School & District Management

N.H. Seeking to Reinvigorate High Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 23, 2008 5 min read

One New Hampshire high school student fell in love with accounting while working at a local business. Another attended the recent Democratic National Convention as a campaign volunteer. And a third, whose relative worked in the state immigration office, researched challenges facing newcomers to the state.

All earned high school credit for their work outside school, an opportunity available under a burgeoning high school redesign effort in New Hampshire that sets its sights beyond simply stiffening course requirements and graduation standards.

Its vision: To personalize learning for students, offer them the chance to apply content in real-world contexts, and engage struggling students in content through alternative approaches outside of classrooms, including internships, exhibitions, graduation projects, and apprenticeships.

High School Snapshot

Students entering high school in New Hampshire stack up slightly better than the national average in reading, based on their 8th grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

BRIC ARCHIVE

New Hampshire students headed to high school performed better on the state’s own test than on the national assessment.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Approximately 4,400 students did not graduate from new Hampshire’s high schools in 2007; the lost lifetime earnings in the state for that class of dropouts alone are more than $1.1 billion.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Alliance for Excellent Education

A forum last week organized by state officials, business representatives, and school administrators to assist in the effort attracted hundreds of individuals, including district leaders, principals, and teacher-leaders from 80 of the state’s high schools.

“Yes, we want students to work rigorously in a core curriculum of courses. But it doesn’t always have to be delivered in the traditional Carnegie [unit] mode of delivery,” said Mary Heath, the state’s deputy commissioner of education. “The whole point of this is to ignite that fire in students so learning becomes something that they want to do, not something that they have to do.”

Concerns for Future

New Hampshire has a relatively homogenous 62,500 high school students, and a graduation rate of about 77.1 percent, according to an estimate by the Editorial Projects In Education Research Center. (Editorial Projects in Education publishes Education Week.)

That’s not bad compared with the nation as a whole, but it’s not as high as the rates in neighboring Maine and Vermont, at 77.2 percent and 80.2 percent, respectively.

Fearing that its high school programming was in danger of becoming outdated, the state board of education and department of education, in 2004, convened a panel to study how to prepare students for the 21st century.

The work culminated in 2005 with an overhaul of the state’s school-approval standards. Districts are now encouraged to support alternative education programs, distance-learning opportunities, and “extended learning opportunities,” in which students can get credit for activities outside of school, provided that such activities permit students to acquire knowledge and skills taught in the classroom.

The rules’ capstone is a requirement that districts set competencies for each classroom course, including those that integrate outside learning opportunities, and a method to measure student mastery, ideally through portfolio assessments or exhibitions. Students who meet the course standard earn credits toward graduation. The approach, which goes into effect this school year, moves away from the traditional Carnegie-unit system based on seat time.

Though several of these features are being considered by other states—nearby Rhode Island is phasing in portfolio assessments as part of its high-school graduation requirements, and South Dakota last week announced it would rethink Carnegie units—New Hampshire is trying to unite them in one stroke. And it is doing so even as it negotiates a new state definition of educational adequacy as part of a settlement in a 17-year lawsuit.

“We’re all being very careful that we don’t lose sight of the gains that have been made or backslide on funding,” said Mark V. Joyce, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

The school-approval standards got another legislative boost in 2007, when the state legislature passed a bill that had been championed by Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, to raise the compulsory age of school attendance to 18, from 16. The legislation essentially made the provision of extended learning opportunities a requirement, and lawmakers also provided $4.5 million to boost alternative education.

The push to make high school more relevant can’t come fast enough, Gov. Lynch’s spokesman said.

“It’s critically important for our state and the future of our economy that more of our young people graduate and get a diploma,” said Colin Manning. “Business leaders tell us that they have the products and have the customers, but they really need that skilled workforce.”

‘Not Easy to Change’

Stakeholders in the state acknowledge that the redesign won’t be a simple endeavor.

“High school, by its expected role in history, is not easy to change,” said Mr. Joyce, of the school administrators’ association. “It becomes almost an institution unto itself.”

One challenge is the state’s relatively large number of high schools, most of them small. Only five have more than 1,500 students. While that arrangement has resulted in strong ties between schools and communities, smaller schools generally have fewer resources and time to dedicate to reform efforts.

Last week’s forum gave educators from across the state a chance to reflect on best practices, discuss plans for putting the high school redesign goals into practice, and to work through specific policy obstacles.

Some bright spots exist. The 800-student Laconia High School, in Laconia, this year began a program to assign each student to an adviser who will help to tailor learning to that student’s particular areas of interest. And with help from a grant from the Quincy, Mass.-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation, 60 Laconia High School students have completed an out-of-classroom assignment, according to principal Steven Beals.

Though pleased that his school has laid the groundwork for reform, Mr. Beals is modest about the changes.

“I’m not in any capacity suggesting we’re good at any or all of [these reforms],” he said.

State officials, too, acknowledge that their vision for high schools is a work in progress. One challenge could involve teacher contracts, which are also typically based on Carnegie-unit standards of time.

“This is redefining the role of a teacher as a facilitator of learning, rather than a teacher who stands in front of a class of 25 students, five periods a day,” Ms. Heath of the state education department said. “That whole contractual conversation is an area we need to place a lot of focus on over the next year.”

Rhonda Wesolowski, the president of the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association, said not all districts have engaged teachers in the development of learning competencies.

Still, last week’s forum, Ms. Wesolowski said, was a model of teacher engagement.

“It was fabulous,” she said. “One of our core values is partnership as well as collective action, and that was at its best.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as N.H. Seeking to Reinvigorate High Schools

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