Pittsfield Middle High School continues to implement ‘student-centered’ approach

Last modified: 6/21/2014 12:12:06 AM
A few years ago, the classes that Ryan Marquis and Quinn Boyce were taking at Pittsfield Middle High School involved a lot of “book work” and less conversation or open-ended projects. Teachers Jenny Wellington and Derek Hamilton did a lot of lecturing – as Hamilton described it, the “stand and deliver” model – and relied heavily on tests as a way to measure whether students were learning material. Students who acted out were punished with traditional detentions or suspensions, and any changes to school practices were left largely in the hands of administrators.

Today, students and officials said the portrait of life at Pittsfield looks much different.

In 2012, the district secured a $2 million, three-year grant from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation to overhaul its approach – focusing on a more collaborative, “student-centered” educational environment. In its second year of that funding, the district is in the process of reapplying for another three years, said district Administrator Tobi Chassie. Chassie and Susan Bradley are the district’s co-project managers for the grant, which was also awarded to one school in Vermont and two in Maine.

Broadly, Pittsfield’s transformation focuses on five areas: “ensuring ownership for learning,” “raising student achievement,” “developing 21st century skills,” “redefining adult roles” and “engaging with the community.”

In practice, that’s brought more independence for students – in the classroom and in the school at large.

For example, Marquis and other classmates who have an interest in pursuing education were given the opportunity to teach a chapter of their curriculum to their teacher.

Astronomy to philosophy

As part of one of the district’s new weekly “learning studios,” Boyce taught a group of peers a course on filmmaking. In other studios, students have studied astronomy, explored Eastern philosophy or built a greenhouse.

Wellington used to come into her lessons on, say, Flannery O’Connor with a predetermined set of talking points for class discussion. Now, the English teacher said she lets students take the wheel in dissecting texts. The results?

“They’re getting to the things I wanted them to get to anyway, or they’re going beyond where I wanted to take them.” Wellington said. “To take my control away a little bit and put it on them ultimately empowers them more, it’s a little easier for me and it’s so much more fascinating to watch.”

Hamilton, who teaches social studies but will soon become dean of operations, said students are also given more flexibility in how they prove they understand what they’re learning: Quizzes and tests have in many cases been replaced with essays or projects of students’ choosing, like producing a short video or performing a skit. Traditional courses are supplemented by structured time for internships, dual enrollment programs for college credit and other experiential learning opportunities, the teachers said.

Students are also getting more of a say in school governance. One of the first outcomes of Pittsfield’s new approach was the creation of a Site Council – made up of 10 students and nine adults, school officials and community members – which provides a forum for introducing any changes not governed by the law or the school board. (If someone wants to change a school board policy, the council can recommend a change to the board.)

Marquis, a member of the council, said it’s given students an important voice in how their school is run. And Hamilton, a co-chairman, said it’s given him a chance to hear direct feedback on how he could be doing his job better.

‘Restorative justice’

Meanwhile, Pittsfield’s approach to discipline has moved toward one that emphasizes “restorative justice” over traditional sanctions, Wellington said: The point is to teach students a lesson about how their actions affect the school community. When a student made a mess in the cafeteria earlier this year, he wasn’t given detention – instead, she said, he had to clean up after lunch for a week and has since changed his behavior. A “peer jury” that would allow students to resolve some conflicts through student mediation is also in the works, she said.

As Pittsfield continues to refine its approach, it’s attracted the attention of others in the Granite State and across the country.

Gov. Maggie Hassan paid the school a visit in January and later gave the district a shout-out in this year’s State of the State address. And in May, a group from the Youth Connection Charter School stopped at Pittsfield – along with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, which has also moved toward a “competency-based” model – as part of their research into adopting a similar approach at their schools.

As a token of their gratitude, the charter school delivered about 330 slices of deep-dish Chicago pizza last week.

Too large a batch to reheat all at once, the pizza was handed out to students in middle and high school during their individual advisory periods this week – another new addition to students’ weekly routines, Chassie said, meant to ensure one-on-one time for each student.

Boyce and Wellington said the program still has room for improvements – some students still struggle academically, and some high-achieving students can outpace even this more independent curriculum, creating a challenge for teachers. So far, though, Boyce said it seems to have changed Pittsfield for the better. “I see a lot of struggling students that, because of competency-based learning, they are latching on – they are getting it.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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