Woodland Park Middle School's 550 students consistently score above state averages on standardized tests, but administrators grew concerned by signs that they had plateaued.
"We're doing OK," said Principal Yvonne Goings, "but we wanted to be better. We were flat-lining."
To push students to loftier achievement, the school received a grant to try a new program, the Summit Learning Platform, which "allows students to be in charge of their own learning," according to Jared Fries, a program mentor.
"Students can work at their own pace through content, develop skills applicable to their future and meet with their teacher one-on-one every week to build habits of success," he said.
A network of public charter schools in California developed the system, and the philanthropic foundation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, helps fund it.
"It really fit into who we are as a school," Goings said. "But it felt really different from what we were doing."
Woodland Park is the only middle school in Colorado to use the Summit curriculum, which is aligned to Common Core State Standards, and one of about 120 schools nationwide.
This school year, 115 students in sixth and seventh grade at Woodland Park Middle School are testing it out. The students set academic goals and work on Chromebooks in English, math, science and social studies.
"It's given teachers time by shifting their role to more of a coach," said Erin Street, instructional resources teacher at the middle school.
"We set aside time to mentor kids. We can talk to them one-on-one for 10 minutes every week about their learning styles, their academic progress, their lives outside of school and how we can help them be successful," said math teacher Ryan Schultz. "To me, that's real personalized learning. And it's cool."
As a result, Goings said discipline problems are "much lower" for the students doing the Summit Learning track than students doing traditional schoolwork.
"I attribute that to the relationship students have with their team," she said. "The children have so much support."
On some days, walls between the classrooms come down for team instruction and free flow movement between the four subject areas. Students often work in pairs, while in one corner, a teacher might be leading a mini lesson, lab or project with stragglers or advanced learners.
The Summit program is harder than the old way of doing schoolwork, said seventh-grader Isabell White.
"It gives you more facts, and we get time restrictions," she said. "Some people don't like it."
"It's more rigorous," said Max Kegley, also a seventh-grader. "It allows us to learn more, but it requires a radical mindset shift, from getting an A to focusing on my own education."
The program can be challenging, teachers admit.
"But it's a productive struggle," said Schultz. "Instead of taking a C grade and moving on, they get feedback and keep doing it. We're hoping to make them better learners."
Schultz said one student gave him a "high five" after passing a content area.
"You typically don't see that in middle school learning," he said.
Isabell said she likes how when she finishes one project, she can go to the next right away.
"It's different because I'm not super stressed out," she said. "I have more confidence I'm going to be able to finish it."
The focus is not on the subject but the cognitive skill, teachers say, and not on the grade but on mastering the concept at hand before moving to the next level. Students have choices if they don't understand a concept, to either watch a video or do some practice problems, for example.
"They're so excited when they take their skills test about what they're learning," Goings said. "It's really the goal of education, not memorizing a list of facts but to think critically about what they're doing."
Data on Summit Learning students from last semester shows academic performance is at or above where it's been under the traditional system, Goings said, adding that performance usually dips when introducing new curriculum.
Nicole Jackson, 12, had one complaint: too many assignments.
"It can be frustrating," she said.
Seventh-grader Colton McCormack trains as a gymnast at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and likes that he can do his schoolwork when he's traveling to competitions.
"You don't have to have a teacher staring over your shoulder the whole time," he said, "so you study and take the tests as fast or as slow as you want to."