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James Lawrence, a 2017 graduate of the Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, holds wooden duck decoys he made for an art credit his senior year.
James Lawrence, a 2017 graduate of the Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, holds wooden duck decoys he made for an art credit his senior year. Credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Johnson

James Lawrence planned to open his own welding business after his 2017 graduation from the Robert W. Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine. Last year he spent part of his school days at the local technical center, learning welding, preparing to make his vision for his future a reality. He didn’t have time for an art class in his schedule, but the credit was required for graduation.

So James, a duck hunter interested in learning to carve wooden duck decoys, took advantage of his school’s expanded learning opportunities program and got the art credit outside of the classroom. With the help of a family friend who was an experienced duck decoy carver, James worked on the project after school and on weekends, ultimately convincing his school’s art teacher to count it toward his graduation requirements.*

This was possible because Traip Academy and the Kittery public schools have embraced competency-based education. To get a high school diploma, students must meet nearly 50 graduation standards, each of which has learning targets associated with it and specific competencies that reflect learning. Most often, students meet those learning targets in the classroom. But sometimes, they use an out-of-school activity like James’ to prove they’ve mastered certain competencies.

Among other examples: A student who loved dogs and was considering dropping out instead got an internship at a local veterinary office and earned a dog grooming certificate. A student with a retail job at Levi’s got high school credit for management training that would not have been part of his job as a sales associate without the school’s intervention.

“We’re looking for ways to harness kids’ interests and passions and put them on that meaningful pathway to post-secondary,” said Susan Johnson, Traip Academy’s expanded learning opportunities resource coordinator.

“We’re looking for ways to harness kids’ interests and passions and put them on that meaningful pathway to post-secondary.”

School districts across the country have used the idea of expanded learning opportunities to engage students, offer enrichment beyond the traditional curriculum and partner with community organizations.

Johnson said many of the students she’s worked with risked falling through the cracks of the traditional high school academic program. They didn’t see the value in school, she said – until she helped expand their idea of learning and stretched the walls of the high school far beyond its physical building. She has also worked with students in the academic middle and those on the advanced end of the spectrum.

Johnson estimates that about a quarter of those graduating this spring will get their diplomas having experienced some type of expanded learning opportunity. The school hopes to grow that portion significantly, offering students credit for internships, online courses that complement the small school’s course list and service learning experiences.

Johnson sees competency-based education as a key element of making expanded learning possible. The effort prioritizes personalized learning experiences for students based on their passions, tied to competencies the school has already identified as important for graduation. And while some teachers want to elevate student preferences in the classroom and tie innovative learning opportunities into the competency-based system, Johnson said more traditional teaching and learning experiences are still the norm. As long as that’s true, she believes, Traip Academy won’t be getting as much as it can out of adopting a new system.

“We need to make sure that that competency-based system doesn’t just sit on top of a traditional delivery model,” Johnson said, “that we’re changing the conversation about learning expectations.”

Expanded learning, for Johnson, is an opportunity to empower students. And her next mission is to empower teachers to create those personalized experiences for their kids.

Johnson is one of a dozen recipients of the Lawrence W. O’Toole Award from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, for New England high school teachers who are advancing student-centered learning. (Nellie Mae is one of The Hechinger Report’s many funders.) Johnson plans to use her $15,000 grant to facilitate a professional learning group for educators and administrators, specifically dedicated to building capacity among adults to offer student-centered learning throughout the district.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

*Editor’s note: This article originally included inaccuracies relating to James Lawrence’s experiences with the expanded learning program. It has been updated with new information.

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