PITTSFIELD, N.H.—Pushing up the cuffs of his plaid shirt and adjusting his glasses, the ninth-grader Colton Gaudette looks across the small classroom conference table.
“Welcome to my student-led conference,” he says.
“Thank you for inviting me,” answers his mother, Terry Gaudette, sitting next to Colton’s adviser and biology teacher.
This meeting, which happens twice a year, has replaced the old format of parent-teacher conferences at Pittsfield Middle High School, a rural New Hampshire campus that takes a “student-centered learning” approach to schooling. With this model, students are given more freedom to connect their individual interests to their academic learning and future goals. Teachers are considered collaborators and coaches, and students are expected to shoulder more responsibility for their school lives—including organizing all the details of these twice-yearly conference with parents and advisers.
Pittsfield began shifting to this student-centered approach after being rated one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools, and qualifying for a federal School Improvement Grant in 2009. It’s also part of a coalition of 13 New England schools that share another $5 million federal grant, and was awarded $2 million from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2012, specifically to foster student-centered learning.
“Kids have to be honest with themselves and I think that’s fantastic,” said Paul Strickhart, who teaches math at Pittsfield and is Colton’s faculty adviser. “They have to own up to why they’re not passing a class, or, if they’re doing well, they have to be able to identify what’s contributing to that and how they can keep going.”