Northwest Passage High School: A Conversation with Peter Wieczorek

Q&A   30 July 2019
By Peter Wieczorek, Northwest Passage High School


Our focus should be on how our students are doing today and what they are passionate about. What’s making them happy and interested in learning more, rather than just getting through this phase of their life?

Peter Wieczorek

Q: What path led you to working in learner-centered education?

Peter: This is my 30th year in what I like to classify as “youth work.” I haven’t always been in the formal education sphere, but I’ve always worked with youth in some capacity. I started in outdoor and experiential education—taking young people out into the wilderness, camping, canoeing, and backpacking.

I spent eight years (from 1996-2004) as a YMCA camp director and learned a lot about the organizational side of business—everything from staff training, staff management, budgeting, PR, and marketing. Running youth camps is a 24/7, 365 kind of life. I had a young family and wanted to find an alternative, so I started a master’s program in Elementary Education. During that time, a good friend of mine was the director at Coon Rapids Learning Center in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, which eventually became Northwest Passage High School. He invited me in when he was looking for a high school biology teacher. But, I didn’t have a certificate to teach high school biology yet, so we talked about pathways to make that happen.

I enrolled in a program at Goddard College where I obtained my biology, secondary license. Thanks to my Environmental Education background, I only needed to focus on formal education coursework. Once I completed the program, I was hired as a full-time biology teacher.

I joined the Northwest Passage school board shortly thereafter. Northwest Passage is a teacher-powered school, so we have a teacher-majority school board. I did that for a number of years and in 2012, I took over as the Director of the school, while still retaining some of my teaching responsibilities.

Q: Is it commonplace for educators at Northwest Passage to be hired and supported like you were—coming in without formal teaching licensure?

Peter: I would say education is a second career choice for more than half of our staff. We look at hiring staff who bring a lot of other things to the table beside their content knowledge. Our staff has come from backgrounds working at residential treatment programs, youth camps, and other experiential jobs. They come here with that valuable experience, and we support them in obtaining their teaching licenses.

This works particularly well in special education. Given the challenge of finding special education teachers, we bring people on as paraprofessionals and then support them in getting their special education licensure and moving them to those roles.

Overall, we have a unique environment—we are a small school with a small advisory model, and we do a lot of experiential project-based learning. You don’t get that kind of training in a conventional teacher education program. Having people come in from these varied backgrounds, it’s an easier transition. Not that we can’t do it and haven’t done it with folks who come from more traditional education backgrounds, but it’s been valuable to have people on staff with these diverse youth work backgrounds.

Q: What does the transition look like for an educator who went through conventional teaching programs?

Peter: I have to preface this question by saying that regardless of our staff’s career and education background, we have excellent staff retention. More than half of our staff have been with us for over a dozen years, so we don’t onboard new staff very frequently.

But, when we post a job opening, we are really clear from the beginning that we’re not like most schools. We emphasize that we do things quite differently. While someone’s content area is important, this is much more about the spirit our educators bring and how they relate with young people. Understanding of project-based learning, or at least your willingness to take that on, is very important.

Given all of this, right from the beginning, our pool of applicants is a little bit different. Once they are hired, we spend a lot of time onboarding staff, but the transition goes rather quickly. That’s because the people we hire are already looking for a different environment—they want more autonomy, voice, and opportunities to engage in non-conventional education practices.

Q: At the state level, Minnesota seems to be more flexible than most in allowing public schools to experiment with new ideas. How much has that impacted what you are able to do at Northwest Passage?

Peter: Throughout the year, I do a number of conferences and trainings around the country. When I go to other places, I feel like a real unicorn sometimes. People are often shocked at what we’re able to do as a public school. We’re still required to do state testing in 10th and 11th grade. And, we still have a minimum credit requirement every student must fulfill to graduate from Northwest Passage. But, we have a ton of flexibility for how we get there.

We’re able to create a personal learning model in which students are the owners of their education. And, as educators, it’s really exciting because it’s not teaching the same lesson over and over. It’s working with those individual students to create projects, build personal learning plans, and support them with their portfolio work to really take learning in the direction students want to go.

Q: What do you recommend to folks who are interested in pursuing learner-centered work but face unique local and state policy barriers?

Peter: First of all, I always ask: Are the barriers real or self-imposed? Are they coming from state mandates that provide you with little to no flexibility? Or, is it coming from your district or your local school? I want people to really examine what barriers exist. Often, the barriers are more self-imposed. I don’t want to discount the real requirements passed down from the state, but I still think there’s a lot of flexibility within what you can do.

After that examination, I ask about the mission of their school or district. I inquire whether they feel they are really living up to that mission. Where and what are you prioritizing? What are you making important decisions around?

When I talk to administrators, I ask: What do you really believe in when it comes to learning and are you doing that? If not, why not? And, what can you do to improve? The next steps can be very incremental. At Northwest Passage, we’ve been on our journey for 15 years. You can’t expect to see dramatic changes overnight. But, if you really look at what’s important when it comes to student learning, there are definitely things that you can adapt and do better.

It really comes down to whether or not you can get everyone on board to create a new vision, start the work, and commit to moving the line incrementally. Move from point A to point B and once you get to B, that’s your new point A. Just keep moving, always keeping in mind what’s best for students.

Q: What is one of your favorite stories about a young learner at Northwest Passage?

Peter: When I was a full-time advisor and teacher, I had a student who transferred to Northwest Passage during his 11th-grade year. He had been a really difficult case at the high school down the road from us. When this new student started, I received a warning from the district liaison that this kid was trouble. “Good luck” was basically what I got from them.

When the student came in, he didn’t do a whole lot for the first couple of weeks. He didn’t cause any trouble, but he wasn’t connecting with our culture. As I worked with him, I couldn’t get him connected or committed to anything.

But, one of the things that he did fairly consistently was independent reading. As a school, we start every day with 45 minutes of sustained reading. And, this student read fairly regularly. I thought about that for a moment and said to myself, “Alright, I’ve got something here; let’s see where we can go with this.”

As he would finish up a book, I would have a one-on-one conversation with him. We would explore what he liked about the book. Then, I’d ask what he wanted to read next. I just started feeding him books—he favored suspenseful, military thriller type of books.

He still didn’t participate a whole lot, so I talked to him and I said, “Reading seems to be the thing that you’re really connected with. What do you think about supplementing some of your other work with the reading you seem to enjoy? We can do a lot of things through independent reading.”

That was the hook for him. This is what building trust with a learner is all about. When I told him if this works for you, you can do it, he was all in. He graduated on time and made really huge changes during his two years here. He became a leader in his advisory. Before coming to us, he was always an outsider, not wanting to be too transparent about himself; but we got through to him by simply connecting with a small thing he really enjoyed.

As a teacher, that was a big “ah-ha” moment in my own process. How do you find those little connections, those things you don’t think so much about? Now, as the school director, I talk a lot with staff about finding those subtle gems—those areas that students are interested in. Our role really is to find out how we can connect those things with student learning and create personal learning plans. We have to support students to identify the individual projects that they can do around things that they like and are interested in.

Q: What do you wish people asked you more often about the work you do?

Peter: Too often, at the high school level, the questions are always center around, “How is this preparing students for work or college?” I would really like them to ask more about what students are learning right now that they’re interested in and passionate about. I wish we weren’t so focused on school, particularly high school, having to be about what’s next. Rather, our focus should be on how our students are doing today and what they are passionate about. What’s making them happy and interested in learning more, rather than just getting through this phase of their life?

I hate the idea that high school is: “I just have to get through these four years. I can’t wait until graduation.” Ideally, it can be this amazing testing ground for a lot of different things. It’s a much safer environment for students to experiment, try new things, take healthy risks, and figure out if they really like that thing they have a curiosity about. When you eliminate grades, credits, and other graduation requirements, and you just look at what you want to know more about, you create this desire to build and create yourself around something more than just graduating.

I think that’s where high school can play a really powerful role, and I just don’t see us doing enough of that in this country.

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