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An automotive tech student at Manchester School of Technology Credit: Manchester School of Technology

The Manchester School of Technology in New Hampshire’s capital city opened in 1982 as a stand-alone career and technology education center.

For those of you not familiar with the term “CTE,” as it is often known, it replaced the term “vocational” as it did not always connote an educational opportunity leading to advanced coursework and college.

The CTE model in New Hampshire is different than in many other states, in that students take a two- year CTE program in their junior and senior years of high school. Students usually attend every day for an extended block of time.

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It has been the vision of changing this model to be more inclusive to students who often found their CTE program the best part of their day.

Many progressive states were moving toward a standards-based or competency-based model of education that has been the CTE practice all along.  Demonstrating mastery is a natural fit for these programs since you must show you have attained a high level of skill in your field.

When the Manchester School of Technology (MST) began its very short planning period to open a full-time school, it had to be just as different and exciting, to attract students.

Working with stakeholders and consultants, it was decided to incorporate a project-based, competency-based model, using laptops as opposed to textbooks, and students would work by the mantra “as fast as you want and as slow as you need.”

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The primary distinction was that MST was a career high school supported by academics.  All students who come to MST must have as their goal to complete a CTE program, and they will be able to have the opportunity for internships, early college classes on local college campuses and also dual enrollment.

Blazing a trail often means that you are creating the wheel and often using trial and error.  The main objective is to always keep the students’ best interest at heart.

MST gives grades in a true competency-based grading system of 1-4, where students progress through their courses in a year or more, since seat time is not the focus.

Summative assessments evaluate competencies in each course through the year, instead of the quarters, to reach a “3” in each competency to achieve course credit.  Many courses are integrated to scaffold learning, but also to make content relevant.

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A Humanities class will earn students credit in English, social studies, and art, but the learning is smoothly integrated so that students may be reading the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” while learning about civil rights and civil disobedience, with time still set aside for students to learn the important SAT vocabulary words.

Art competencies are achieved through project work. As student progress is evaluated for weaknesses, new courses are created to support students.  This year a team-taught course was created for students who have failed algebra, in conjunction with physical science, and a course was created that integrated physical science taught by the manufacturing teacher and a geometry teacher whose original career was engineering.

A social studies class at Manchester School of Technology Credit: Manchester School of Technology

We celebrated our first graduating class of students in June of 2016.  Each year since we began our model, the administration worked alongside teachers on a continuous progression to make graduation day happen for these first students.

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We completed a grading system, a competency-based report, a competency-based transcript along with a GPA system that made sense to us. When our students graduated, we were proud to be able to say that each student had shown mastery on every competency in every course.

We also had two of our 50 students graduate within three years.

When classes are integrated and able to award several credits and graduation requirements, students can go much faster and also take advantage of the career opportunities that they are truly there for, both inside the school and out.

The treasure of the competency-based system is that students are allowed to continue their work when school gets out in summer, during our “competency-recovery “ time, and sometimes into the next year during their Learning Lab time or while sitting in the back of the class they need to finish.

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The biggest drawback we have seen is the part of our mantra that too many students have taken to heart: the “as long as you need.”

We have found that having grades that continue on for a year has become abstract, with students not feeling a sense of urgency to meet deadlines.

We have worked for the past 18 months on cross-curricular competencies to measure timeliness as well as citizenship skills or what is commonly referred to as 21st Century skills.

Career and technical programs already have these competencies incorporated into every program in what is called “All Aspects of Industry.” These new CCC’s will be piloted beginning this semester.

Creating a new innovative school while it is in operation requires truly dedicated teachers and much administrative support.

Our school was also fortunate enough to have been chosen to be part of the “Next Gen” grant in partnership with the Great Schools Partnership, and in conjunction with the New England Secondary Schools Consortium. The Nellie Mae Grant allowed us to have $25,000 to spend on workshop opportunities, pay for substitutes and give stipends for teacher collaboration. (Nellie Mae is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Most importantly, it gave us a coach who would work in our school with us for four days a month.

Blazing a trail often means that you are creating the wheel and often using trial and error.  The main objective is to always keep the students’ best interests at heart.

Karen Hannigan Machado is the principal of the Manchester School of Technology in New Hampshire.

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