Professional Development As An Engine For Self Renewal

(with John Finefrock, Public Allies Teaching Fellow)

We have been working the past three years with Big Picture Learning. In our latest work, we have helped some New England schools develop conferences and they have become an engine of self renewal. Read how two of our Public Allies Teaching Fellows experienced the “Senior Thesis Project” (STP) Conference in April.

Students and staff from Big Picture schools spanning from Tennessee to Vermont congregated in Newport, Rhode Island for the Second Annual Senior Thesis Project Conference. Facilitated by staff from the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, the purpose of the gathering was to reenergize students as they work on their Senior Thesis Projects (STP), their culminating masterpiece before graduation.

The Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center is both an alternative residential high school and a professional development center that works with educators from around the country who wish to study how to re-engage, retain, and graduate students.

For those unfamiliar with the Big Picture model, students are out of the classroom two days each week to gain real-world experience in internship placements in their communities. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are reserved for advisory, in which students work with their small groups to share support and maximize the learning experience. A favorable student/staff advisory ratio, generally around 1:15, ensures individualized attention and productive group work. This common practice and consistency in the Big Picture model allowed for productive and smooth collaboration between schools at the STP conference.

As the schools came together to share their trials and triumphs, collaboration fueled alliance, and students and staff from across the country inspired one another to achieve greatness. At the end of day one, one student proclaimed, “It’s truly been inspirational and fascinating to hear other people’s ideas and passions,” and yet another stated that, “It [conference] really lifted a weight off of my shoulders.”

Students and staff engaged in workshops designed to construct a vision of success by building off of the positive attributes of each individual. Participants were given the opportunity to present dilemmas in small group settings, allowing for constructive dialogue and real-time problem solving. Each individual walked away from the conference with an action-step to implement, and, in the words of one Big Picture student, a “renewed sense of passion” for their Senior Thesis Project.

If you wanted to create a conference that was at your learning edge, what topic would you choose?

Professional Development Center Supports Albuquerque Start Up

Health Leadership High School is a new high school opening in Albuquerque, New Mexico committed to providing the best education to the students who need it the most. We will serve poor students and from low socioeconomic families that are between 14 and 24 years of age. The school anticipates that most of the students will be under-credited and off track to graduation and we expect that 80% of all students enrolled will fit this profile. This demographic of young people need a relevant highly personalized approach to learning. Many studies have documented the need for relevancy and purpose in their learning for at-risk students and the school is committed to making school directly related to their future ambitions to work in the health care sector.

This is the time to re-engineer career preparation in high school. The health sector is changing at an unprecedented rate and we face an unknown future. However, we know that in an era of scarce resources, a well-educated and skilled workforce is our best chance to shape a healthy future for our communities. Regardless of the job any of our graduates hold, they will need a broad understanding of the determinants of healthy communities, families and individuals. They must also understand the systems that can improve the services that support the health of our citizens and that have the capacity to actually serve their clients well. Finally, they will have a diploma with currency in the workplace and be prepared for a career in the sector directly after graduation and/or continue to college after they graduate.

As an experienced principal, I felt confident running the day-to-day operation of a school, working with teachers and students, developing relationships with families, and even working with a tight budget. However, as I took the move into opening up a brand new charter school, I knew I was going to need to push outside of my comfort zone of schools to build a school schedule receptive to the needs of students and reflective of work in the industry, develop relationships with industry partners, and create a project-based curriculum responsive to our industry partners yet intriguing to students. Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center came to my aid to be not only a thought partner in this new work, but a mentor to me as I worked to through deconstructing school design and redesign a curriculum relevant to students who are disengaged in the current system of school.

Eagle Rock’s Director of Professional Development, Michael Soguero and Dan Condon, Associate Director of Professional Development sat down with me to engage me in a conversation about vision, redesign, and re-engaging students. I was inspired by their confidence and enthusiasm in the work ahead of us at Health Leadership High School. Rather than instruct me with a recipe of what to do with the design of the school, Michael and Dan posed questions to me in my vision and mission of the school. Their ability to push me in my thinking enabled me to come up with a concrete plan for my own professional development goals as I developed the school.

Based on our conversation, I developed two professional development goals. The first goal included creating a Project Based Learning (PBL) project based on the health sectors outlined by the industry and the needs of the community. The second goal was to engage our industry partners from the health field in the development of our projects. This work was important for me to obtain relevant information to inform our projects and demonstrate the value of our industry partners in school design. With the constant listening ear of Dan as he thoughtfully pushed me in my thinking to ensure I was true to what I laid out as the goals of my work, we were able to develop three PBL projects to share with industry partners.

Sharing curriculum with industry partners is exciting, cutting edge, and frightening. Sometimes as educators we share a finished product, but rarely do we engage with industry partners at the layer of curriculum development and design. I was a bit hesitant to share the information, gather input, and redesign as needed by the industry. Yet, with the help of Dan having honest conversations with me about outcomes for students and sharing protocols to guide the discussions with our partners I was able to facilitate a successful curriculum meeting with twelve partners from the health field. Industry partners responded that they had never been part of such progressive curriculum design, nor had they ever had the opportunity to ensure the curriculum was directly aligned and relevant to their industry.

As I followed up with Michael and Dan on the success of our creating curriculum with industry partners, I realized I was in a place to start organizing the daily schedule to reflect the work of the curriculum. Thoughtfully, Michael and Dan asked me to articulate the essential elements we need to add in the school and without the constraint of time discuss what a day in the life of a student at Health Leadership High School would look like. As they listened carefully to my vision, Michael was able to help organize a weekly schedule with me in a way to reflect the cutting edge work, align to the vision and mission of the school, and transfer onto paper in a way graspable to the daily work of students and teachers.

The work of Eagle Rock Professional Development Center allowed me to begin putting ideas of school design centered on student re-engagement into reality. Their ability to listen, organize ideas, and provide tools applicable to my work was of astounding service. Their work and passion is admirable and inspiring. They have shared their knowledge in a way to encourage me as I embark on this new venture to create a healthy, meaningful learning environment for our students who need it the most.

If Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center were to work with your school what would you choose to focus on?