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High school career center shifts to project-based learning focus

No more ‘deficit thinking’

Northview — When Paul Dillon learned he was behind in a few credits last year, it solidified his interest in switching to Northview Next for the rest of his junior year.

It just so happened that for his senior year, one of his favorite teachers, Betsy VerWys, was headed there too. Right away this fall, she had an ideal project to help get him caught up and settled at his new school, the district’s alternative high school.

At the high school, Paul had been on staff at The Roar student news site under VerWys’ direction.

“I knew we had a real need to have some things redone on our website, to make some things more interesting to represent who we are here,” VerWys said. “Well, Paul has journalism skills, right? So he’s using those skills to work on the site and in doing so, that’s going toward his English credit because it’s part of the narrative standards.

“That’s hope-building, especially for a population of students that doesn’t always feel full of hope.”

Soon, instead of merely posting a name and a headshot of staff members, Paul will be sharpening his journalistic chops by putting into words what he hopes is more of an essence of each one. 

When it comes to VerWys, for example, he plans to convey the “great person she is overall: one of the kindest teachers, one of the most open-hearted people I know. Her style of teaching, she treats everybody like a son or daughter, but tough love. She’s been thriving here.”

“Being on The Roar helped me see my potential, which Mrs. DeWys helped me unlock,” Paul said. “It’s opened so many doors for me to see what I maybe want to do.”

Student Brandon Gosnell works in the greenhouse

Standards-based Approach

For VerWys, the move to “my dream job,” as she calls it, is another step toward the goal to reshape Northview Next as a project-based career and learning center.

And, probably most significantly, she said that includes shifting “deficit thinking” to a standards-based approach. 

That means rather than issuing letter grades, the program works to help students accomplish the same standards as their peers in traditional school, but through projects that align with their interests.

“One of my things in talking about moving to this program was that I am sick of the language of ‘credit recovery,’” VerWys said. “I’m done talking about kids digging out of failed credits. Let’s be done with that. Let’s be forward looking.

“It’s like banking. If you are in debt, it’s so depressing to think of it as having to dig out. But if you are setting your mind to looking forward to what you will be able to save, that’s more hopeful.”

Senior Paul Dillon is putting his journalism skills to work on the school’s website to satisfy English learning standards

Doing School Differently

Northview Next Principal Brent Dickerson called the project-based model “a whole new way of instruction.” 

Drew Klopcic is dean of students at Northview Next, a program begun last year that aims to expand career pathways and provide flexible learning options.

Staffed with district teachers, support team members and administrators, Northview Next includes two distinct learning options for grades 9-12: the Learning Center and the Career Center.

At the former East Campus on the East Beltline, students typically participate in two years of skills-based classes Monday through Thursday. They then fan into the community on Fridays for job shadows, internships, co-ops and part-time jobs. The district partners with Jobs for Michigan Graduates Youth Solutions, which provides the curriculum for a variety of industries including mechanics, art, technology and real estate.

“It’s a really great program that (teaches) them employability skills, getting them into a career-minded curriculum. It’s very powerful,” Klopcic said.

Given the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s in-person learning at the Career Center happens in two cohorts of about a dozen students each for two days each week. Core classes are taught online, and internships have been paused.

Klopcic said the biggest change for students who were at Northview Next last year is that there is no longer the usual, scheduled six-hour school day. Gone are letter grades; instead, concrete standards are detailed on a hybrid transcript of sorts they call the “My Academic Plan” standards that align with the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates curriculum. 

Senior Nicole Ottenjan takes part in decidedly delicious project-based learning (courtesy)

Task-oriented Measures

When internships resume, Dickerson said, skills honed there will go toward fulfilling Measure of Academic Progress standards. “We’re removing the stress and anxiety of grades, and instead just focusing on accomplishing specific tasks.”

Explained Klopcic, “They don’t have English 9, they don’t have algebra 1 … it’s ‘What do you need to do to accomplish your standards for today?’ It could be a couple students working on an online class, a couple others working on a project geared to English standards. We’re able to accommodate each student based on what they need to do that day.”

For a student to show he or she understands a particular algebra equation or a chemical reaction, for example, “you’re not going to show it on paper,” Klopcic said. “You’re going to be doing it in the greenhouse.”

“We’re trying to reduce the stigma of alternative education. So many times when kids come in we look at ‘what haven’t you passed?’ or ‘what are you lacking?’ Now we want to look at ‘what do you know, what standards do you have and how can we help you get to the next step?’”

VerWys envisions someday having four times the students at Northview Next: “That’s the goal: What if we could fill these buildings with students who don’t learn the traditional way well?” 

Dickerson said the plan is to also add staff to teach more core subjects using the PBL model.

Northview Next Career Center students, from left, Brandon Gosnell, Emma DeVries, and Alex DeLeon collaborate on a banking skills project (courtesy)

Students Drive Learning

VerWys said the Career Center focuses on soft skills such as communication, collaboration, leadership and problem-solving. To begin the year, she and parapro Nick Smith took turns with each cohort, dividing time between the greenhouse and a cooking class.

“We were trying to think of ways to get kids to learn those (soft) skills without being in a classroom,” she said. “And those will then go to build employability skills.”

Switching the Career Center to a standards-based approach, she said, means students drive how goals are accomplished.

“The whole way I have taught has been teacher-driven, very ‘this is how we’re learning it and this is what we’re trying to produce,’ ” she said. “This model, students are getting to choose what that looks like.”

For example, the first week of school was devoted to food: where it comes from, food stamps, food deserts, how it is transported, “the whole nine yards,” VerWys said. “As a result of that, 100 different topic ideas came up. Kids got to decide what they wanted to learn more about. 

‘I’m done talking about kids digging out of failed credits. Let’s be done with that. Let’s be forward looking.’

— teacher Betsy VerWys

“I’ve got one learning about grass-fed beef, another student who is expecting a child is digging into infant nutrition — that’s a super-practical thing she’s deeply invested in. I’ve got another student researching food banks within walking distance of our district. She’s creating a poster to hang in local areas.

“That last student, I can’t get her to write an essay, but she’s so invested in this information-gathering, and assembling and presenting and disseminating. … This is re-thinking what PBL looks like in a very student-centered way.”

Senior Brooklynne Richards worked on a banking project with two classmates, and in developing a brochure aimed at peers found it eye-opening herself.

“I thought all banks were basically the same and have the same things to offer no matter where you go,” she said, shaking her head. “They are not.”

“I like it better this way,” Brooklynne said of learning by doing. “I’m much more of a visual learner.”

Dickerson said he sees the positive effects of the switch every day.

“They’re interacting with us and with one another in a calmer, more productive manner,” he said. “I’m not hearing the frustrations like I used to, with everything about grades, grades, grades, and having to struggle with taking a test two or three times. 

“That’s been removed but they’re still hitting those standards, in ways they have passion about, ways that adhere to their learning style.”

Some of the My Academic Plan standards used rather than letter grades
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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