Pittsfield Middle High School has transformed from one of New Hampshire’s lowest performing schools to a national model for school-community partnerships and student-centered learning. Community engagement, student voice, and competency education are the keys to their success, writes Edutopia:
The bottom-up plan that developed from that process focused on tangible, realistic goals that would confront widespread disengagement by giving students and community members more opportunities to express themselves and to take ownership of the school. These changes are now readily noticeable in the Site Council, a governing body that gives students and residents a say on the school’s rules and regulations, and the Justice Committee, where students help each other resolve conflicts to reduce suspensions and detentions. And students are now able to choose how they want to demonstrate mastery of learned material.
While early results after these changes were promising, Pittsfield Middle High School is still experiencing mixed outcomes academically. But in just a few years, the high school’s dropout rate has decreased by over half, and both student engagement and the number of students who receive college credit before they graduate have increased.
“Student voice was a key part of rethinking what equity among our students looked like and how they may have control,” explained Derek Hamilton, dean of operations, of the changes at the school…
The school has replaced traditional letter grades for students with a competency-based grading system. Teachers identify five to seven core competencies for each course, and students select projects—such as a test, presentation, or paper—to show they understand the material.
In Erin Bozek’s 10th-grade economics class, two students try to convince her that a recent episode of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants demonstrates the free market principles of supply and demand.
“He has to buy chocolate bars and he has to buy bags to carry the chocolate bars,” a student explains enthusiastically. “The whole episode really talks about how there are different ways of selling things and styles,” adds his teammate.
“Competency-based learning is the idea that students are trying to meet certain big-picture understandings, not complete a bunch of tasks, jump through a bunch of hoops, and average a bunch of scores out,” said Kiza Armour, the school’s department coordinator. “It’s a more equitable system for assessing student understanding, and it also puts the ownership of the learning in kids’ hands.”