Beginning with the End: Using an Opportunities Matrix to Ensure Every Scholar is Successful

by Andrea Bond

Setting ambitious yet attainable goals for all scholars is essential to Collegiate Academies’ success. In my previous post, I outlined the overall goals for special education and intervention programming at Collegiate Academies and discussed the mindsets necessary to build and support these programs effectively. In this post, I’m excited to talk more about our Opportunities Matrix and the data analysis process that helps us ensure each scholar has a clearly defined path towards achieving their rigorous post-secondary outcomes.

After establishing a BHAG and developing a growth mindset, the next critical move is to develop an airtight plan that outlines how each scholar will achieve his or her rigorous outcome. To do this effectively, you must first begin with the end (the outcome) in mind. In an effort to be both holistic and strategic about how we approach this process, we developed a tool called the Opportunities Matrix that helps us align our programming, the continuum of instruction and interventions we offer, and the data we use to measure the progress of every scholar pursuing a number of rigorous options. Here are the steps we take to outline the services we provide:

Step 1: Identify all of the potential outcomes a scholar may achieve when they graduate or exit our building. We work exclusively with scholars in the high school context, so we backwards plan from things like a four-year college, a two-year college, a technical training program, independent living, and employment, or supported living and employment. (It is important to note that this is resource dependent and may vary given the services available in your school’s environment.) On our Opportunities Matrix, this section is titled “Outcomes” and answers the question: What is the most rigorous thing this scholar is prepared to do after high school?

Step 2: Align the assessments or required data benchmarks that a scholar needs to achieve or pass in high school to be eligible for each outcome on the grid. On our Opportunities Matrix, this section is titled “Goal” and answers the question: What exams/data points do the scholar need to achieve in high school to prep for and/or gain admittance to this outcome?

Step 3: Adopt universal screeners and data points to monitor each scholar’s progress toward the goal. On our Opportunities Matrix, this section is titled “Data” and answers the question: Which data points are collected to ensure scholars are constantly progressing toward this outcome?

Step 4: Adopt structures and intervention curricula that help you reach benchmarks and goals. Additionally, you may need to create and build programs that help facilitate growth toward goals for scholars who need higher levels of support. On our Opportunities Matrix, this section is titled “Interventions” and answers the question: Which courses, interventions and/or programs are in place to support scholars as they work toward their goals and data benchmarks?

Many folks have questions about how we use this tool. Some may worry that it forces us to track scholars too early on, and thus limits the outcomes we prepare them for. One could possibly infer that we use the Opportunities Matrix as a way to place scholars into more restrictive programming. These are all legitimate concerns, and they serve as important reminders for ensuring that all scholars get what they need and deserve in the most appropriate setting for them as individuals. There are two questions that I think best illustrate how we balance using this tool while also ensuring that the worries I outlined are not actualized:

How do you ensure that you are actually providing services for each scholar’s most rigorous outcome, and not setting them on a less rigorous track?

I was recently introduced to the idea of the Least Dangerous Assumption, coined by Anne Donnellan. (I find myself somewhat embarrassed that I was not aware of its existence all along.) The essence of the idea is that, when it is challenging to appropriately assess where a scholar is functioning, one should assume competency of that scholar. This relates nicely to how we use the matrix. Upon meeting a scholar, we assume that he or she will reach the most rigorous outcome listed on the matrix. For most of our scholars, this outcome is college. For our scholars coming in with more significant needs, this outcome is achieving independence both in a job and life.

While we assume the maximum outcome for all scholars, we also want to know exactly where they are currently performing. We use our assessments to identify current levels and lagging skills. This data allows us to identify the gaps that exist between scholars’ current skills and the outcome that we are working toward. Knowing the details of this gap allows us to strategically map the interventions, supports, and services that a scholar needs to get them from where they are to where they need to be. Thus, a conversation might sound like this: “Michael is currently on track toward a two-year college. As an IEP team, including this scholar, we know that he is capable of attending a four-year college. What are our next steps to ensure that Michael will get closer to the outcome?”

What does this mean for a scholar who has [insert the profile of a scholar that keeps you up at night, because you know their maximum potential and have not yet been able to find the right intervention to actualize their success]?

It would be naive to think that a matrix could predict an outcome for every scholar that we have the pleasure of serving. The Opportunities Matrix is not a perfect formula, but it is a place to start a really meaningful conversation about a scholar. It affords us a framework of thought, a language and a process that is designed to help us think about scholars on an individual level. It is also a framework that forces us to think about where a scholar is currently functioning in comparison to their goals so that we can have the strategic conversations that ensure each scholar is successful.

Finally, it is a tool for us adults and leaders of intervention and special education. It challenges us to demand better and more for all scholars, then design a roadmap for achieving each scholar’s “more.” This process keeps us honest in pursuit of our BHAG by forcing us to plan, use data, and keep the outcome, or end, in mind.

This tool has been incredibly helpful for us, but like anything that is purposeful, we are constantly reviewing and revising it. We learn new lessons each year about interventions that work better than those we have used in previous years. We add new programs to build out our continuum of services. We adopt new universal screeners that are more efficient and targeted than the ones we have used before. We learn about new outcomes that are now available to our scholars. The growth of the tool is imperative to the growth of our scholars. We know that it will never be finished, but instead, like the process it yields for IEP teams, it will be the outline of an important conversation that drives to rigorous outcomes and maximum opportunities for our scholars.

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