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Compass Academy develops leaders and learners

a large group of students a teachers standing in the shape of a filled heart

Compass Academy is a charter public middle school in Southwest Denver that strives to enable all students to meet their full and unique potential through holistic support, best practices and innovations.

The school, which serves students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, was founded in 2015 through a partnership among City Year, The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Southwest Denver community.

Most of Compass Academy’s 250 students are English Language Learners who speak Spanish at home or whose parents’ first language is not English.

In this essay, City Year Vice President of School Design and Improvement, Nate Kerr, shares Compass Academy’s journey to support students and the gains the school has made over the past few years, receiving a positive school performance rating of “GREEN” in 2022.

A community of learners and leaders

At Compass Academy, from the way we’ve designed the school to the improvements we’ve made to our approach to the ways we connect with families—everything has focused on how we can better support students holistically.

We believe all our students and our staff are both learners and leaders. We developed a Learner and Leader Model that’s grounded in the science of how people learn and develop—recognizing that academic, social and emotional growth are intertwined and that for students to thrive, they must receive support in all three areas.

Biliteracy—ensuring our students are proficient and confident in both English and Spanish—matters to us. It’s one of the reasons many of our students come to us, especially if they haven’t felt successful up to now. Some of our students have experienced behavioral challenges at other schools, and we strive to create a personalized learning environment for them where they can feel and be successful.

Outstretched hand holding a growing plant partially covered by a teal capsule-shaped overlay

Learn how Compass Academy’s focus on social-emotional support helped students during the early days of the pandemic.

It took us some time to find the right tools, structures and systems that aligned best with student needs and to figure out how the adults should be spending their time and capacity. Now we have helpful academic assessments, curricula and growth measures in place that help us to track student progress and identify what’s working at the school—and what we need to change.

At the same time, we, like all schools, need to pay attention to the school performance framework and accountability systems. We appreciated the change last year when Denver Public Schools decided to use the state-wide accountability system instead of a district-specific one. When that shift happened, our school performance level increased to GREEN, which means “meets expectations.”

Some examples of our holistic and student-centered approach include:

Total Wellness Dashboard. We take a school-wide approach to holistic student progress and monitoring. Thanks to a grant from the Oak Foundation, Compass has been able to create a better central data system that we use for our holistic planning and ask questions like: Is content engaging to students? Do students feel a sense of belonging?

Data includes academic growth measures, student surveys, family surveys, teacher input on what’s working and not working and robust behavioral and engagement data such as nuanced attendance categories to identify chronically absent students and provide tailored supports for them.

Morning Pack. Our student advisory model supports student belonging and social-emotional skill development, helping students build confidence, develop their identity, talents and interests and exercise their agency and voice.

This model has proved so effective, City Year Tulsa and Compass Academy are now working with Tulsa Public Schools to spread a similar advisory system in the district’s middle schools in the fall of 2023, reaching more than 33,000 students in 78 Tulsa public schools.

Transitional Native Instruction Model. Most of our students identify as Mexican American, Hispanic or Latinx, and English is not the primary or only language spoken at home. Our approach to supporting our students is personalized, focusing on student-centered language acquisition.

Instead of “bilingual education,” which might push students to move to English-only instruction more quickly, Denver Public Schools has adopted “transitional native instruction” programming, which prioritizes students attaining fluency and proficiency first in their native language and then in English. For example, students whose primary language at home is Spanish learn spelling, reading and math in that language in the early elementary grades. As they strengthen these core skills, they also learn English. Over time, students transition to learning less in Spanish and more in English.

We were very happy to learn that Compass Academy outscored the district average by 13 percentage points in the language development of our multi-lingual learners—earning the highest score of TNLI (transitional native language instruction) middle schools.

Compass Academy also received an EXCEEDS rating for helping students to get on track to English language proficiency.

Compass Academy logo, a grey howling wolf in the center of a compass with a silhouetted mountain range in the background

Three design principles of Compass Academy: The school must be committed to developing the whole person; all students must be positioned to drive their learning; and education is about a young person discovering consciousness, hope and purpose.

A journey toward school improvement

As anyone involved in building a new school can tell you, innovating new models and nurturing a new community are difficult projects to undertake. Compass Academy, like many new schools, has experienced ups and downs since we launched eight years ago.

Thankfully, we always had active family participation, inspiring and talented students and dedicated staff in our school, all of which helped to sustain us through our growing pains.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, it caused disruption for everyone—students, teachers, school staff and families. What we learned during this challenge, however, is that our personalized approach was effective even during prolonged periods of remote learning. Since then, we’ve been able to continue to strengthen our student services and are gratified to see those results reflected in both community support and the state accountability system.

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Compass Academy built a sense of belonging during distance learning.

“This success also reflects years of consistent effort and tenacity by the entire Compass Academy team and a clear focus on a holistic approach to educating our youth,” wrote Compass Academy Executive Director, Marcia Fulton, to the school’s board and community last fall when the state’s ratings were released. Fulton recently transitioned to a new role as Compass Academy’s managing director after several years as head of school.

“I believe the success comes from our commitment to what we know our students need and deserve,” Fulton wrote. “Rigorous academic learning experiences, integrated competencies for the 21st century, bilingual/biliteracy programming and an unwavering belief in the power of relationships being at the core of student belonging.”

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Learn more about City Year’s six areas of impact, which include innovating school design and improvement such as the Compass Academy partnership.

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