Extending school far beyond the classroom walls

James Lawrence, a 2017 graduate of the Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, holds wooden duck decoys he made for an art credit his senior year.

James Lawrence, a 2017 graduate of the Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, holds wooden duck decoys he made for an art credit his senior year.


James Lawrence planned to open his own welding business after his 2017 graduation from the Robert W. Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine. Last year, he spent part of his school days at the local technical center, learning welding, preparing to make his vision for his future a reality. He didn’t want to take art classes, and he didn’t have time for them in his schedule, but the art classes were required for graduation.

Enter Susan Johnson, Traip Academy’s expanded learning opportunities resource coordinator. In a conversation with James, she found out he was interested in carving wooden duck decoys. An avid fisherman, he wanted to use the duck decoys for this hobby. Johnson connected James and the school’s art teacher with a local carving expert. To fulfill his art credit, James made three duck decoys and then tested them on the water, proving their seaworthiness. And he did all of this work outside of school time, in the evenings and on the weekends.

James could get high school credit for his out-of-school work because Traip Academy and the Kittery public schools have embraced competency-based education. To get a high school diploma, students have to meet nearly 50 graduation standards, each of which has learning targets associated with them and specific competencies that reflect student learning. The time students spend in school is less important than the competencies they master along the way.

In James’ case, the art teacher certified that he met the learning targets for art with his wooden duck decoy project, and he was set for graduation.

In her time at Traip, Johnson has discovered that a student who was on the verge of dropping out had a love of dogs, and she set her up with an internship at a local veterinary office and helped her get a dog grooming certificate. Johnson has also worked with a student to expand on his retail job at Levi’s, helping him get high school credit for management training that would never have been part of his job as a sales associate without the school’s intervention.

“We’re looking for ways to harness kids’ interests and passions and put them on that meaningful pathway to post-secondary,” Johnson said.

School districts across the country have used the idea of expanded learning opportunities to engage students, offer enrichment beyond the traditional curriculum and partner with community organizations.

We’re looking for ways to harness kids’ interests and passions and put them on that meaningful pathway to post-secondary.
Susan Johnson, expanded learning opportunities resource coordinator, Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine

Many of the students Johnson has worked with risked falling through the cracks of the traditional high school academic program. They didn’t see the value in school – until she expanded their idea of learning and stretched the walls of the high school far beyond its physical building. She has also worked with students in the academic middle and those on the advanced end of the spectrum.

Johnson estimates that about a quarter of the students graduating this spring will get their diplomas having experienced some type of “expanded learning opportunity.” The school hopes to grow that portion significantly, offering students credit for internships, online courses that complement the small school’s course list and service learning experiences.

Johnson sees competency-based education as a key element of making expanded learning possible. The effort prioritizes personalized learning experiences for students based on their passions, tied to competencies the school has already identified as important for graduation. And while there are teachers who want to elevate student preferences in the classroom and tie innovative learning opportunities into the competency-based system, Johnson said more traditional learning experiences for students are still the norm. As long as that’s true, she believes, Traip Academy won’t be getting as much as it can out of adopting a new system.

“We need to make sure that that competency-based system doesn’t just sit on top of a traditional delivery model,” Johnson said, “that we’re changing the conversation about learning expectations.”

Expanded learning, for Johnson, is an opportunity to empower students. And her next mission is to empower teachers to create those personalized experiences for their kids.

Johnson is one of a dozen recipients of the Lawrence W. O’Toole Award from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. (Nellie Mae is one of The Hechinger Report’s many funders.) Johnson plans to use her $15,000 grant to facilitate a professional learning group for educators and administrators, specifically dedicated to building capacity among adults to offer student-centered learning throughout the district.

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