or education within it,” explains Walters. “We see the charter schools as micro schools—they’re not experiments, they’re not pilots. They’re smaller school environments that allow the larger high school to build off of and learn from.”

Meet the Needs of All Students

A district home to Blue Ribbon schools, Kettle Moraine School District was, by most accounts, already successful. High school graduation rates and test scores exceeded state averages. Families were actively involved in their children’s education. Students attended good colleges.

But in 2005, the school board did something surprising: They unanimously passed a motion directing district leaders to transform the schools to “better and more efficiently meet the needs of all students.” While she had no quick solutions, the directive resonated with Superintendent Pat Deklotz—then assistant superintendent—who has served in the position for last 13 years.

“When kids come to us in kindergarten, they are so eager to learn. You can’t turn off the spigot. Yet we started to see the factory model of education stifle that desire over time,” says Deklotz. “By high school, students became very compliant learners who knew how to play the game of school, but weren’t actively owning their learning. Others went through the motions or just dropped out.”

Looking for ways to improve, school leaders gathered over a year’s worth of community feedback, finding that residents wanted kids to have choice in how and what they study, career-aligned experiences outside of school, and access to technology and modern facilities. In response (and against national norms), the district created three public charter schools at the existing high school, within the same building—one for the performing arts, one focused on global leadership, and another for the health sciences.

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Next, school leaders transformed the building to create spaces that made all four schools feel like a unified campus, with a shared vision for education. Walls were knocked down to foster a sense of openness and possibility. Rows of desks were changed to tables or individual rolling work stations. Common areas were added to encourage students and teachers to work with peers.

“Over the last seven years, most of our spaces have changed.... We’ve been working to really personalize to different learners and allow our students to choose where they’ll learn best,” says Jess Scherer, an instructional coach. “When the teacher doesn’t have to be in the front of the room, they can make choices with their curriculum that allow students to choose a path to follow.”

Learn How You Will

As the campus grew, Kettle Moraine leaders encouraged staff to regularly communicate and share ideas among themselves, and soon found that a good idea doesn’t take long to spread. One of the most obvious collaborations has been the recent launch of Learning Pathways, a competency-based approach to instruction that emphasizes self-paced, personalized learning.

The charters adopted the model early on due to their interdisciplinary coursework and out-of-school learning experiences—a standard B+ in chemistry or biology didn’t recognize the knowledge students gained from fieldwork in a research lab. After their successes, the staff scaled the approach to the traditional high school, establishing pathways in math, computer science, art, and English two years ago. This year, they added five more subjects. Eventually, some will be required, like math, while others will remain electives.

George Lucas Educational Foundation

In a recent morning math class held in a common space near the cafeteria, a group of freshman boys sat together chatting at a tall table, whizzing ahead on lessons in ALEKS, an online math program. Other students sat alone or in groups, staring intently at their screens as they worked through lessons. Students who understand a lesson quickly can move as fast as they’d like. Others can repeat lessons until they understand, or choose to skip ahead and return later to alleviate frustration. It’s possible that everyone in the class is working on something different at any given time.

“We’re always moving in pathways—we rarely sit down,” says math teacher Rebecca Graner, who circulates around the room, stopping to help students who are struggling with a problem or concept. Graner, who helped spearhead the math pathway in the larger public high school, is one of 12 teachers on campus that work in more than one school.

“Our math department realized we had been moving kids on that weren’t ready, yet they’d get a D and keep going, just knowing the bare minimum,” said Graner. “In pathways, you have to reach a certain point of mastery to move on to the next course.”

Comfortable With Discomfort

While so far successful, the transition to pathways—and other significant innovations—haven’t been easy. Teachers have had to redesign their courses and think differently about how they teach in a “Google world” where they’re no longer “the sage on the stage,” says Eric Anderson, the campus director of learning for mathematics.

“Across our campus, we’re asking questions in each subject like, ‘How do students really learn a language in 2018?’ versus when I was in high school and we listened to cassette tapes,” says Anderson, who helped develop the math pathway program. “We’re teaching in 2018 now, which is distinctly different than 2008, and certainly different from 1998. Stand-and-deliver lessons are just not appropriate anymore.”

To evolve their teaching practice, teachers need to carve out dedicated time to regularly observe and reflect—on themselves and their peers—say Anderson and other staff.

Video has provided one opportunity to do so. Using a smartphone or iPad with a swivel tripod, Kettle Moraine teachers now regularly film themselves teaching. After watching and discussing the videos with a coach, teachers set a personal goal for improvement, then continue to record and observe videos to make sure they meet it.

George Lucas Educational Foundation

The campus also offers microcredentialing, a system that allows teachers to pitch ideas and a plan of action for their own professional development. When completed, they get a salary bump. Nearly 300 proposals were accepted last year, with topics ranging from interventions for autism to fostering student resiliency.

The method encourages teachers to take responsibility for developing themselves as professionals—a kind of built-in differentiation—while giving them the “freedom to grow and try new things and fall on their face occasionally,” says Nicole Kind, an English teacher who has worked at the school for 14 years. Last year, Kind completed microcredentials to learn how to improve her reading instruction to digital natives and encourage students to develop passion projects in her course. She also picked a focus area of “reflection,” and throughout the school year, helped students use metacognition to assess their skills and personal growth through journaling.

“The teacher who has relied on the same methods and worksheets for years would run screaming from this place,” says Kind. “I like to joke that I have years of whiplash from the changes and innovations that have occurred here. We are comfortable with discomfort because learning is uncomfortable.”

Schools That Work

Kettle Moraine High School

Public, Suburban
Grades 9-12
Wales, WI

Located in the small community of Wales, Wisconsin, Kettle Moraine High School Campus houses a 1,065-student traditional public high school along with three public charter schools, all within the same building.

In addition to sharing staff, events, and sports teams, this innovative clustering of school types allows Kettle Moraine to experiment with pedagogical practices and identify outstanding new ideas for broader, whole-campus adoption. Kettle Moraine’s entrepreneurial spirit has led to initiatives that encourage students to take ownership over their schooling—and staff to continuously develop and reinvent themselves as professionals.

Proof Points

  • Earned the highest accountability rating from the Wisconsin Department of Education in the 2016–17 school year.
  • Achieved a 97 percent graduation rate over the last five years, exceeding the state average of 88 percent.
  • Outperformed the state in academic achievement for both math and English language arts for the past three years.