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This is the second story in a series that The Hechinger Report is publishing in partnership with The Atlantic about efforts to reform the high school experience at some of New Hampshire’s lowest-performing campuses.

student-centered learning
Anitrea Provencher, who is interning at the Pittsfield Elementary School, helps kindergartner Logan Leduc change from his snow boots to sneakers. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

PITTSFIELD, N.H. — It’s time for the morning meeting at Pittsfield Elementary School, and several kindergartners jostle for a spot on the carpet next to 16-year-old Anitrea Provencher, who is helping out in their classroom this semester.

As the students settle into a circle, teacher Lenore Coombs starts off the day’s discussion with a question: What’s something you’ve never done before you would like to try?

That’s something Provencher — a sophomore at neighboring Pittsfield Middle High School — is actively trying to answer for herself as part of a program that awards students academic course credit for learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom setting.

264 students at Pittsfield Middle High School have participated in voluntary individualized study projects over the past five academic years. The school estimates that 75 percent of them are currently either working in or pursuing postsecondary studies in related fields.

“I’m figuring out where I do fit and where I don’t fit,” said Provencher, who hopes to follow up the kindergarten internship with one in marine biology. “I haven’t really liked school for a long time. This is better for me than regular high school.”

Amid the growing push to reinvent the nation’s public high schools, initiatives that connect students more directly to their individual interests, and tap into their innate motivations, are gaining in popularity. New Hampshire is one of a handful of states at the forefront of efforts to promote flexibility in how students learn and how that knowledge is measured. While initiatives like these are relatively small in scale, educators and policymakers say they provide important testing grounds for innovations in school improvement.

Related: How do you fix America’s high schools? We’re going to find out.

In New Hampshire, what are known as “extended learning opportunities” can take the form of workplace internships, volunteer work, individualized study or one-on-one instruction. Students earn academic credit in English language arts provided their learning plan meets “rigorous, measurable course level competencies,” according to the New Hampshire Department of Education’s guidance. The learning opportunities must also be aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, including New Hampshire.

student-centered learning
One of several shuttered storefronts in downtown Pittsfield, a former mill town seeking to reinvigorate its public education system. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

Pittsfield is located about 40 minutes north of Manchester. Its demographics — mostly white and with modest household incomes — are not dissimilar from many other small towns in the state.

Giving students more of a say over how, what and when they learn is a key component of the larger effort to turn around Pittsfield which had long been considered one of the state’s weaker public high schools. Its standardized test scores and graduation rate have lagged behind statewide averages. Pittsfield students have been more likely than many of their New Hampshire public school peers to say they don’t plan to attend college, according to the High School Survey of Student Engagement, which was part of Pittsfield’s 2014 “i3” evaluation.

To combat those lackluster results, Pittsfield — with an enrollment of about 260 in grades 7-12 — adopted a “student-centered learning” framework at its high school in 2012. The initiative is now being phased in at the middle school, which shares the same two-story building. With student-centered learning, teachers function more as coaches than lecturers and the students are active collaborators.

While the five-year-old Extended Learning Opportunities program predates the student-centered initiative, it has evolved into what school officials describe as an indispensable element of a campus-wide turnaround. Graduation rates and college enrollment are on the upswing, and teachers and students say the more flexible learning environment is a contributing factor.

“How students do after graduation is a better measure of the success of a high school than just standardized assessments — tests don’t measure life skills,” said Sheila Ward, who coordinates Pittsfield’s extended learning program. “Our kids are developing relationships out in the community, they’re seeing connections between what they’re learning and where they want to go. Instead of just adding to their academic transcripts, they’re building resumes.”

What’s an extended learning opportunity?

Before digging into what extended learning opportunities are, it’s important to understand what they are not. Here’s what Pittsfield’s educators say: The program is not a shortcut toward earning course credit or a means of removing students from a classroom setting or replacing the work of classroom teachers. And the learning doesn’t always take place during the regular academic day. There are rigorous expectations for Pittsfield’s students to demonstrate what they’ve learned: They must maintain a journal detailing their workplace activities, complete assigned tasks, undergo multiple assessments of their progress and create a final project and presentation.

student-centered learning
Pittsfield Middle High School student Meredith Smith is tutored in American Sign Language by Liz Hitchcock, one of the community partner volunteers in the school’s Extended Learning Opportunities program. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

While the program is voluntary, it’s become an increasingly popular option at Pittsfield. To date, 264 students have participated in the individualized study projects over the past five academic years. Ward estimated that 75 percent of them are currently either working in or pursuing postsecondary studies in related fields. She’s been able to find workplace matches for just about every career field students have requested, from dental hygiene to veterinary science to graphic design. In some instances students have had to travel to a bigger city like Concord, or participate in some of their learning activities via videoconferencing.

For Liz Hitchcock, a Pittsfield resident who has tutored two students in American Sign Language, the program is an opportunity to share a skill she’s been studying for nearly two decades and to contribute to the success of her neighborhood school.

“The kids are engaged in what they’re doing and it’s so energizing,” Hitchcock said. “I think I’m getting at least as much out of this experience as I hope they are.”

Related: What if a high school diploma guaranteed a highly paid job?

At the Pittsfield campus, few students were waiting more eagerly for the last traces of the long, snowy winter to melt than the four seniors working on a collaborative extended learning project. They were planning to build a greenhouse, one that will ideally be used by their school long after they graduate in May.

student-centered learning
At Pittsfield Middle High School, English teacher Jenny Wellington supervises students earning academic credit for “extended learning opportunities” that combine academics with “real world” experiences. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

Before drafting the blueprints, the students read up on how other local schools were teaching agriculture to determine what type of design would be most useful to future classes at Pittsfield. They made an oral presentation to the school board at a public hearing for permission to carry out the construction and completed all the paperwork for the building permits.

Jenny Wellington, an English teacher with 12 years of experience, including four years at Pittsfield, is supervising the project: That included providing feedback as the students fine-tuned their oral presentation, which she said they rehearsed “at least four times” before the actual hearing. The project was approved.

All of the skills required for the project — reading nonfiction texts, collaborating as a team and even defending an evidence-based argument — are part of the New Hampshire state competencies for English language arts, Wellington said.

The four students will go their separate ways after graduation this spring. Two of them plan to enlist in the military, one will join his father’s construction business and the fourth student is headed to the University of New Hampshire’s agricultural college to study dairy farming. But Wellington said she can see how their participation in the project could help each of them as they pursue very different futures.

“This is what it’s really like to work,” Wellington said. “It’s about contributing to the community, working together, problem solving — all of the real-world scenarios students are going to face when they get out there on their own.”

Beyond academics

Jessica Massey, a Pittsfield senior who manages the school store as part of her individualized study project, said it’s helped her to improve her organizational skills and to think creatively. The store’s inventory includes a modest collection of girls’ formalwear for rent in case someone can’t afford to buy a new prom dress. Massey realized potential customers might be put off if they saw someone they knew modeling the dress on the school store’s website. So Massey had her cousin, who attends another school, pose in the gowns.

student-centered learning
Jessica Massey, a senior at Pittsfield Middle High School, in the student store she manages. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

Prior to the school’s adoption of student-centered learning in 2012, “it felt like we had a test every other week,” Massey said. The more individualized approach is a better fit for her learning style, she added.

“I don’t do well on tests,” she said. “I prefer a project where I can take my time.”

The benefits of the nontraditional learning option extend beyond the academics, according to school officials and students. Emily Dunnigan, a freshman at Pittsfield, said interning with the local community theater group has been an important confidence booster.

Homeschooled through the eighth grade, Dunnigan said she hesitated to speak up in her regular classes or make friends. She’s feeling braver now, having gotten to know some of her peers outside of the classroom. For the Pittsfield Players’ teen production of “Guys and Dolls,” Dunnigan helped to paint the sets and served as an assistant to the director during rehearsals. She plans to try out for one of the acting roles in the next round of auditions.

student-centered learning
Freshman Emily Dunnigan watches rehearsal backstage at the Pittsfield Players Theatre, where she’s earning school credit for a workplace internship. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

“I’m getting to know more people,” Dunnigan said. “Things are a lot more social in high school — I’m not very good at that yet, so I have a lot to learn.”

How student motivation helps student performance

In a 2012 report, researchers at George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy, or CEP, compared outcomes for a wide array of school programs intended to boost student motivation and learning.

“I don’t do well on tests. I prefer a project where I can take my time.”

The researchers concluded that when students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated. How schools are organized and how teachers teach are also factors in student motivation. But the CEP researchers cautioned that student motivation isn’t well understood, and duplicating a successful program can be difficult because the individual needs of students vary so widely.

Among the more successful programs are ones that incorporate community service into the curriculum, offer project-based learning and encourage students to be more independent thinkers. CEP researchers also concluded that when students are motivated, they demonstrate a better grasp of the subject matter, have higher self-esteem and are more likely to graduate.

Related: A new way to design a school: Students get to help create their own school

Over the past decade there’s been a growing acknowledgement that the traditional U.S. high school design isn’t working, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to redesigning and expanding school time.

student-centered learning
Left to right: Pittsfield Middle High School students Dana Hudgens, Ryan Marquis and Eli Johnson work on a construction project. Marquis, a senior, designed the lesson for his classmates as part of his engineering career internship. Credit: Jim Vaiknoras

Whether the Pittsfield model is something that can be replicated elsewhere is an open question, Davis noted. Smaller districts have concentrated on the kind of small group and one-on-one learning happening in Pittsfield, but the model is much more difficult to implement in large city high schools that often serve upward of 2,000 students. One of the hurdles is cost. Davis said she worries that large high school improvement plans will focus too heavily on moving kids quickly, and thus more cheaply, through school. Yet students at large urban campuses would also benefit from learning opportunities that cultivate their interests, as well as access to teachers trained to coach them for the “advanced academic and critical thinking skills that will help them through life,” Davis said. And all students should have access to more personalized learning opportunities regardless of their geographic or socioeconomic status, she added.

“Those student-centered experiments and models in New Hampshire and beyond are critically important to the progress of our education system in the direction we want to go,” Davis said. “Without those examples we would be much further behind in bringing those kinds of opportunities to large urban districts that serve the most high-need kids.”

When it comes to tapping into student motivation, it’s often a question of demonstrating relevancy, said Daphna Oyserman, the Dean’s Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California. The challenge for teachers, she said, is to show students that their futures are actually closer than a far-off imagined idea of what their lives might be like. “You want kids to see there’s a path from now to the future, that the path involves school, and that current choices to invest effort and keep trying in school matter for future options.”

Conversely, there’s actually a risk of undermining a student’s motivation by structuring a career learning experience too narrowly or asking kids to commit to a field of study without leaving room for them to change their minds, she added. “If I’m a kid who’s worried because I’m not sure what career path is right for me, that could spill over into being unsure about what I want to do in school.”

For Pittsfield senior Ryan Marquis, one of those changes in direction has already taken place. He had planned on becoming an engineer, and created an extended learning project based on that goal. But putting together the curriculum to teach his classmates the basics of what he’d learned turned out to be his favorite part of the work.

“I would have wasted my first year of college before I figured out ‘Hey, I don’t really like this,’” Marquis said. “Instead, I’ll be starting out ahead of the curve.”

Marquis is now leaning toward majoring in physics and chemistry next year with an eye toward eventually teaching high school.

Perhaps, he said, it might even be in a town like Pittsfield.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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