Pittsfield schools ‘making education history’

Last modified: 10/2/2014 1:04:46 AM
Fred Bramante, a former chairman of the state Board of Education, said yesterday the Pittsfield School District is pioneering the future of education with its focus on extending learning opportunities outside the standard classroom setting.

“This little town, Pittsfield, New Hampshire, is making education history,” he said after the premiere of a film showcasing the way students are partnering with community members to get hands-on experience while earning class credits.

Bramante, now the president of the National Center for Competency Based Learning, said he is bringing filmmaker Julie Mallozzi’s 15-minute documentary to the Monadnock Regional School District today to show educators there what he said learning will soon look like – “sometimes in classrooms, sometimes online and sometimes in real-world settings.”

If students can prove they’ve mastered a subject, they shouldn’t be forced to spend a certain amount of days in the classroom, Bramante said.

Two Pittsfield Middle High School students featured in the film voiced their support for the idea. Josh Fraser, a senior who was mentored by a radio DJ, and Heather Cole, a junior who was mentored by a Pittsfield police officer, both said they preferred to learn by doing. And Fraser and Cole both said they think they’ve found their career path during their extended learning opportunity.

Bramante, who was on the state Board of Education from 1992 to 1995 and from 2003 to 2012, said New Hampshire became the first state in the country to eschew the old concept that 180 days and good test scores equal a passing grade.

“Kids only get their credit when they demonstrate mastery of competencies,” he said. “We don’t care where the learning takes place. All we care is that the learning happens.”

When he and his fellow board members took a step back and rethought what seemed to be the simplest concepts – such as the 180-day schedule – they got hooked on a train of thought. What if students could use their experience on sports teams to get physical education credit? What if they satisfy their foreign language requirement by spending a summer in France? What if they play an instrument in a local symphony, or even a rock band, and get their music credit?

“It was an epiphany for all of us, like, ‘Holy mackerel, what have we just said?’ We were the first state in the U.S. to do it, and right now it’s spreading around the country,” Bramante said.

If you talk to Fraser – or “DJ Fraser,” as he grew to be over the course of his experience – you’ll know why. He got credits by working in the studio with 105.5 WJYY’s Nazzy, helping DJ middle school dances and sitting in on weddings that Nazzy DJs at on the side.

“After a couple weddings, (Nazzy) decided that he wanted to hire me, so I’m a part of Nazzy Entertainment now,” Fraser said. He went on to DJ a Concord High School homecoming dance by himself.

“He got rave reviews,” Nazzy said at the discussion after yesterday’s showing of the film.

Cole worked with Pittsfield police Sgt. Richard Walter and learned how to explain someone’s Miranda rights, how to work handcuffs and how to test a crime scene for fingerprints. Now she’s “way ahead” of her fellow police explorers, she said.

“In the classroom, I’m just sitting there instead of doing fingerprinting like I was in the video,” she said.

The practice even helps the teachers in some cases. Kindergarten teacher Lenore Coombs took a high school student interested in education under her wing and said she enjoyed having the student observe and assess her style.

“It’s very interesting to have another perspective on your craft and how you do things,” she said.

Sheila Ward, the district’s extended learning opportunity coordinator, said students can begin participating in the program beginning in seventh grade. When the program began five years ago, it only had seven participants. Today, 60 of the middle high school’s 277 students are involved, she said.

Bramante said he graduated 206th out of a class of 212 and was rejected to every college he applied to, starting him on a “lifelong quest to find a way I could have been a star instead of a bum in school.”

“School taught me I wasn’t very bright and life taught me school was wrong,” he said.

Ward has seen some of her students realize the same thing, only they got the chance much earlier in life than Bramante did. She teared up as she noted her favorite part of being the extended learning opportunity coordinator was “kids being successful for the very first time.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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