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Four years after poor test scores, Pittsfield schools pull it together

Union Leader Correspondent

January 26. 2014 9:55PM

PITTSFIELD — Four years after test scores put the Pittsfield School District in the bottom-five for high schools and middle schools in the state, the district has revamped teaching methods and increased community involvement, officials said.

“We have made improvement,” Superintendent John Freeman said, noting that “since then our test scores have bumped up to average. We are working on changing the culture as well. College aspirations have gone way up. Five years ago, the percentage of students with college aspirations was well below 50 percent; now we are over 80 percent.”

Part of what has made the quick improvement possible is a $2 million School in Need of Improvement Grant from the state and another $2 million from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation. Dean of Instruction Susan Graham said none of that money has been used on new construction; instead it has mostly been spent on professional development for teachers.

“Probably the thing that we would cite is the degree we are working to make school as interesting and engaging as possible. Instead of the traditional method of teaching, with students in rows and a teacher at the head of the class lecturing, we focus on Student Centered Learning,” Graham said.

Teachers do less lecturing and instead interact with students on more of a one-on-one basis, with desks organized into groups instead of rows, she said.

“Student Centered Learning means that when teachers design lessons, they think about how can they put students in the center of everything, how to make work relevant to students so they find value in going through the exercise,” Graham said. “It also allows for some personalization for students in terms of what books they choose or types of projects they work on.”

Lily Plummer is a sophomore at the Pittsfield Middle High School.

“The teachers listen to you and if you have something you want changed or you can show a different way how you learn, they are so open,” she said. “I have friends who have 50 kids in a classroom with them and the teachers don’t have time for them. They tell me I am so lucky I have teachers who care about us.”

There is a joint student-staff council that votes on all non-policy related school issues. If a student requests it, they can be judged by a group of their peers regarding disciplinary issues, Graham said.

Science teacher Christie Dunlavey said working at Pittsfield is different in every possible way from her previous teaching experience.

“Since coming here, everything I know about education has changed. We work to empower students so they that they feel ownership of the building. I am not teaching at students so much as I am working with them,” Dunlavey said.

Dunlavey said she believes that what Pittsfield has done can be done by other school districts.

Freeman agreed, saying the district’s improvement would not have been possible without the help of the community and an involved school board.

“We wouldn’t have gotten the Nellie Mae foundation grant without the community’s help,” Graham said of the rural community of 4,500.

During a recent visit to Pittsfield, Gov. Maggie Hassan said she was impressed by the rapid improvement in the school district.

“This is just an example of what can be accomplished in a short amount of time when everyone in a community comes together,” Hassan said.

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