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Guess who’s coming to Pittsfield

By • Jun 16th, 2014 • Category: Superintendent

It is sometimes said that imitation is the highest form of flattery.  If that’s the case, then the Pittsfield NH School District has much to feel flattered by in recent months.  Since the beginning of the school year, the District has been host to visitors from across the country, all of them eager to know more about Pittsfield’s work.

According to Tobi Chassie, Project Manager for the Pittsfield Redesign, the phone calls started coming in before Thanksgiving.   The first inquiry came from a group of schools in northern Vermont exploring student ownership of learning, one of the hallmarks of the District’s change work.

The next callers were other Nellie-Mae funded districts in northern New England. In early November, the Pittsfield team had presented to its New England colleagues at the Nellie Mae Cross-Site Learning Summit. The focus was the District’s work in the area of “position analysis,” a methodical and collaborative process for defining the role of each staff position in the organization.  The work is based on research from the field of organizational development revealing that position clarity is the number one predictor of job satisfaction and productivity.

Four school districts—Portland and Sanford in Maine, and Burlington and Winooski in Vermont—inquired about coming to see a position analysis session in real-time.  Their wish was granted.   “We were glad to have them join us,” said Chassie.  “They provided us with great food for thought.”

In January 2014, Governor Maggie Hassan visited Pittsfield, just in time to include PMHS in her State of the State as a school that is “innovating and working to find better ways to educate our children.” 

In February, Chris Sturgis, from the national website, CompetencyWorks, spent one day at PMHS.  CompetencyWorks provides resources for educational innovators to help inform their work.  Sturgis had heard about Pittsfield from New Hampshire DOE Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather.  The result of the visit was a series of three comprehensive blog posts about the Redesign: “Implementation Insights from the Pittsfield School District,” “Pittsfield Rethinks Adult Roles,” and “Hand in Hand:  Pittsfield Integrates Personalized Learning and Competency Education.”  Little did we know at the time that one of CompetencyWorks’ lead funders is the Nellie Mae Education Foundation! (The postings can be found at: http://www.competencyworks.org/2014/03/implementation-insights-from-pittsfield-school-district/)

With the sudden onslaught of visitors, Chassie and Co-Project Manager Susan Bradley have developed a model for introducing guests to PMHS and the Redesign.  The first step is to determine what, precisely, they are expecting to see and experience.  “Mostly, we hear one of two things,” said Chassie.  “They’d like to see a sampling of the components of student-centered learning or they’d like to understand more about competency-based learning.”  Chassie and Bradley go back and forth a couple of times with the prospective visitors to fine-tune a one, two or three-day agenda.

“We’ve typically been breaking down the day into the actual periods of the school day,” said Chassie.  In the first hour they hear about advisories, Site Council and student-led conferences.  In the second hour, they learn about the Nellie Mae grant, Pittsfield’s Logic Model, and other core aspects of the Redesign. In the third hour, visitors learn about college and career readiness, dual enrollment, ELOs, and other programmatic elements at the school.  In the fourth and fifth hours, visitors observe an advisory and then meet with students.  “These kids have become so articulate and thoughtful about how they answer questions,” said Chassie.  “They are extraordinary.   Susan and I feel so much pride when we listen to kids talk about student-centered learning.”

After lunch, guests are introduced to integrated project-based learning through the school’s new “Learning Studios,” and to PMHS’s work on climate and culture change through PMHS’s “I.M.P.A.C.T.” team and its “Restorative Justice” program.   The visitors are then treated to another classroom observation, followed by a debriefing session of their visit. The debriefing includes a protocol to help visitors leave with a list of takeaways for planning purposes when they return home.

At first, District leadership worried that teachers would experience these visits as an infringement on their time.  But that has not been the case.  Instead, the norm has been to hear such comments as, “I love doing this,” and “If these are teachers who want to change the way they do business, I want to talk to them.”

Still, said Chassie, “We are very strategic about how teacher and student time is utilized during these visits because we want our school day to be as uninterrupted as possible.”

More recent visitors have been three schools in Providence, Rhode Island, that are affiliated with the Highlander Institute; a dozen leaders from Springdale, Arkansas, a district of 30 schools; and a dozen visitors from the Howard-Winneshiek school district in Cresco, Iowa.  In mid-April, the Public Editor from the Education Writers Association began reporting on a multi-part series about student-centered learning.  A team of 30 people from the Chicago School District also visited PMHS as part of its move toward student-centered practices.

“One thing we have learned through this process is that our visitors need some team time on site, an opportunity to debrief and reflect on what they saw and heard, and an actionable plan for when they return home,” said Chassie.

Up until this point, PMHS has not been charging visitors, but such visits may generate additional income for the District in the future.

Chassie reflected on how far the District has come in such a short period of time.   “Now when I mention that I work in Pittsfield, heads turn and people frequently say, ‘I need to talk to you’.”

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