More than six years after it opened, Compass Academy remains the only New Tech Network school in Idaho.
Under the New Tech model teachers are called “facilitators,” the classes focus on projects instead of tests and lectures and the building is designed to be as welcoming and collaborative as possible for students.
While many graduates have found success because of Compass’ project-based approach to learning, the model is not a perfect fit for all students.
“For some kids Compass clicked. They finally were being taught in a way that they understood. At Compass, I felt like a fish climbing a tree,” Brianne Lasky said.
Lasky went to Compass for a year and a half before finishing high school across the district at Idaho Falls High School. Another student in her class, Matthew James, remembered several students who withdrew even earlier during their time at Compass. James enjoyed all four of his years at the school and graduated in May but said that he understood why other students weren’t able to adapt.
“I think their project-based learning is not a harder system, but if you can’t get used to it, that becomes a major struggle,” he said.
The idea for Compass Academy originated in 2011, when Idaho Falls School District 91 officials looking for other models for how schools could operate visited a New Tech Network school in California. The district spent $4.8 million of its 2012 bond to renovate Clair E. Gale Junior High School and another $500,000 to enter a contract with New Tech Network to use its model of technology and class sizes. Compass continues to receive software and guidance from New Tech.
One of the biggest features that sets Compass apart is its class structure. All of the classes are integrated between two subjects, giving the students a chance to learn about multiple disciplines at the same time. Some of the overlap is pretty straightforward, such as a biology and health class where students created projects for a cancer fair.
Arik Durfee is one of the facilitators for the government and English class for seniors at Compass, where the main project is a public political debate. Their debate this fall was between the legislative candidates for state Districts 30 and 33 and their debates in past years have included a wide range of political figures.
“Some of the student ideas are more than just a school project. They become a part of the community,” Durfee said.
Compass projects have led to recurring events at the school and in the community. In 2016, students launched a campaign called “More Than a Stigma” that encouraged more awareness of mental illness and raised money for the city’s Behavioral Health Crisis Center. That campaign has become an annual event for the school and will be taught as its own elective course beginning this week.
“We were basically in charge of running the entire thing. The faculty was very hands-off the entire time,” 2018 graduate RJ Steele said of his involvement in debuting the campaign during his sophomore year.
Class size at Compass also separates the school from the district’s other high schools. Some classes at Idaho Falls or Skyline high schools have more than 30 students, while some at Compass have as few as 10.
The flexibility of all aspects of Compass also was a change for many students. Schedules are incredibly flexible, allowing students to choose varying combinations of classes and schedule them at any point during the week. The classrooms’ desks can be moved around to allow easier collaboration and the hallways resemble lounges, with couches and open areas where students can sit and work. The school doesn’t have lockers, instead providing open shelves in the hallways.
“People would leave things in shelves because we were expected to act responsibly,” James said.
Responsibility is more than a broad idea at Compass. It’s one of the three pillars plastered around the building and repeated to students as a crucial element of life, along with truth and respect.
Those ideas are also baked into the schools’ approach to technology. Students are given laptops to help them create their projects and work on assignments and are given time during the school day to finish their work. Other schools in the district have begun approaching the same one-to-one ratio of students and computers, but Compass remains unique in allowing the students to regularly bring the devices home with them.
Compass has lived up to some of the lofty promises of New Tech Network since opening its doors. Its graduation rate over the first three years was 5 percent higher, on average, than at Idaho Falls and Skyline. The number of students in college readiness courses also is higher than the district’s other schools.
But the school doesn’t lead the district in all measures. Idaho Falls High School students have recorded higher SAT scores than Compass students in math for the past two years and in reading for the past three. While students are graduating at a high rate, they aren’t necessarily getting into colleges at a different rate than other students in the district. Compass is just slightly above the district average for the percentage of students who go on to college the year after graduating — 58 percent compared to 52 percent.
Steele has worked construction since graduating and is preparing to enroll at the College of Eastern Idaho this spring to receive a journeyman’s license. James also is still in Idaho Falls, working several jobs to raise money so he can attend Texas A&M in the fall. He said that Compass officials have already sent the application materials to the college. He said he feels that the facilitators helped him improve his SAT score and his college readiness from what other schools in the district could have offered.
“Having that time management ability kick in every once in a while makes it easier for me to get back on track with my work,” James said.
Lasky graduated from Idaho Falls High School at the same time as James and Steele and is now a freshman at Grand Canyon University. She said that elements of her education from both schools have helped her adapt to her first semester of college. Her short time at Compass gave her needed experience with online work and group projects, while the general structure of college courses was closer to the more traditional model she experienced at Idaho Falls High School.
“All the classes were more in-depth because we didn’t split the time in classes between two subjects or collaborating with a group instead of being taught material,” Lasky said.
Compass has kept track of its graduating students. The school sent out a mass email this winter to the parents of every graduated student, asking for feedback on how the school could improve its quality of lessons and range of subject matter. Teachers also have bonded with some of the students who have gone through all four years at the school.
“There’s a lot of graduates from the last three years that I’m still talking to on a regular basis,” Durfee said.