Sunday, April 3, 2011

Project Based Learning a success at Northwest Passage Charter High School

Project based learning works for students at Northwest Passage Charter High School, Coon Rapids.
In project based learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem or challenge, according to the PBL website.
Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st century skills (such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking) and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations, it states.
But Northwest Passage wanted to find out if PBL has prepared its students for college.
A survey by the school shows that it does, according to James Steckart, director, Northwest Passage Charter High School.
This year staff conducted a longitudinal survey of previous graduates in the 2006-2010 time period.
Staff used phone calls and social network sites to contact the former students.
“The results confirmed what we always suspected,” Steckart said.
Staff were able to contact 85 percent of graduates from 2006-2010 and over 60 percent either attended college or are currently enrolled.
According to the Center for School Change, only 54 percent of Minnesota students enroll in college after completing high school, Steckart said.
“We are very encouraged by this data,” he said.
In addition, Steckart said the school is encouraging more of its students to take advantage of the post-secondary options law, which allows juniors and seniors in high school to go to college at no charge.
“This year 30 percent of our seniors took advantage of this program,” he said.
According to Steckart, the charter school started in 1999 as Coon Rapids Learning Center and for the first five years, students came to school for half the day and participated in a structured work experience program the other half of the day.
“In 2006 we changed the name to Northwest Passage High and completely revamped our program,” Steckart said.
“Our school embraced experiential project based learning and field studies.”
Now students come to school the whole day, Steckart said.
Half the day the students are assigned an advisor who helps individual students and small groups of students design projects to meet state standards, he said.
On completion of their projects, students must defend their learning in front a panel of three judges.
Their final project before graduation is one that students must present at a public exposition.
The second half of the day, staff design six-week long seminars that focus on a multi-disciplinary approach to learning while meeting state standards, Steckart said.
During field studies so far this school year students have been sailing, farming, carving and exploring cities and historic sites all over the country, he said.
“Students have been heavily involved in service projects both locally and abroad, working with Feed Our Starving Children, working with elementary schools and most recently working in Guatemalan communities, building roads, homes and community buildings,” Steckart said.
According to Steckart, Northwest Passage uses a sophisticated software program to track all the learning called Project Foundry.
“When we made the switch our attendance rate went from 67 percent to over 80 percent in one year, Steckart said.
Project Based Learning promotes fundamental adolescent motivational needs – autonomy, self-mastery and purpose – through the promotion of hope and relationships, he said.
“We believe and our students will concur that this type of educational design is what is lacking in traditional course driven educational models,” Steckart said.
“When surveyed our students have a higher sense of engagement, autonomy and purpose than their peers in traditional schools.”
Current enrollment at  Northwest Passage is 190 students.
While there are a large percentage of students that have not been successful in the traditional school that mix is changing, Steckart said.
What attracts them to Northwest Passage is that it maintains a 1:15 student to teacher ratio, he said.
“We provide over 45 expeditions for our students free of charge,” Steckart said.
“We give our students real choice on how they want to learn, every student is given an individualized learning plan.
“We focus on teaching real skills necessary for the 21st century.
“We believe that the way we teach at NWPHS is the future of education for all learners.”
The PBL website details the focus of the learning tool.
• It’s organized around an open-ended driving question or challenge to focus students’ work and deepen their learning by centering on significant issues, debates, questions and/or problems.
• Creates a need to know essential content and skills.
• Requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new.
• Requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and various forms of communication.
• Allows some degree of student voice and choice because students learn to work independently and take responsibility when they are asked to make choices.
• Incorporates feedback and revision through peer critique.
• Results in a publicly presented product or performance.
According to its website, through PBL students gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and standards at the heart of a project.
Projects also build vital workplace skills, lifelong habits of learning, allow students to address community issues, explore careers, interact with adult mentors, use technology and present their work to audiences beyond the classroom.
Northwest Passage is a public charter school open to any student in grades nine through 12. It is sponsored by Bethel University.
Peter Bodley is at

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