Student-Centered, Competency-Based Learning
Pittsfield Middle High School - Pittsfield, NH
At the Student-Centered Secondary Schools Showcase in San Diego (Feb 15-17, 2017), Susan Bradley, Project Manager for District Level Systems Change from the Pittsfield, New Hampshire School District, shared the vision and logic model of student-centered learning that Pittsfield Middle High School spent nearly a decade developing in collaboration with their local community. The presentation highlighted four components that have proven successful for Pittsfield: learning studios, the extended learning opportunity (ELO) program, restorative justice, and their site council.
These four programs grew out of a process, which was galvanized when former Pittsfield Elementary School Principal John Freeman became Superintendent of Schools in 2008. Bradley enthusiastically recalls the way Freeman sought to build an effective community advisory council, “He guided the school district through a process of engaging the community – creating a compelling vision and then moving us from where we were to where we wanted to be.” Around this period the school was the recipient of a School Improvement Grant, and later a Nellie Mae Education Foundation Grant. These two grants helped empower the twin goals of “reformation” and “transformation” that would drive the development of Pittsfield’s student-centered learning programs. Grant funding also enabled members of the advisory council to visit other schools and observe models of programs that might work for them. At the same time, Pittsfield introduced what Bradley described as their most fundamental change, moving to a competency-based learning system.
Along this journey of reinvention, Pittsfield High School has made many discoveries about how students learn, with some surprises. There was an aspiring engineering student who would ultimately help design and co-teach the learning studio that grew out of his own curiosity. There was even a student who wound up influencing the school’s shift to an effective new disciplinary approach (built around restorative justice) when they made the surprisingly blunt observation, “You do know that our Saturday morning detentions don’t really do anything, right?”
At the Showcase, Bradley shared examples of competencies that are part of Pittsfield’s extended learning opportunities, alongside a student’s perspective on ELOs. She also discussed how they were able to achieve the remarkable student majority make-up of their site council (10 student leaders on a 19 person council). Another focus was on the evolution of their learning studio program. When Pittsfield’s weekly learning studios were first offered, topics were mostly based on faculty suggestion. Today many topics are student-generated, developed not only by teachers but also by the passionate groups of students themselves, who, according Bradley, feel a real “ownership” over the learning studios.
When they first began working on their Showcase presentation, the Pittsfield team specifically prioritized examples that San Diego attendees might be able to take home and share with their own communities, tools that some might ideally even “put to immediate use.” In sharing their logic model, sample programs, and vision, they hope to have given Showcase attendees a helpful roadmap for one successful transformation to student-centered learning.