Meeting District Needs

New England Project Aims to Use ‘i3' Aid for Innovative Learning Approaches

July 12, 2011 8 min read
Justin Quigley, 16, a junior at Pittsfield High School, in Pittsfield, N.H., observes a surgery at the Companion Animal Hospital, in Chichester, with Dr. Fiona Doody. He is shadowing veterinarians at the hospital as part of a regional program that seeks to extend students’ learning experiences beyond the traditional classroom.

In Laconia, N.H., high school principal Steve Beals sees the potential of a schoolwide culture that celebrates learning beyond a traditional classroom.

In the school year that just ended, nearly 30 percent of rural Laconia High School’s students participated in student-created, teacher-guided learning experiences that took place whenever and wherever students wanted. That could mean, for example, exploring the role of a pharmacist under the direction of a pharmacy director four or five hours each week, a project one of Mr. Beals’ students completed with the help of her biotechnology teacher.

Mr. Beals says those activities, formally known as Extended Learning Opportunities, have helped produce more engaged students and fewer dropouts. He now hopes that Laconia High’s involvement in a regional project funded through the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, will allow that same kind of student-led learning to infiltrate courses throughout the 680-student school.

The school is one of 13 mostly rural sites in four states that are part of the New England Network for Personalization and Performance, which will use its nearly $5 million i3 grant to give students more control over when, where, and how they learn.

“There are multiple ways to show kids have learned the material and are competent in the subject matter,” Mr. Beals said. “We’re open to creating new and better opportunities to meet these kids’ needs in a student-centered environment.”

Rural Model

At the participating schools, lessons will not be limited to the confines of classrooms, teaching will be done through an inquiry-based format, and tests will be performance assessments that are more complex and rigorous than multiple-choice exams. The hope is that the redesigned schools, all of which include high school grades, will produce higher achievement and graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and ensure students’ continued success after high school.

The New England network was one of 49 school districts, nonprofit organizations, and school consortia to win a piece of $650 million in federal grants during the first round of the i3 competition. The awards were intended to scale up promising practices, and the network was one of a handful of rural-focused proposals to be funded, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit advocate for rural schools.

The second round of the i3 competition, for $150 million, makes rural achievement one of five top priorities, and the New England network’s success in landing a grant may be a model for other districts contemplating a regional, collaborative rural initiative. Applications are due Aug. 2, and awards are to be made by Dec. 31.

Network’s Roots

The New England Network for Personalization and Performance is a partnership among the Center for Secondary School Redesign, in Warwick, R.I.; the Plymouth, Mass., public schools; and the 13 participating schools, which include two in Plymouth.

The Center for Secondary School Redesign is a for-profit corporation that provides technical assistance to schools, districts, and states to improve secondary schools. It had been working in the Plymouth schools as part of a separate federal grant, and its president, Joe DiMartino, approached the district’s superintendent about putting together an i3 application. They then sought out other reform-minded high schools and asked them to join forces.

Network schools enroll nearly 11,000 students. One is urban, four are suburban, and the remaining eight are rural. Nine of the 13 are in New Hampshire; the others are in Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

New England Network for Personalization and Performance

Thirteen schools are taking part in the partnership, which received a federal Investing in Innovation grant:

• Plymouth North High School, Plymouth, Mass.
• Plymouth South High School, Plymouth, Mass.
• Mount Abraham Union Middle High School, Bristol, Vt.
• Nashua North High School, Nashua, N.H.
• Nashua South High School, Nashua, N.H.
• Pittsfield Middle High School, Pittsfield, N.H.
• Nute Middle High School, Milton, N.H.
• Laconia High School, Laconia, N.H.
• Manchester West High School, Manchester, N.H.
• Raymond High School, Raymond, N.H.
• Newfound High School, Bristol, N.H.
• Kearsarge High School, New London, N.H.
• Noble High School, North Berwick, Maine

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Schools in New Hampshire were of primary interest because of the state’s efforts to personalize student learning through such strategies as allowing students to earn credit based on their demonstration of mastery of course competencies.

Mr. DiMartino conceded it would have been easier to narrow the network to one state because each state has different policies and laws. But the participating states are all accredited through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and three of the states use the same standardized assessment, the New England Common Assessment Program.

Personalized learning has been an especially effective concept for rural schools because of their modest size, Mr. DiMartino said. Allowing students to use their interests to guide their work requires them to have good relationships with their teachers, and those connections are often present in a rural setting where everyone knows everyone else, he said.

The goal of the five-year i3 grant is to change schools so that every student will have participated in at least two personalized, inquiry-based learning experiences and demonstrated mastery of knowledge and skills through performance assessments.

“We know it’s a major cultural shift, and we want to give each [school] time to make that shift,” Mr. DiMartino said. “We want it to be embedded so it doesn’t go away when the grant runs out.”

The network received nearly $5 million in i3 funds, and the Rural School and Community Trust and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, located in Quincy, Mass., each contributed an additional $500,000. The work of the New England network is modeled on that of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a coalition of 28 high schools in New York state that is known for its inquiry-based learning and performance-based assessments.

Redesigning High Schools

Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered, teacher-guided instructional approach in which students research questions of their own choosing. Lessons are designed to stimulate thinking rather than determine a right or wrong answer.

For example, instead of giving a battle-by-battle account of the Civil War, a social studies teacher might ask, “What causes civil wars?” The students might be asked to pick another civil war in history, write a research paper comparing it with the American Civil War, discuss their papers in class, and submit them to a panel that quizzes the students on what they learned.

Because inquiry-based learning demands that students learn in a nontraditional way, their assessments are nontraditional. The “test” typically is more of a presentation and exhibition, and a rubric is used to assess the extent to which students learned the required information.

‘Real World’ Lens

Christopher Geraghty, a teacher at Kearsarge High in New Hampshire, expects to confront some resistance as his school participates in the New England network and changes the way it traditionally has taught and assessed students. Students will be seeking out information rather than receiving it from a teacher, and that’s going to be a difficult transition for some educators, he said.

The grant will enable his school’s faculty members to visit other schools where inquiry-based learning is happening, and he expects that to help with their buy-in.

Justin Quigley’s lunch sits on a counter. His mother is an Extended Learning Opportunities coordinator, and set up the shadowing experience for him.

The roughly 650 students in his regional, rural high school live in seven towns, and Mr. Geraghty said they often don’t see the real-world application of their lessons. The new approach challenges them, as well as their teachers, to develop skills and knowledge they can use beyond high school, he said.

Kearsarge High has been experimenting with some performance-based assessments while trying to meet the New England Association of Schools and Colleges standards. One of those involved social studies students’ picking a history topic; coming up with a question and thesis; writing a research paper to the standards of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes secondary school students’ research work; and presenting what they learned to community members and local experts at a symposium.

“It’s more than completing a project for a course,” Mr. Geraghty said. “It’s a project to help you prepare for the real world.”

In Pittsfield, N.H., Superintendent John Freeman sees the New England network as a chance for his teachers to connect with and learn from others. His rural district, which has about 600 stdents, already had been working to create more personalized learning environments for students, involve them in school governance decisions, and retrain teachers to take an inquiry-based approach. The i3 grant has the potential to deepen those kinds of experiences for students, he said.

For teachers, it will allow more opportunities for collaboration and training, Mr. Freeman said. Because the combined Pittsfield Middle High School is a small high school, there’s typically only one teacher for each subject, so it’s difficult to find colleagues working in the same area, he said.

“There’s a difference between school reform and redesign,” Mr. Freeman said. “Reform is taking a model and making it better, such as strengthening instruction or assessments. But redesign is looking at schools in an entirely different way. We think it’s time to take a look at how different schools can be to prepare students.”

Moving Forward

The New England Network for Personalization and Performance will wrap up its first year in October. The Center for School Redesign has provided two coaches for each network school: a former principal with experience in personalizing student learning and a former teacher who has a background in inquiry-based lessons and performance assessments. The coaches have led the creation of two teams at each school to help with its redesign.

The network will host a summer institute next month in Nashua, N.H., to develop inquiry-based curricular units and scoring guides, and those will be used with students during the coming school year. An outside Performance Assessment Review Board, established as part of the project, will visit each school twice during the project.

The New England network’s implementation and effect on student achievement will be evaluated by the northeast region of the University of California, Los Angeles, School Management Program, and the hope is to show how the same system could be replicated elsewhere.

At Laconia High, the network is another way the school will try to meet the individual needs of students, said Mr. Beals. Until now, students have chosen whether they wanted to take part in Extended Learning Opportunities, but in the future, all students will be exposed to inquiry-based learning.

Mr. Beals said that personalizing learning helps various types of students: It gives students at risk of failure or dropping out a hook for staying connected to school, and it pushes advanced students to set goals beyond performing well on a test.

“I see the two [Extended Learning Opportunities and inquiry-based learning] as symbiotic,” Mr. Beals said. “It’s going from an individual pursuit to a more systemic and school-based approach.”

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Project Aims to Use ‘i3' Aid for Innovative Learning Tactics

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