Student-Driven Learning in a Diverse Urban High School
Brien McMahon High School - Norwalk, CT
The presentation Developing and Fostering a Culture of Student-Driven Learning in a Diverse Urban High School gave attendees at the Student-Centered Secondary Schools Showcase in San Diego (Feb 15-17, 2017) a portrait of the ongoing transformation taking place at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, CT. Under the leadership of Principal Suzanne Brown Koroshetz, BMHS has spent the past 11 years developing student-centered policies and practices that aligned with the distinct needs of their community. Science Department Chair Tom Seuch and Housemaster Scott Hurwitz walked the audience through several areas of success for BMHS.
A fresh approach to student advisory has created a new level of student engagement and investment at Brien McMahon. A key factor is the four-year continuity created by their House Advisory Program, which now connects students with adult mentors and peer advisors on a weekly basis, beginning freshman year. “Advisory periods are now considered sacred,” said Seuch, who also shared with Showcase attendees a variety of initiatives that ensure student learning extends well beyond the school’s doors. They discussed the medical academy, a hands-on program developed in partnership with Norwalk Community College which helps expose students to a range of medical careers, and Project Lead the Way, which, among other advantages, allows students to earn college credits in engineering.
Seuch and Hurwitz also showed how BMHS has adopted 21st century learning strategies with changes to curriculum, assessments, and even scheduling. The recently adopted extended learning periods have been embraced by teachers, who are excited to see their students benefit from the 90-minute class blocks. New cross-disciplinary offerings, access to AP instruction, and general changes to class options have also given Brien McMahon students a new sense of choice and ownership of their own path. As Hurwitz described, “It’s really important that we are opening doors for students and not closing doors. At our school no student is going to be pigeonholed by a test that they took several years ago.”
According to Hurwitz, many critical changes in assessment practices evolved out of a series of fruitful visits early on to the East Side Community High School in New York City. BMHS teachers from every department visited East Side and observed practices like the Round Table student assessments, which many have since implemented in their own classrooms. The Round Table assessments, where students are required to present examples of their own learning to a small group of teachers and advisors, are now sometimes used in place of final exams in Norwalk.
The Brien McMahon presenters also opened up a section of their presentation for a Q&A with attendees from other schools. They hoped this flexibility in their format would be reflective of the fact that each school needs to find its own path to success with student-centered learning. For BMHS, engagement with outside voices and ongoing professional development have been essential components in the transformation. Another recipe for success was building a positive stakeholder mindset when the school first began exploring the direction it wanted to move. Said Seuch, “We probably wouldn’t have been able to get to student-centered learning if the approach hadn’t been so staff-centered at the beginning.”
As an example of how a student-focused mindset now permeates all aspects of learning and student life at their school, Hurwitz described a recent staff discussion around setting up a disciplinary council, “For all of us, the idea of having a student seat, and student voices represented from the beginning, was so natural. It was automatic. I don’t think that this would have been the case even just five years ago.”