Matthew Long became enamored with bacteria during his first year at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, when a visiting professor from UNH brought a microbiology research program to his freshman biology class.
The following year the professor moved out of state, and the popular program ended. As it happened, however, Winnacunnet had just started an Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) program. Long was able to design a project-based learning ELO that brought the bacteria back. Over the course of several trimesters, working with his science teacher and Extended Learning Director Donna Couture, he created a curriculum, applied for a grant to purchase equipment, and eventually taught a unit himself.
“It was actually a really perfect ELO for me,” said Long, now a senior at Duke University. “What drew me in was the biology, but the teaching components made a lasting impact. … I now plan on being a middle school science teacher.”
Since their official inception 16 years ago, ELOs have become an increasingly important part of the NH educational landscape, allowing students to explore and cultivate their own passions and pursue professional goals, guided and supported by their local public schools. Amid one of the most challenging years in educational history, ELOs are persevering and even gaining new relevance.
“We’ve come a long way, and we’re in a really good position now,” said Couture, a long-time ELO coordinator and one of a growing number of full-time ELO coordinators working in schools around the state. “We just keep growing and expanding and finding new ways to support kids in personalizing their learning.”
A concept that has existed for decades, ELOs became official in New Hampshire in 2005, when the state adopted specific standards and terminology to govern their implementation and ensure consistency across districts. Since then, ELOs have steadily grown: 90% of schools now offer ELOs for high school credit, and several thousand students participate every year. The NH ELO Network has developed a “high quality framework” to help ensure ELOs retain their integrity as they grow in popularity.
Much of that growth has taken place in the past few years. “I think one of the things that has been really great in making sure that we’re a presence in every school is the push toward competency-based education and career pathways,” Couture said.
Local businesses — motivated by low unemployment and a desire to keep young people in New Hampshire — have also given ELOs a warm reception in recent years. “What has happened over the last several years is there has been such a change in our economy that our institutions are looking to get creative,” said Doug Cullen, Manager of Career Services at Pinkerton Academy and one of the state’s leading experts on ELOs. “This is a really great way to build partnerships in the community.”
ELOs take many forms, from internships with community partners to credit-recovery projects. Winnacunnet High School has six distinct categories: project-based learning, service aide, independent coursework, internship, career exploration, and advanced study.
What all of the programs — and their counterparts in other schools — share is a focus on student-directed learning combined with academic rigor.
In spite of their flexibility and vast range of subject matter, ELOs also tend to promote a shared set of real-world skills. “There’s such a wide variety of content, but those transferable skills remain consistent,” Couture said. “Self-direction, collaboration, communication … those are the types of skills that we’re seeing.”
That real-world component has met with obstacles over the past year, as institutions and businesses respond to the coronavirus pandemic. But ELO directors say students have carried on with their projects in a variety of ways and even found new avenues for extended learning.
“I think they’re finding ways to develop ELOs using a bigger network than we’d thought about before by developing virtual relationships,” Cullen said.
The recent growth of ELO programs also presents its own challenge: “We’re growing at such a rapid pace, we don’t have staff and structure in place to help with things like data collection,” Couture said.
There is some data and research to show the value of ELOs. A two-year study published in 2016 by the Nellie Mae Foundation found that school-facilitated ELOs have a positive effect on student outcomes, including academic commitment, postsecondary aspirations, and postsecondary preparedness.
Even if more data were available, the value of ELOs can be difficult to quantify, Cullen said. “How do you know how many at-risk youth are no longer at risk? How do you know when a student’s not in trouble? How do you know when a student is making better choices for college and career?” he said. “What are all the different ways that we measure success in the big picture?”
Perhaps one of the best measures comes from the students themselves:
Alexandria Hovatter, a senior at Raymond High School, is on her way to a career as a gas service technician through her school’s ELO program. The first Raymond High School student to go through the Granite State Trade School program, she recently completed three gas piping certifications and has lined up an apprenticeship with Palmer & Sicard Inc. in Exeter.
Nicholas Fratto, one of the first students to participate in Winnacunnet High School’s ELO program in 2014-15, just landed a job as a business development representative at a technology startup in Boston.
Fratto, now a senior at Bryant University, said his ELO work at a local marketing company guided his college and career decisions. “I love the ideology of hands-on learning, and I looked for a college that was super involved with internships,” he said. “I also really wanted a job where I could have an impact, not just be another spoke on a wheel.”
For Connor Murray, the Winnacunnet ELO program provided a career path as well as a path toward a lucrative side hustle while he puts himself through college at the University of Miami. He did a string of five or six ELOs working with a local realtor, renovating and selling a house, creating social media and marketing plans, and working with an architecture firm. Five days after he turned 18 he got his real estate license, and he now sells luxury real estate in Florida while studying to be an architect.
“I kind of dived into the ELOs in order to focus on my interests,” said Murray, whose end goal is to be a developer. “I’m a big believer in not wasting time.”
Long (the microbiology enthusiast) plans to pursue his clinical master’s degree in STEM education at Southern New Hampshire University after graduating in May. He hopes to implement the concept of ELOs in his own classroom.
“Now, thinking about it from the perspective of someone going into teaching, I realize ELOs allowed you such close access to a teacher and also someone dedicated to helping you be successful in this non-traditional learning environment,” he said. “The biggest benefit was the access to people who could help you reach your goals.”
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