John Graziano came to the Newfound Area School District (serving the towns of Alexandria, Bristol, Danbury, Bridgewater, Groton, Hebron and New Hampton, N.H.) as a superintendent in July 2001, looking for what he calls a philosophical match between his approach to education and the district’s existing strengths. “What I found when I came here was a wonderful sense of doing right for kids and a wonderful sense of community. There were great people offering great programs, but all the pieces didn’t fit the whole. The challenge was to provide people with a pathway to make it all come together.”
Plymouth State University Associate Professor of Education Mary Cornish began working with the Newfound Schools earlier that same year as liaison for the Newfound professional development school (PDS) partnership with Plymouth State. A PDS is a collaboration between a university and a K-12 school to improve teaching and develop best practices through inquiry-based education between teachers, teacher-educators and pre-service teachers.
Graziano was looking for a cutting-edge approach in the pursuit of educational excellence. Cornish, in addition to focusing on student teacher placements at other schools within the district, wanted to help faculty and leadership to “deepen their understanding of practice and improve teaching and learning,” as well as enhance instruction to her teacher education candidates.
Together, they developed and implemented a district-wide initiative called a Personal Interest Plan or PIP, and as Cornish explains, “It’s about teaching children versus teaching subjects. Each student develops a PIP that helps determine his/her individual needs in order to meet desired outcomes.”
“When you focus on the strengths of individuals, you bring out the best in them,” adds Graziano. “I want to see more people be successful and bring any child forward from where they are currently.”
Says Cornish, “John’s educational philosophy is about personalizing education … so everyone has a successful experience.”
Under Graziano’s leadership, the Newfound PDS partnership with Plymouth State began to expand, as did Cornish’s role. She says, “In 2002 the Newfound district held a Community Education Forum to introduce the concept of TAJAKI and to create a mission statement for the district. I participated in this event along with nearly 200 other community members.”
Abbreviated from the Swahili for “education, community and village,” TAJAKI is the foundation of Graziano’s idea, which led to the creation of a vision and mission statement for the district, as well as four outcomes: that every Newfound graduate be an effective communicator, creative problem solver, independent lifelong learner and honorable contributing citizen. It is through the development of each student’s PIP that teachers can best determine how to help individual students achieve the desired outcomes.
“PIP is an individualized plan for each student that follows him or her from kindergarten through graduation,” explains Cornish. “It summarizes each child’s personal profile, goals and accomplishments. The process also seeks parental input by asking families to write letters and provide information about their child’s strengths, accomplishments and needs.”
PIPs were put into place at the start of the last academic year, and have already made an impact, not only on Newfound teachers’ approaches to teaching, but on several of the courses Cornish teaches, and on the student teaching experiences of PSU teacher certification candidates.
As a visible example of PIP in action, Graziano asked the students to create a living history of the Newfound district. “Our destination for every student is the four outcomes, so I challenged them with a project. Fifth, eighth and 12th grade students worked together to create a living history,” says Graziano. “They met with educators and community members, and did historic research. Their PIPs helped them figure out what their individual roles should be—designers, communicators or builders. So in the process of creating the living history, each student’s strengths contributed to the creation of a living history exhibit. It is a model of a school house with a bell. Inside is a rotating documentation panel depicting the district’s history.”
Contemplating the 2004-2005 academic year, Graziano says he’s never been more excited in his 21-year career: “All the pieces are coming together. PIP is a plan for enrich-ment and remediation at all grade levels so each student achieves the desired outcomes.”
Graziano continues, “Plymouth State has been such a willing partner and enthusiastically came to the table to work with us and walk the talk. Mary did her own PIP and she has helped out in numerous ways to integrate our vision and mission. To have the University embrace our ideas validates our efforts. It has been a lot of work to implement and we’ve been pleased to have Plymouth State join us in pursuit of educational excellence.”
Cornish shares Graziano’s enthusiasm, “The Newfound Area School District is innovative, implementing exemplary state-of-the-art practices from which our pre-service teachers can learn a great deal about teaching and learning.”
The Newfound PDS collaboration has also received national exposure. Last November, Graziano, Cornish and New Hampton Community School Principal Julie Flynn presented “Personal Interest Plans: Educational Reform One Child at a Time” at the Phi Delta Kappa International conference. This November, Cornish and teacher Chris Hunewell will co-present “Implementing Student-Led Parent Conferences in the Primary Grades: A Process for Promoting Authentic Self-Assessment, Family Engagement and Individualized Instruction” at the National Association for the Education of Young Children conference. The session is based on work Hunewell and fellow teacher Nancy Tripp did to implement student-led parent conferences using PIP.
In addition, Cornish and PSU Professor of English Meg Petersen received a $3,500 National Writing Project Rural Sites mini-grant to implement a professional development project for the Newfound district. Kicking off in September with a two and a half day workshop, “Culturally Responsive Teaching through Personal Interest Plans” supports K-12 teachers by using PIP to inform instruction, writing to promote cultural understanding, using multicultural literature in the classroom, and building home, school and community connections.
“Culturally responsive teaching isn’t just about racial and linguistic diversity,” says Cornish. “Culture also deals with the values and customs of all children and families. PIP can uncover information that is central to reaching and teaching each child.”
While No Child Left Behind serves as the umbrella initiative, Newfound’s triad approach—community, school and village—seeks a more grassroots approach to educational reform through TAJAKI. Combined with the clinical triad of the PDS partnership with Plymouth State—university, school and pre-service teachers—the end result is an integrated teaching approach for all levels, K-12, college and beyond.—MBH
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