Increasingly, students and parents are having the opportunity of selecting among different school programs and designs. Peter Wieczorek, a director, and teacher at Northwest Passage High School, an inquiry-driven project-based learning program, explores insights and questions for parents to consider as they make decisions. Engaging students in these choices is also explored.
Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!
Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, at times, even somewhat conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.
Steve: 00:33 The value of different school frameworks for learning. Joining me today is Peter Wieczorek. He is a parent, a teacher, and the director of the Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Welcome Peter.
Peter: 00:51 Thank you. Glad to be here.
Steve: 00:54 Peter, I was excited about about your school when I got a chance to read about it and visit the site and see the things you were doing, and then even more when I had a chance to to speak with you. So would you tell the listeners a little bit about Northwest Passage High School and how it differs from a more traditional high school approaches?
Peter: 01:15 Sure. Yeah. I am the director and one of the teachers at Northwest passage we’re a independent public charter school and one of the
things I think that really makes us unique is just our small school size. We’re a maximum of 180 students. We keep our class sizes and our advisories small, no more than 16 students. We have a long-term advisory model so that students and their advisor teacher really get to know each other and advisors get to help students see their strengths and help plan. And then we also do a student-centered project-based learning model that really provides students with a lot of opportunities and autonomy to pursue learning in ways that works best for them. And then we also include in there a real strong emphasis on experiential learning and getting outside, learning by doing, including offering 20 to 25 overnight learning expeditions a year at no cost to students and families.
Steve: 02:26 Can you just label one of those expeditions for us?
Peter: 02:29 Absolutely. Every spring we do a trip to Washington DC and so we have two staff and about six students and we load up a van. But before we do that is a lot of where the learning opportunities happen. DC is a fantastic opportunity because most of the things that you can do and see don’t have a whole lot of cost to it. And everyone has an idea about Washington DC they’ve been there or not. And then instead of going through like an expensive travel company or something, every student has two areas that they say that they want to visit and then they research and learn more about them and they become our guides for each of those areas. And so it’s always cool. We have, you know, just a small group of eight to 10 people and we’re doing our own thing. And we sometimes get carried away by the sea of these giant school groups with tour guides and their flags and no one’s really paying attention because it’s hard to do and everyone’s got their headphones on. And for us it’s a very different experience, including students helping out with the planning what’s our route, we’re going to stay overnight at a campground somewhere halfway and they get to be involved in that whole process.
Steve: 03:54 Very cool. Very cool. So what do you identify as some of the advantages for learners existing in your school?
Peter: 04:03 You know, I think some of the, the immediate ones are the small school environment. You know, too often, I think suburban high schools are these large 2, 3000 students, often 30 plus students in a classroom. And you often shuffle through five, six, seven period day. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to really get into depth with things, to ask a lot of questions. You’re kind of shuffled through this process. And for us, we really take that learning piece of it and slow it down. And we really have a morning period in an afternoon period, and students get to dig deeper into the things that they’re doing. There’s those connections with adults. Again, the traditional system just – you know, there’s a lot of great teachers who make really good connections with students over time, but you know, when you talk to those teachers, they just don’t have a lot of opportunity and time to do that.
Peter: 05:05 If you have an advisory of only 16 students and you keep them for three or four years, you really get to make those connections with your students. From a student perspective, the idea of pursuing things that you’re interested in passionate about, we’re still required to meet the same graduation requirements and we have the same standards and learning targets. But those are actually fairly loosely written and there’s a lot of space in there for students to take on things that they want to know more about or create deliverables, end products in ways that work better for them. Not everyone is, you know, can do the typical quizzes at the end of the week, or write the research paper as well, or that’s not their strength. It might be in building and doing hands-on kind of things. It might be in technology in the arts. And we really focus in on how do we support students in coming up with those end products, those deliverables in ways that work for them while at the same time, recognizing that the areas that they need to work on, we also need to address those.
Steve: 06:14 So I’m wondering what concerns parents have when they’re initially having a conversation with you about their son or daughter taking part in your program.
Peter: 06:28 You know, I think some of the, the immediate insertive surface kind of things are you know, what’s graduation rate look like? What are post-secondary opportunities are for my child? And those that are all, you know, very valuable things. And we all as parents think about those kinds of things, but the reality is, our diploma carries the same weight as any other diploma in the state. Our students have similar opportunities to any other students. We’re able to sort of customize that I think a little differently and help students figure those things out. But after we get past that part of it, the concerns that parents often have are things around co-curriculars and sports and sort of the traditional things that most of them knew as students in high school and we’re small. And so we’re not able to provide that full compliment of all of those kinds of things, but, you know, the reality of that also is in most large suburban districts, it’s less than 25% and often way less than that of students who participate in all of those kinds of things.
Peter: 07:40 And so, you know, we talk about what are the trade-offs. What are the other things that, you know, your students going to opportunities that are going to have, whether that’s travel through our expeditions or peer mentorships or community mentorships those opportunities. You know, and then the final concern I think that parents have, and this one sometimes is the hardest one to get past is, what will my peers, other adults think if I deviate from the path?
Steve: 08:12 Wow. I hadn’t thought of that.
Peter: 08:12 Because, you know, the path is I buy a house in this neighborhood because of this elementary school, and then this elementary feeds to this middle school and this middle school feeds to this high school. And if I don’t do that, if I take a different path, what do my peers think about that? My other other parents – why aren’t you going to the neighborhood high school?
Steve: 08:36 Yeah. I mean, it makes sense – I’m going to get asked hard questions as a parent.
Peter: 08:40 Right, right.
Steve: 08:41 I need to make sure I can answer those.
Peter: 08:43 Yeah. And, you know, part of my answer to that always is as the parent, you know, your child best. You know are they going to thrive in that school environment like many students do or are they going to struggle with that? Is that going to be difficult for them to manage that kind of an environment? What are the learning opportunities that are there? You know, a lot of the larger schools have a lot of really great programs within the school that their student may you know, be attracted to and that’s a perfect fit, but it’s not always that way. And so, you know, we start to talk about the idea of, you know, as a parent, what do you know about your student and what do you want from them? What are their needs? And I actually spend a lot of time talking with the student themselves. And that’s another one that sometimes is different for folks that, you know, as a high school student, I think you should have a lot of voice in what your opportunity is and so I want to know from them what, you know, what their learning style is, what are they interested in.
Steve: 09:54 You’re actually setting me up here for very personal question. So my granddaughter is finishing seventh going into eighth next year. And in her community, they have arrangements with surrounding high schools that really allow a student to make a choice. So I’m going to be sending this podcast onto my daughter and son-in-law to listen to. So how do parents engage their their high school or in being part of that decision-making process?
Peter: 10:32 So for Northwest passage, we have some specific things that we do, including we do monthly open house information evenings, and then I host students and parents and to come in and tour. But I always say, you know, it only works well if everyone is there that this decision affects, It’s not enough just, you know, for mom or dad to come and then make the decision. I was a camp director for a lot of years and I always knew the kids who mom and dad pushed onto the bus and ran the other way because when they came off, you know, they were like, this wasn’t my choice. I don’t want to be here. I think, you know, the same thing is true with high school. And I think that that conversation needs to start several years before, when, again, when you’re in seventh, eighth grade talking about if you have opportunities in the community that you live in, check out a lot of schools. You know, I always tell students and parents I’m not a car salesman. I’m here to give you the best information, tell you everything about Northwest Passage. And if afterwards you leave here and say, it’s not the right fit, that’s good because everyone needs to find what is that right fit for them.
Steve: 11:52 Yeah, I’m really hearing my my daughter’s family is going to have to in invest time in in homework and exploration and I’m so glad to hear you say it because I did hear my daughter say that this year, while she’s a seventh grader, they have to be working on the conversations next year as an eighth grader it’s too late because…
Peter: 12:13 Yeah. And especially if you’re in more of that traditional system, because the eighth graders, about December or January, they put them on the bus and have them go to the high school and say, here’s where you’re going to be and let’s talk about your class schedule. And again, nothing wrong with that, but if that’s not the right fit, you know, that shouldn’t be the first time you, you say, ooh, I don’t think this is going to work for me. So, you know, I think we have a lot of opportunities and choices in so many of the decisions we make in life that leaving school as one of the things that someone else decides for you, I don’t think is supportive of student success.
Steve: 12:51 So I’m wondering if you have a closing thought for parents about creating a sense of comfort in your child’s future if they in you together choose a different path?
Peter: 13:04 I think the thing about that is you have to look at it from the perspective of where are you going to be the most happy, the most productive, the most fulfilled. And if somewhere doesn’t feel that way, I think you need to address that. You know, I talk about the idea that I want students to want to come to school every day. That they’re fighting to get in, rather than fighting to get out at three o’clock. High school shouldn’t be a four year sentence, high school should be a time where, you know, you’re happy and making connections and planning for your future, but also you’re learning and exploring and having opportunities to do things that, you know, you unfortunately might not have as many of those opportunities as adults, as your life kind of, you know, gets into it’s its own sort of groove. And so, you know, I would just say again, as a parent, you know your child best and if you, if you have the opportunity take advantage of finding the right fit.
Steve: 14:28 Peter, would you share the website that folks could find out more about your school?
Peter: 14:33 Yeah, we’re at N W P H S .org, just like Northwest Passage High School .org. And you can find us on social media, Facebook,
Instagram you can see a lot of great pictures of students engaged in lots of really neat projects.
Steve: 14:54 Well, Peter, thanks so much. I really have enjoyed meeting you and I’m hoping I get the travel chance that’ll put me in the area,
because I’d just love to stop in and observe some of your students and teachers engaged in their learning process.
Peter: 15:11 Yeah. We’d love to have you, Steve. As soon as it’s safe let me know.
Steve: 15:15 All right. Take care. Thanks a lot.
Peter: 15:17 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 15:20 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.