An outsider might have thought Nick Fratto was skipping school.
The 16-year-old at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire, began leaving campus in November as many as three days each week.
Each time, he drove toward North Hampton and didn’t return for nearly two hours.
But he wasn’t cutting class — he was cutting his teeth in the marketing business.
Nick was engaged in what the school calls an extended learning opportunity, or ELO. He went to a local business, Larsen Edge Marketing, where he worked on its website and compiled information for clients.
Kirsten Schultz, brand manager at the company, was his mentor.
“She said the work I did was good enough that she would actually submit it to clients,” Fratto said.
Nick kept a log in which he reflected on what he did and learned. He put together a portfolio, and he’ll make a presentation about it this month. And at Winnacunnet High, he’ll receive two credits toward graduation.
He’s one of about 250 students at the school of nearly 1,100 who are engaged in extended learning opportunities.
It’s part of a movement simmering in some education circles — and particularly in New Hampshire — to link students to the wider world, to fully engage them and to personalize their learning.
The term extended learning can mean any learning that takes place outside a traditional classroom, often in after-school or summer learning programs. However, in New Hampshire schools, it refers to a specific process. The school’s extended learning coordinator works with a student, a supervisory teacher and an organization or mentor in the community to arrange and assess the experience.
Pittsfield Middle High School in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, began offering extended learning opportunities in 2010.
“They have been a positive experience,” said John Freeman, superintendent for the Pittsfield School District, a small district in rural New Hampshire. Pittsfield is a former mill town where more than half the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
ELOs allow students “to pursue their own passions and interests, or pursue topics we couldn’t otherwise offer regular courses on,” he said.
Students can take control of their education and also connect with professionals and craftspeople out in the community, he said.
Why extend learning?
In 2005 New Hampshire began overhauling its school standards. Pittsfield got a grant in 2008 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to revamp its approach to learning.
The reasons for change are numerous. American students lag behind those in other countries, noted the 2012 New Hampshire report, Student-Centered Learning in New Hampshire: An Overview and Analysis. Wide gaps exist in student achievement.
The report also said schools are doing a poor job of helping students acquire the types of skills they will need in the rapidly changing world of work.
Too many students are disengaged from school, wrote Robert Halpern in a report for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. School does not adequately connect students to the adult world, he wrote, and young people can feel disconnected from meaningful activity.
In addition, schools are not adequately preparing kids for college. About 20 percent of students who go to college require remedial work.
But good settings for learning exist out in the world, Halpern wrote — in bakeries, restaurants, government offices, museums, theaters, workshops, laboratories, hospitals and clinics, to name a few, as well as in urban gardens, organic farms and forests.
Creating academic rigor
But how do experiences in community settings and businesses connect with academics?
“Research is a big component,” said Donna Couture, the full-time extended learning coordinator at Winnacunnet High School. One of her students is learning about fashion merchandising. The student is working at a local store, going to merchandising shows and looking online to learn about the subject.
“She’ll have to document that research,” Couture said.
In addition, “her final project is to develop a fashion show here at the school,” Couture said.
In the process, she’ll gain skills in collaboration and self-direction.
“She [also] has to put together a presentation that encompasses her entire learning experience,” Couture said.
A rigorous extended learning experience has four components:
- product creation and
- a presentation.
Students may get one or two credits toward graduation, depending on the rigor of their extended learning plan.
Students at Winnacunnet work as aides to elementary school teachers or explore careers by shadowing a professional in the community. They may do projects, internships, an independent study or advanced coursework as an extended learning opportunity.
New Hampshire laid the foundation for extended learning when it required all high schools to switch their graduation requirements from credit hours to competencies by 2008. Extended learning experiences are designed to meet competencies that count as credit toward graduation.
“The academics in extended learning opportunities are critical,” said Sheila Ward, former extended learning coordinator at Pittsfield, in a webinar presentation.
“When I first meet with students, I’m asking them a lot of questions about themselves, what’s meaningful, what’s relevant, what do you want to do,” she said.
“From that conversation, I then look at where can we attach competencies” which may be in English, history or other subjects, she said.
She and the student think about how to make the work a strong experience, and they develop learning activities and assessments.
“Usually [students] have a lot of wonderful ideas,” she said.
One Pittsfield student shadowed a police officer. She learned about department policies and Miranda rights, as well as how to take fingerprints. Another worked with a disc jockey at a local radio station.
“ELOs encourage students to think out of the box,” Ward said in the webinar.
They can work for all students — those who are at-risk academically or who are on an accelerated track, middle of the road, disengaged, in special education or seeking enrichment.
Learning on horseback
At Lebanon High School in Lebanon, New Hampshire, 210 out of the school’s 650 students are involved in extended learning this year. Most do it for elective credit, but 10 to 15 percent gain core credit.
Student Mariah Gallien began a project in April 2015. Already passionate about horses, she took her interest a step further by doing research into what horses need when they are being transported long distances — in her case from New Hampshire to Kentucky. She worked on the project during the summer as she trained to compete in a major equestrian event.
In September, she made her presentation, discussing the nutrition, exercise and psychology needs of horses being transported to a different environment.
She gained credit in equine studies. Lebanon High School does not offer equine studies, but teachers assessed her work using the competencies and standards borrowed from Colby-Sawyer College’s equine studies program.
“She was going to compete and try out anyway,” said Joy Gobin, extended learning coordinator at Lebanon High School. The ELO allowed her to go deeper into the subject, Gobin said.
Lebanon and Winnacunnet high schools are located in relatively affluent communities, while Pittsfield is not. All have had success with extended learning.
Problems and challenges
However, the 2012 New Hampshire report said that quality of the extended learning experience varied among students. It also said teachers needed more training in assessing student work.
Another challenge is transportation, Ward said. Students may not have a way to get to the places in the community where they need to go.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to find a community partner willing to work with a high school student,” Couture said.
When she seeks partners, Couture said, they refuse 20 to 30 percent of the time.
At Winnacunnet, the extended learning experiences can’t all be at the same level of rigor because of staff limits, she said. A teacher must work with each student.
“The big issue is capacity,” Couture said.
“That’s really the issue that’s on the table for teachers,” she said. “It is a lot of work to participate and be a mentor.”
At Winnacunnet, high-achieving, self-directed students are the most successful in extended learning, she said.
When the program can begin to provide more supports, then you will see more struggling students participating, Couture said. Kids on alternative learning plans — those who can’t access or do well in regular classes — should be able to do ELOs, she said.
Gobin agreed that the process works best with students who are already self-directed. Adults can offer structure and guidance and support, but ultimately the student must take responsibility, she said.
“The hardest part is if the student isn’t fully committed to doing the work,” she said.
But the benefits are many, she said.
Nick was very happy with the opportunity to work at Larsen Edge Marketing.
“I think of all the things I’ve done in high school, this is probably one of the best experiences I’ve had,” he said. “It changed how I thought about having a job.”
Nick said he decided that working in an office — instead of having a superadventurous job — could actually be a good thing.
“I think it was helpful because it gives me an advantage going into college,” he said. “ I can say I’ve done real-world things. I have a resume and portfolio before anyone else.”