Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bucking the Trend

The following is a guest post by Michael Warren, a Social Studies Teacher at Hasbrouck Heights High School in NJ. Michael recently visited New Milford HS and reflected on hist visit below. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrwarren29.

Over the past several years in both politics and education, the word “change” has created a buzz that incites people to believe that something big is about to occur or that there will be a dramatic shift from the status quo.  This is not necessarily the case in all matters and in particular the matter of education.  In a world where politics and education are colliding more than ever, there is a desperate sense of hopping onto the latest trend or buzzword from educational companies and authors that will fix all of our educational problems. This is not the solution.  There is another way, I’ve seen it.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to visit New Milford High School in Bergen County, NJ and spent a couple of hours meeting and touring the school with Principal Eric Sheninger. Like anyone who has followed this rockstar principal on social media (and he knows he’s a rockstar despite his humble protests) there is something happening at NMHS.  As an eager teacher and someone who is looking for a renewed sense of purpose in a field that is becoming mind-crushingly data driven, I expected to walk away with the answers to the big questions in education.  That did not happen.  Mr. Sheninger couldn’t provide me with any of those answers.  Instead, he showed me something else.  Something I found much more important and revealing of the type of school he runs.  

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Mr. Sheninger (and the team that works with him) has enacted a laundry list of changes at New Milford since he became principal several years ago in 2007.  However, these changes were not spurred by the need to develop his students into test taking machines or to succumb to test prep ad nauseum and to strip away choices for his students in order to continuously meet the demand that our state’s politicians keep piling onto our schools.  He centered his changes around a culture.  This culture can be seen as soon as you set foot on campus.  It’s intangible yet completely surrounds you.  There is a focus on responsibility, engagement, and understanding that learning can take shape in an insurmountable number of forms.  

Mr. Sheninger explained to me that these changes to the school culture happened slowly over time and that if a district can be consistent with carrying out these changes, all stakeholders from the highest level of administration to the parents in the community will see the payoff in a well rounded and educated student.  Mr. Sheninger is on a mission to turn every piece of space in his school into an area of learning by investing funds and donations to repurpose old/outdated space. He is also calling upon the students to become a “maker” and create the space they want using their own abilities and talents by letting them be a major stakeholder in the school.  After all, it is all about them, right?

Needless to say, I walked away with a few pages of notes from my visit.  I could list an incredible amount of things I saw that day (BYOD for instance) but if you are reading this blog than you probably already know what NMHS is up to.  While most of us deal with a bureaucratic mess of redundancies when it comes to developing educational policy, New Milford is bucking the trend of reactive policies that come from a changing political landscape. It is well on their way to becoming a center for true college and career readiness by doing just the exact opposite.

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