PITTSFIELD, N.H.—It’s time for the morning meeting at Pittsfield Elementary School, and several kindergartners jostle for a spot on the carpet next to 16-year-old Anitrea Provencher, who is helping out in their classroom this semester.

As the students settle into a circle, their teacher, Lenore Coombs, starts off the day’s discussion with a question: What’s something you’ve never done before that you would like to try? That’s something Provencher—a sophomore at the neighboring Pittsfield Middle High School—is actively trying to answer for herself as part of a program that awards students academic course credit for engaging in learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom setting. "I’m figuring out where I do fit and where I don’t fit," said Provencher, who hopes to follow up the kindergarten internship with one in marine biology. "I haven’t really liked school for a long time. This is better for me than regular high school."

Amid the growing push to reinvent the nation’s public high schools, initiatives that connect students more directly to their individual interests—and tap into their innate motivations—are gaining popularity. New Hampshire is one of a handful of states at the forefront of efforts to promote flexibility in how students learn and how that knowledge is measured. While initiatives like these are relatively small in scale, educators and policymakers say they provide important testing grounds for innovations in school improvement.

In New Hampshire, what are known as "extended learning opportunities" can take the form of workplace internships, volunteer work, individualized study, or one-on-one instruction. Students earn credit in English-language arts provided their plan meets academic standards as outlined by the New Hampshire Department of Education. The learning opportunities must also be aligned to the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, including New Hampshire.

Pittsfield is located about 40 minutes north of Manchester. Its demographics—mostly white and with modest household incomes—are not unlike those in many of the state’s other small towns. But Pittsfield is benefitting from a massive investment in its education system, spurred by a combination of private grants (primarily from the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation) and a federal "Investing In Innovation" grant awarded to a network of 13 New England schools.

Giving students more of a say over their learning is integral to the larger effort to turn around Pittsfield, which had long been considered one of the state’s weaker public high schools. Its standardized test scores and graduation rates have lagged behind statewide averages. Pittsfield students have been more likely than many of their peers elsewhere in the state to say they don’t plan to attend college, according to a survey.

To combat those lackluster results, Pittsfield—which enrolls about 260 students total in grades seven through 12—in 2012 adopted a new model focusing on "student-centered learning": Now, teachers function more as coaches than lecturers and the students are active collaborators. Initially limited to the high school, the framework is now being phased in at the middle school, too. And while the extended-learning program, now five years old, predates the student-centered initiative, officials say it has been key to the turnaround. Teachers and students say the new flexibility has contributed to rising graduation and college-enrollment rates.

"How students do after graduation is a better measure of the success of a high school than just standardized assessments—tests don’t measure life skills," said Sheila Ward, who coordinates Pittsfield’s extended learning program. "Our kids are developing relationships out in the community, they’re seeing connections between what they’re learning and where they want to go. Instead of just adding to their academic transcripts, they’re building resumes."

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Before digging into what extended learning is, it’s important to understand what it is not. Pittsfield’s educators emphasize their program isn’t a shortcut toward earning course credit or a means of removing students from classrooms or a substitute for school teachers. And the learning doesn't always take place during the regular academic day. Students are expected to fulfill rigorous guidelines to demonstrate what they’ve learned: They must maintain a journal detailing their activities, complete assignments, undergo multiple assessments, and create a final project and presentation.

While the program is voluntary, it’s become an increasingly popular option. To date, 264 students have participated in their own projects over the past five years. Ward estimated that 75 percent of them are currently working in or pursuing postsecondary studies in related fields. She’s been able to find matches for just about every career field students have requested, from dental hygiene to graphic design, though some students have had to travel to bigger cities or do some of their activities via videoconferencing.

Recently at the Pittsfield campus, few students were waiting more eagerly for the last traces of the winter to melt than four seniors who are collaborating on an extended-learning project in which they will build a greenhouse. The idea is to build something that the school will use long after they graduate, and before they drafted the blueprints, the students read up on agriculture instruction at other schools to determine what type of design would be most useful to future classes. They made an oral presentation—one for which they reportedly rehearsed multiple times—to the school board at a public hearing for permission to carry out the construction and completed all the paperwork for the building permits. All the skills they applied to these tasks fulfill the New Hampshire DOE’s language arts expectations, according to Jenny Wellington, a longtime English teacher who serves as the group’s supervisor. The board approved the project, too.

As for the students’ post-graduation plans, two of them plan to enlist in the military, one will join his father’s construction business, and the fourth is headed to the University of New Hampshire to study dairy farming. Still, Wellington said she can see how this project could benefit them as they pursue their careers: "This is what it’s really like to work," she said. "It’s about contributing to the community, working together, problem solving—all of the real-world scenarios students are going to face when they get out there on their own."

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Jessica Massey, a Pittsfield senior who manages the school store as part of her project, said the experience has helped her to improve her organizational skills and to think creatively. The store’s inventory includes a modest collection of girls’ formalwear for rent in case someone can’t afford to buy a new prom dress. Massey realized potential customers might be put off if they saw someone they knew modeling the dress on the school store’s website, so she had her cousin, who attends another school, pose in the gowns.

Jessica Massey, a senior at Pittsfield Middle High School, in the student store she manages. (Jim Vaiknoras/The Hechinger Report)

Prior to the school’s adoption of student-centered learning, "it felt like we had a test every other week," Massey said, adding that the more individualized approach better suits her learning style. "I don’t do well on tests. I prefer a project where I can take my time."

And students and officials say the benefits of the nontraditional-learning option extend beyond the academics. Emily Dunnigan, a freshman at Pittsfield who was homeschooled through eighth grade and once hesitated to speak up in class and make friends, said interning with the local community theater group has helped boost her confidence. She helped to paint the sets for a local production and served as an assistant to the director during rehearsals, and even plans to try out for one of the roles in the next round of auditions.

In a 2012 report, researchers at George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy compared outcomes for a wide array of school programs intended to boost student motivation and learning. The researchers concluded that when students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated—which in turn often means they’re more likely to comprehend the material, have higher self-esteem, and graduate. School organization and teachers’ instructional style also play a role. Though the study cautioned that duplicating a program can be difficult because students’ needs vary so greatly, research suggests that successful ones often incorporate community service, offer project-based learning, and encourage students to be independent thinkers.

Over the past decade there’s been a growing acknowledgement that the traditional U.S. high-school design isn’t working, said Jennifer Davis, the president the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit focused on changing how schools are run. But whether the Pittsfield model can be replicated elsewhere is unclear, she said: The small-group design is much more difficult to implement in large city high schools that often serve upward of 2,000 students, in part because of the cost. Yet students at large urban campuses would also benefit from learning opportunities that cultivate their interests, as well as access to teachers trained to coach them in skills "that will help them through life," Davis said. These opportunities "are critically important to the progress of our education system in the direction we want to go … Without those examples we would be much further behind in bringing those kinds of opportunities to large urban districts that serve the most high-need kids."

Tapping into student motivation requires demonstrating relevancy, according to Daphna Oyserman, a psychology professor at USC who emphasized the need for teachers to show students that their futures are actually closer than they might think. "You want kids to see there’s a path from now to the future, that the path involves school, and that current choices to invest effort and keep trying in school matter for future options." Conversely, structuring a learning experience too narrowly or rigidly, she added, risks undermining their motivation: "If I'm a kid who’s worried because I’m not sure what career path is right for me, that could spill over into being unsure about what I want to do in school."

Ryan Marquis, a Pittsfield senior, has already changed his direction once. He had planned on becoming an engineer and created a project based on that goal, but putting together the curriculum to teach his classmates the basics turned out to be his favorite part. "I would have wasted my first year of college before I figured out ‘Hey, I don’t really like this,’" said Marquis, who’s now leaning toward majoring in physics and chemistry and is thinking of eventually teaching high school. "Instead, I’ll be starting out ahead of the curve."


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechingher Report.