Building – and Finishing – the Plane While Flying It

Building the Plane While Flying It

Greater Lawrence Technical School: A LiFT Learning Partner Story

As Coordinator of the STEAM Academy at Greater Lawrence Technical School (GLTS) in Andover, Massachusetts, Panagiota Athinelis has had the joy and challenge of implementing an innovative Competency-Based Education (CBE) program within an urban vocational school. 

Panagiota holds an EdD from Lesley University, where she researched how student agency is co-created in an urban, transdisciplinary CTE high school program. She examined the institutional systems and structures that support or hinder the development of student agency, and since 2017 has been putting her doctoral research into action at GLTS. 

The GLTS STEAM team aspired to create an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum aligned to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The planning and launch phases came quickly, and they found themselves in an all too common predicament…they were building the plane while flying it. They had plenty of talent and dedication, but without a clear competency map and a tool set in place to handle the unique workflows of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and mastery learning, they experienced a fair amount of turbulence. 

“LiFT puts ownership on the students and creates a continuous feedback loop between teacher and student.”

Model fidelity was important to the team, and it soon became clear that they needed to rethink their original Learning Management System (LMS) which was not explicitly focused on agency and skill development. Panagiota and her colleagues renewed their search for platforms, found LiFT, and knew it was a match. For the last three years, LiFT has served as their project-based LMS and competency-based portfolio assessment system. As Panagiota describes it, “LiFT puts ownership on the students and creates a continuous feedback loop between teacher and student. The portfolio and project aspects help keep students and teachers focused on the learning skill development, rather than on just the completion of work.”

LiFT Project Builder
Students can add steps onto teacher-generated projects,
or they can build their own from beginning to end

Adapting to a Mastery Model

As the STEAM curriculum continually takes shape, the team faces the challenges many other innovators face when adapting CCSS and NGSS to a mastery model. They originally grouped standards by class and grade level only to discover that the focus on grade and time was too limiting for a self-paced mastery model. In order to make assessment more transparent to the learner, the team added 4-point rubrics to the standards to get away from letter grades and a ‘failure’ mindset. This was progress, but more was needed. They’re now replacing boilerplate rubric language with descriptive criteria for each level of their rubric, in the hope that their students will take greater ownership of their growth.

In collaboration with the LiFT team, they’re once again reorganizing their curriculum standards framework to reflect a growth mindset. 

With these small but important steps, the plane has been able to reach cruising altitude, and the benefits are clear. The transition to agency and the focus on skills has been far from easy, and Panagiota is always thrilled to see the moment when it clicks for the learners. She’s certain they have a stronger sense of direction, purpose, self-efficacy, and accomplishment.

LiFT Portfolio
Personalized Skill Portfolios serve as a container of evidence, from any class
or out-of-school activity, for student’s progress towards mastery

Innovators know that introducing change in the midst of day-to-day pressure is an adaptive challenge that can easily provoke resistance and a slide back to more familiar practices. Panagiota has focused on building an understanding of the vision across her entire learning community – youth, parents, and educators alike. Including everyone in this shift – and the purpose behind it – is at the heart of STEAM’s success. 

David Lipkin, LiFT Learning co-founder and CEO has worked closely with the GLTS team along the way to ensure LiFT accurately reflects the model. “Panagiota’s leadership is an inspiring combination of expertise, humility, collaboration, and perseverance. The plane is already flying, so you can’t just start over. You have to adapt. Panagiota and her team always seem to find a way to navigate through the inevitable uncertainty and change that innovation brings, without losing sight of the goal.” 

The LiFT Learning team is honored to be part of the crew. 3-2-1 takeoff!

Special thanks to Panagiota Anthinelis for sharing their inspiring story.

Panagiota Athinelis
Panagiota Athinelis
STEAM Academy at GLTS