Rural Innovations Webinar Series: New England Network for Personalization and Performance (NETWORK)

Last Updated: May 29, 2011

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In the third Rural Innovations webinar, held May 11, staff of three rural New Hampshire high schools that participate in the New England Network for Personalization and Performance NETWORK shared their experiences re-structuring their schools around student-driven learning and assessments that require students to demonstrate complex knowledge and thinking.

All three schools offer students opportunities for real-world, inquiry-based learning with a community component. The schools report improved student engagement, greater integration between the community and school, and more efficient use of school resources. The webinar describes how the schools are using the approach and how it is changing their schools.

NETWORK is a group of some dozen schools committed to re-designing the high school experience on the premise that "students who participate in inquiry-based learning experiences tied to performance assessments will experience success in school and be better prepared for college and/or career experiences." Much of the approach draws on the work of the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

Presenting were Chris Geraghty, a social studies teacher at Kearsarge High School in North Sutton; Steve Beals, principal of Laconia High School in Laconia; and John Freeman, Superintendent of Pittsfield Schools in Pitssfield. The webinar was introduced by Joe DiMartino, President of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, Inc. and moderated by Robert Mahaffey of the Rural Trust.

In the first segment of the webinar, Geraghty describes how his students form research questions that frame much of their learning; students also develop plans for how they will demonstrate what they have learned.

New Hampshire state standards require students to demonstrate mastery of skills and competencies for each course. Students can earn carnegie units (credit recognized by colleges and universities) for successfully demonstrating mastery in lieu of "seat time" in a traditional classroom.

Kearsarge's inquiry-based approach promotes student engagement with content and ties learning directly to course competencies. 

From a teacher's perspective, Geraghty says that one of best things about the approach is that it challenges students to "own" their own learning. Students are not just the recipients of knowledge. Rather, they are developing research, doing work with consequences, and becoming critical thinkers.

Geraghty also reports that this approach addresses the critical idea of relevance. "Students see that they are building the ability to use real-world skills that prepare them for the kinds of interactions they will have after graduation, regardless of whether they choose college or work," he says.

Finally, when students do inquiry-based work with authentic assessments it creates opportunities for students to become engaged in the community and for local residents to become more involved in the school. At Kearsarge, community residents are involved as students do their work and also in the assessent of student work. The process connects students and the school with community resources.

It also raises the stakes for student work. Community residents who participate in student presentations are part of the assessment team and students know they will have to defend their research and present their work in a way that meets both the academic standards of their classroom teachers and the expectations of community residents.

Principal Steve Beals describes how his school has used Enxtended Learning Opporunities (ELO) as a vehicle for authentic student work. ELOs create learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom. Beals says the restructuring of the school around Extended Learning Opportunities capitalizes on work the school was already doing to create more performance-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeships and performing groups. The shift toward providing more of the curriculum through ELOs, which in some cases replace classroom courses, also has supported a shift in school culture.

Laconia's ELOs, which are mastery-driven and community-based, have four components.

Research: students choose their topics, which leads to more student engagement. Teachers work with students to identify required competencies and help develop a plan for how students will demonstrate mastery.

Reflection: students write journals, participate in discussion groups or find other ways to reflect on and integrate what they are learning.

Personalization: ELOs have a heavy aspect of personalization, a relationship component between student, teacher, community partner. In this way learning may be independent, but it is also connected.

Product: students must figure out how they are going to translate their learning in to a tangible piece of evidence about what they did.

Presentation: ELOs require that students present what they have learned — their research, product, and reflections — in a community-led process that includes other students, parents, teachers, and community residents.
Teachers work with students throughout the process. Progress is monitored by the teacher and by the community partner. Crredit is only awarded upon successful conclusion of the presentation piece.

Beals claims the integration of ELOs into the school's curriculum has let to greater student engagement and achievement and a lower dropout rate. He says it took about a year to cement the new school culture.

Most teachers were supportive of the plan from the beginning. But even so, Beals said it took about a year to cement the change in culture. Because students are so motivated they push teachers, something of a reversal of the days when teachers pushed students.

Superintendent Freeman describes how the approach in Pittsfield grew out of a process to re-vision the school through a series of forums with community residents and teachers.

In those meetings it was clear that everyone wanted the same thing for students: a personalized education that supported young people to be curious and adventurous, adaptable, responsible, and self-directed and self reliant.

But they did not see attaining these ends in a traditional high school.

Pittsfield was also facing other challenges. Their graduation and college-going rates were low, and the district was facing reductions in funding and staff. The school was challenged to do more than "nibble at the edges" by cutting programs and to instead completely re-think high school in the community.

So they visited schools and refined their vision.

Freeman says this work is effective because it engages students and prepares them for their post-secondary lives. "What students are doing compares easily to college work," he observes.

The school's membership in the NETWORK provides teachers with long-term support and collegial interaction, which makes it easier for teachers to support the kind of work students are doing.

Freeman says staff and community residents agreed that they wanted the school's environment to promote "dynamic learning, personalized, monitored, and adjusted ro promote growth in each and every learner."

The school wanted to ensure that its graduates possess direction, solid acadmeic skills, an ethic of  hard work and committed citizenship, and a thoughtful plan for the next stage of life.

"We should be accountable for more than getting kids to high school graduation," says Freeman.

Click here to listen to the audio and download the visual presentation.

Read more from the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.