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Spotlight blogs celebrate excellence in our Learning Innovation Network. This Spotlight was written in collaboration with Julia Miller and Tracy Poff, instructional coaches in the West Ada School District in southwest Idaho, where the district’s three alternative high schools, Meridian, Central, and Eagle Academies, adopted the Building 21 approach eight years ago. Find out how the staff at these three schools encountered a problem and collaborated to cultivate a creative, sustainable solution.

Two iconic pieces of American pop culture, Shark Week and Toy Story, were brainstormed to life on the back of cocktail napkins. The Slinky was conceptualized when a mechanical engineer knocked a spring off a shelf. In the summer of 2019, a powerful teacher development opportunity was dreamed up in an Uber on a steamy July afternoon in Philadelphia. 

Julia Miller, instructional coach at Meridian Academy, and Tracy Poff, instructional coach at Central Academy, were leaving the Building 21 Summer Design Institute and did what teachers do best when they are given space and time to learn: they came up with a brilliant idea. They decided it was time to bring back the Professional Learning Days that used to be held at the West Ada Academies. Julia and Tracy promised each other they’d come back to the idea when the time was right; little did they know the Covid-19 pandemic would upend education. Fortunately, all good ideas are like seeds: they need to lie dormant before they gradually sprout toward the sun and bloom.


The Academies’ instructional coaches held a Professional Learning Day in 2021 but circumstances in 2022 led to a shift in the purpose. For the first district-led PD in 2022, most Academy staff were sent back to their schools because the agendas and content of the district meetings did not apply to the Academies’ model. The district was just starting on progressions and the standards-based model; the Academies had been on the mastery model journey for eight years. 

This was the perfect opportunity to solidify the commitment Julia and Tracy made to each other in the Uber in Philadelphia in 2019. Just like we ask teachers to design around problems, the West Ada Academies’ revamped Professional Learning Days were born out of an important challenge facing their teams: How do we offer professional development when the district model and our competency-based model are not aligned?  

It was at that point that the three Academy coaches collaborated and drafted a plan to share with the principals. The plan was to revamp Professional Learning Days, a time for teachers to teach each other. The need for specialized professional development was obvious, notes Eian Harm, Meridian Academy principal. He says, “Our high school academies’ competency-based systems are unique. I am very happy that we can individualize our professional development to our own students’ and school needs!”

Designing for Impact

Four major components provide structure for Professional Learning Days:

      • Welcome session
      • Teacher-led sessions 
      • Departmental Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) organized across the Academies 
      • Closing circle and reflection

As teachers assembled for the morning, they were offered the opportunity to document their thoughts on their individual and collective impact on chart paper. One question was, “What impact have you had on your building or classroom this year?” Answers included:

          • Effective restorative practices
          • Creative, comfortable environment for students
          • Power of choice
          • Make Slate, their competency-based learning platform, more uniform
          • Able to make a safe and engaging environment while being accountable

Another question was, “What do we want our collective impact to be in the future?” Answers included:

          • We want our students to feel like they are worth something and can do anything!
          • Doing jobs outside our knowledge
          • Kids successful in their own way
          • School should be safe
          • Advocate for themselves

Valuing Choice

Professional development expert Elena Aguilar says, “Adults need to make choices about their learning — it’s just a fact. We disengage if we can’t make some choices.” The West Ada coaches recognized this immediately to ensure a chunk of the Professional Learning Days allowed for staff choice. Staff is asked to present sessions on their passions and participants are asked to attend what sparks their interest. Sessions have included:

        • Intro to Neurography as Self-Care with Jeannine H.: Neurographica is the method of creating mind and body connections through a combination of art and psychology. The author of the method is Pavel Piskarev, a Russian/Israeli architect and psychologist.
        • Evolving Ed with Julie M.: Based on the best-selling book, Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin, we will dive deep into the shift to a learner-centered paradigm and how we can make this our reality in every classroom with competency-based education.
            • Canva, Google, Slate with Kaela K.: We will dive into how to utilize Slate to its full ability to help make your life as a teacher or mentor easier. The main discussion will orient around Task Dashboards, Competency Dashboards, and Student PLPs. Canva Session – (will begin immediately after Slate) The tool of all tools! The basics of how to use it and how to make it work with the systems we already have in place (Slate, Google Suite, etc.).
            • Think Outside the Box with Sara B.:  A session focused on some ideas on how to break down the competencies and also extend learning opportunities.

Valuing Collaboration

The Learning Policy Institute reports, “by working collaboratively, teachers can create communities that positively change the culture and instruction of their entire grade level, department, school, and/or district.“ The West Ada coaches wanted to ensure their teams had time to talk across schools, so the 2022 Professional Learning Day included a block of time for the three Academies to meet by department.

During department time, teachers participated in a norming activity where they rated student work according to the continua, discussed their ratings, and came to agreement. For Julia Miller, one of the instructional coaches who conceptualized Professional Learning Days, these opportunities to collaborate are important because “we need those cool teacher-to-teacher learning moments that have a larger impact on student learning in the classroom. To see the experts in this good work be those teachers right next door has a profound impact on our belief that this work is possible.” 

Valuing Reflection

Because Central and Meridian Academies implement Restorative Practices, the 2022 Professional Learning Day concluded with a staff circle. The facilitator asked a reflective question about the day and how it might impact teachers’ practice. Staff  then completed a survey to assist organizers in their own reflections and planning for future professional development opportunities. 

Tracy Poff, one of the instructional coaches who conceptualized Professional Learning Day reflects, “For me, there was much trepidation as to how the day would go and if the adults would be engaged learners. I wanted to be a part of all of the sessions, but being the coach and one of the organizers, I didn’t get to fully experience the day. Being able to walk around and peek in windows and see the engagement, laughter, and learning was more than enough to fill my bucket.”

The teachers’ buckets were filled, as well. Comments on the feedback survey included:

          • There are MANY different approaches that have been tailored to our specific school communities. I think this autonomy is amazing!
          • I got so many great ideas for how to create and celebrate moments with my learners!
          • Loved getting to know people from other academies and how different we are doing things – but not in a bad way- but loved the opportunity to collaborate.

Next Steps

The effort put into reigniting Professional Learning Day has sparked momentum to continue the cross-school collaboration. The next steps wish list includes:

            • Adding one or two more Professional Learning Days to the calendar
            • Offering differentiated pathways for new staff, such as special sessions for them during Professional Learning Days and additional opportunities for PLC’s to support their growth in designing and teaching in competency-based education
            • Requesting presenters for specific topics to see if that will help reluctant teachers feel more comfortable sharing 
            • Inviting other members of the Learning Innovation Network in Idaho to participate

According to a McKinsey & Company report titled “K-12 Teachers Are Quitting. What Would Make Them Stay?” teachers remain in the classroom when their colleagues show “genuine concern for one another,” support each other to “achieve their work goals” and when “they can be themselves at work.” The West Ada Professional Learning Days check off all three of those boxes by honoring the collective expertise and creativity of their faculty members while connecting them to a larger community.  

Although some of the best ideas might start in a casually-scribbled brainstorm or a short conversation in a rideshare, these innovations need support from others to bloom. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that school leaders intentionally prioritize time for teachers to learn from each other during the school year. When we create space for customized, relevant, and meaningful professional learning experiences that address the unique needs and interests of our teachers, we can only improve outcomes for our students. 


Heather Harlen is an instructional coach and designer for Building 21’s Learning Innovation Network.  She has over twenty years of classroom teaching experience and was a founding team member of Building 21 Allentown.  You can contact her at

Julia Miller

Julia Miller has been a teacher and instructional coach in the West Ada School District for eight years.  She has a passion for learner-centered systems. You can contact her at

Tracy Poff has worked in education for 23 years, all in the West Ada School District. When she is not working with teenagers at Central Academy, she is home raising her two teenage boys, supporting and cheering them on in all their crazy adventures. You can contact her at

If you’d like to request a free consultation with Building 21 to see how we can help you start your personalized CBE  journey, please reach out to us here.

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