Northwest Passage High School’s mission statement states: Rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, while building our community. Director and teacher, Peter Wieczorek, describes how the mission is lived by teachers and students.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create an environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow, and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers, in turn, a model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:53 Teaching and learning from a mission. Today, I’m joined by Peter Wieczorek. He’s the director of the Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. I came across Peter while I was exploring an online post with the title, “Hope As a Discipline.” As I searched a little further, I found that hope was a keyword in Peter’s school’s mission. So I followed up and I’m pleased that he agreed to join me here today and I’m looking forward to learning from his experiences. So welcome, Peter.
Peter: 01:37 Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Steve: 01:40 I’m wondering if you’d start with a little bit of an introduction to yourself and then tell us a little bit about Northwest passage high school?
Peter: 01:48 Yeah, sure. I am the director and one of the teachers at Northwest Passage High School. We are an independent public charter school that serves students in 9th through 12th grade from about 25 zip codes. Northwest Passage is modeled on a small school design. We have no more than 180 students on a three-building campus. Our focus is around student-centered learning, primarily in the areas of project-based and experiential learning. We use an advisory model with no more than 16 students for each advisor teacher and students typically stay with the same advisor from the time they start with us till the time they graduate. We use that student-centered learning model that again primarily focuses around project-based learning to help students meet their high school graduation requirements while still providing them with a lot of opportunities and autonomy.
Peter: 02:51 All of our students have a personal learning plan that’s co-created with the student and their advisor. And then we have that strong emphasis in experiential learning. And so we really believe that learning happens beyond the four walls of the school. On any given day, a quarter to a third of the students are often out of the building learning by doing, accessing opportunities within the community. And that’s just really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our experiential learning model. We offer 20 to 25 overnight learning expeditions every year around the state, the country, and even internationally at no cost to students and parents.
Steve: 03:36 Can you just give me a little bit of description of when you say a personalized learning plan? What might that look like for a particular student?
Peter: 03:45 Yeah, so that PLP, that personal learning plan, always starts with the student. And so we ask some initiating questions about what are their goals, what are their hopes, what are they want to experience in high school and beyond? And so it’s grounded in that idea. And then we take a couple of different tracks. There’s obviously the academics side of it that says, you know, you have these amount of credits you need to earn in each of these content areas in your electives to graduate. How do you want to go about doing that? What’s that going to look like for you? Because for us, everything is, is really individualized and personalized. And so we start having those conversations with students about what that path is going to look like. And then we also include other things in there.
Peter: 04:39 What are the skills that you have already, you know, coming from an asset-based model, but what are the areas that you want to improve on? And it’s a living document. It’s not something that as a ninth-grader, you do in your first week and you create this plan and then we never look at it. It’s something that we use for conferences. And when we do conferences, we do sit down 30 to 45-minute conferences. They’re student-led. They’re not what I call the gymnasium rodeo, where you get five minutes in line kind of thing. But really, you know, a student will pull out their PLP and they’ll share with their advisor and their parents, you know, where they are on that journey.
Steve: 05:26 So I want to read a piece of your mission statement because it’s what caught my attention when I first came across your school. The school’s mission reads, “rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, and building our community.” Can you talk a little bit about the rekindling of hope and how that impacts an educator’s role in the school?
Peter: 05:53 Yeah, thanks for asking. About 15 years ago, we knew we needed to revamp our mission statement and our old mission, I think was pretty standard kind of thing. We believe students at this school and it had 21st century and lifelong learners or something in there like a lot of missions do. But what we knew about our students and our learning model was that didn’t really quite fit. And at that time, the majority of our students were coming into us at like, their junior year. Our average age was about 17 and a half. And the majority of those students had not been successful for a whole host of reasons at their home school. They were often behind in credits, behind in grade level in math and reading. And we listened to them in asking you know, how did you get here and what would help? And things kept coming back about if I’d have had a smaller school, smaller class sizes, more opportunities to pursue things I’m passionate about, more adults that connected with me, I might not be here.
Peter: 07:09 And so when we decided we were going to revamp the mission and, you know, you kind of go through this brainstorming process and you start to put things. And one of the things that kept coming back again was hopelessness or lack of hope or lack of future focus somewhere in there. And so we really knew that we wanted to really align with this idea of hope. And the rekindling part of it became just as important because what we knew what was working with our students was they weren’t completely hopeless. There was always something there and we could bring out things. And we kinda came up with this idea of a spark and then you know, it just transformed into – rekindling became that word because it really signified this idea that there were embers there somewhere.
Peter: 08:02 We just needed the conditions to be there to do that. Whether that was, again, connecting with an adult and helping with that. Just even a new environment was often enough to do that. And so that really resonated for us that idea of how do we rekindle hope. And then a few years later after we had done that, and we kind of – we’re really you know, how do we put this into practice and we keep doing, Kiersten Olson came up with her book, “Wounded by School” and so much of that stuff that she talked about is like, this is exactly what we’ve been talking about for, at that time, I think it was five, six years, you know, we had been doing this already. And so it affirmed the stuff that we were talking about.
Steve: 08:48 Well, it struck me as I’m listening to you walk through this that we all need rekindling from time to time.
Peter: 08:54 Yes.
Steve: 08:54 If that’s just a constant, I’m going to run into the opportunities here to rekindle and flame the passion back up. And geez, it’s hitting me – at this time with people coming out of COVID and looking at what schools are like as they start up next fall, I see that’s a biggie for a lot of us to be thinking about.
Peter: 09:17 Agreed. You know, I think there’s a lot of possibilities and I think we learned a lot through this that can make some really significant changes for both students and teachers.
Steve: 09:29 So the next thing that caught my attention is your strong use of the word, “our.” So it’s our hope, our world, our path, our community, what’s the message you’re communicating there with our?
Peter: 09:44 Yeah. The our was very intentional as we’ve built this because again, it’s rooted in all of what we do. As a staff, we’re a teacher-powered school. And what that means is, even though I get the title of director and I get to sign the checks and report to the department of ed, it’s a very flat hierarchy. The majority of all the decisions are made by consensus of the teaching staff. We even take it another step. We’re able as an independent charter school to have a teacher majority school board. And so our board is, you know, mostly teachers. And so they really help direct all of that piece of it so that we don’t have this us and them kind of relationship on the teaching and administrative side.
Peter: 10:42 But then it extends into the students. So much of what we do is co-creating, co-learning. Students and staff coming up with ideas together. You won’t find the traditional teacher in front lecture kind of thing. It will be seeing students and staff sitting at a table planning and plotting and creating kind of thing. We have a role – there’s a student ambassador in each advisory who meets with me at least monthly so that they’re kind of the eyes and ears of what’s going on and they bring problems and concerns, but also opportunities. And it’s very much of, again, a really a shared kind of decision-making. And then we bring parents into that piece too, to say, we want you to be a part of not only your student’s education which often gets lost in high school that, you know, there’s sort of that backing away from that. But we want parents to be a part of that. And also, in being a part of, you know, all of our future planning. And so our becomes that piece, you know, the last part of the mission while building our community, because that’s what it is.
Steve: 12:04 Sounds like a democracy.
Peter: 12:11 Yes. [laughter]
Steve: 12:11 [laughter] Yeah. It’s powerful. Powerful. So what kind of supports do teachers need working in your school to be able to deliver on
Peter: 12:24 I really think teachers need that sense of hope as well. You know, I talked to way too many teachers in other settings who don’t feel like they have a voice that they have a lot of autonomy or that they are valued in the way that I think that they should be. And so as a school, we’ve really been conscious about saying to staff, take your passions, take the things that you want to do and incorporate them in. Students should be able to see you as a fully formed human being and not just a math teacher. And when you do that and you give voice to your teaching staff, the things that we do, you know, that a lot of other schools are like, how do you do that? And it’s like, we don’t even think about it. That’s just kind of what we do and staff satisfaction is very high because of that.
Steve: 13:30 So the staff’s empowered along with the students being empowered. Am I also hearing staff ongoing learning?
Peter: 13:40 Oh, for sure. Because of the structure that we have, we have a lot of different committees. And, you know I always say if you’re a
part of our school, you’re going to wear several different hats. You’re not just, again, a math teacher. You might be on the professional development committee and your voice is important in that in saying, what’s the direction that we need. What do we need to focus in on, where do we need to include students and parents in this? And so, yeah, that empowerment of teachers is I think, one of our definite strengths.
Steve: 14:26 So I’m wondering, do you have a favorite question that you ask in your interviews of candidates to teach there that helps you know whether you’re lining up with a person that’s on the right track or not?
Peter: 14:44 We have a couple that we ask and it’s interesting, even when you kind of frame it in the question that I ask. Even our interviews, it’s a group interview and it often includes other teaching staff, and depending on timing, it may include students in that conversation. But you know, some of the questions that I really like to ask is, outside of your content area, what are you passionate about and what would you want to share with your advisees? What, would you create with that? That always kind of gets the ideas flowing a little bit about, like, this isn’t your typical kind of setup. I also – because we do the expeditions that we do, I also always ask, if you could lead an expedition anywhere, where would you want to go? And that’s always an eye-opener too because I think there’s a couple of ways that that gets answered. Sometimes it comes to the places that people have been to and love and have a lot of connection to and they want to share that, or it’s sort of the dream – where would I, if I had the opportunity where would I want to go and how would I do that with a group of, you know, 14 to 18-year-olds?
Steve: 16:08 What I’m hearing is that you’re really finding out that there’s a real person inside the teacher person.
Peter: 16:17 Absolutely. Yeah. We also used to ask if you were a Harry Potter character, what would that be?
Steve: 16:26 [laughter]
Peter: 16:26 Not as many people quite as keyed in on Harry Potter as they used to be. So that was always a good one too.
Steve: 16:33 That’s great. Well, I tell you that I hope in my travels, I get a chance to be somewhere near because I would just love to stop in and spend a day, not just watching, but engaging in some conversations with both your teachers and your students.
Peter: 16:54 We would love that. We have visitors from all over and once the pandemic is settled and we can safely get folks back into buildings, I look forward to that again.
Steve: 17:06 Terrific. We’ll tell people how to find your website.
Peter: 17:11 Yeah. Easiest thing is yeah, to go to our website, it’s NWPHS.org as in Northwest Passage High School .org. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram as well and we do a lot of highlights of the things that students are doing on those social media.
Steve: 17:32 Well, we’ll be sure to add that link in the lead into this podcast so folks can go back and find it. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.
Peter: 17:40 Thank you for having me.
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