Tri-County Early College High School: A Conversation with Leadership

Q&A   14 May 2019
By Chris Crayton, Tri-County Early College High School, and Wil Meiners, Tri-County Early College High School, and Ben Pendarvis, Tri-County Early College High School


I think we as a society would benefit greatly from a lot more conversations about education, how learning takes place, how to structure good learning environments, and the role of various entities and stakeholders in the education of children.

William Meiners

Q: When you started working at Tri-County Early College, what traditional practices did you have to unlearn to better serve your learners?

Ben: When I came on at Early College, it looked significantly different than it does today. We were working with different ways to fulfill the grant we received, which wanted us to provide a student-centered, experiential learning environment. Our ability to meet that goal was dependent upon the staff we had and managing through the turnover we were experiencing.

When I started, we had the option to implement project-based learning (PBL) in our classrooms. That was the focus—changing our classroom practice under a traditional school schedule. I worked with students on PBL senior projects, as well as with students in my social studies class where we covered civics and economics. I had a background in English, so I was trying to learn content and change my teaching practice at the same time.

Even though I had the experiential education background, I believe the challenges in shifting practice are universal. A big one is finding the fine line between enabling student autonomy and providing the appropriate amount of structure. The theory around experiential education is that it’s open-ended, so students have room to learn and grow within the experience.

But, I think the biggest thing for me has been figuring out how to work with the public schooling model that exists and how to fit our square pegs into the round holes. Many times, it comes down to asking permission to try something different that the traditional system isn’t used to seeing.

Chris: One of the biggest shifts I had to make was trusting my kids and my own expertise that we can operate within a competency-based framework. In math, there is this false sense of security that if a student does enough problems and passes the quizzes and tests, then you can trust they understand the material. It’s an ongoing struggle to step outside that familiarity and trust the process of a learner-centered system.

Wil: After having many conversations with colleagues during my first few months at the Early College, I realized how different this place was compared to my traditional high school. I knew it was different on the outside, but being here has exposed me to just how different it really is.

A big part of that is how different my job is here. I spent over a decade lesson planning every day. Here, I don’t lesson plan. I don’t ask, “What lesson am I going to teach today?” Rather, I ask myself, “What learning process am I going to help students engage in today?”

That has been transformational for me. I have to give up a lot of control that a traditional classroom teacher has and trust that the process is going to be effective.

Q: What has allowed you to “trust the process,” rather than falling back to traditional practices you’re more comfortable with?

Wil: One of the things I noticed right away when I arrived was the culture that has been built here. The questions that students ask are so different because there’s this culture that has developed a new level of trust right off the bat. It starts with the principal’s trust in the teachers and filters down. We have a curriculum planning group that is teacher-led. We meet twice a week for about two hours, which creates this great sense of collaboration and support as we move further along this learner-centered work.

Ben: When I came in, the whole staff wasn’t working together in the way that we are now. However, that trust from our principal, Alissa Cheek, has been very clear from day one. She recognizes everyone as a professional and trusts you as one to make the decisions you need to make in your classroom and to bring your ideas to the staff at-large. As different staff cycled through, we began developing a synergy among everyone—this has been a huge motivator to be here and to do the hard work.

Another thing that helped me was seeing the students who trusted me as I was changing and refining my practice. I believed so much in experiential education, I would shoot myself in the foot in the beginning because I erred on the side of experience versus guidance. However, I discovered just how much students could do when you give that autonomy. They’ll surprise you. And, even though I was only seeing it from a few students early on, it allowed me to push forward and find ways to make it work for all my students.

Chris: The only thing I would add is that not only does our principal trust and support us within Early College, but she also prioritizes the most important tasks required of teachers (e.g. project planning and development, connecting course content to projects, and supporting students). She is an effective bridge between teachers and stakeholders in a way that gives us the most time to support students.

Q: How has your idea of leadership shifted during your time at Early College?

Ben: I’ve gone through a total transformation in understanding what leadership is. This has been the longest job I’ve had during my career, and I think it has been the best one for me. If you’re going to do innovative work, you have to feel some level of autonomy and confidence.

We’ve developed leadership capacities within ourselves to such an extent that we’ve gone fully Teacher-Powered. We make decisions about the school—discipline, scheduling, and hiring—in collaboration with our top-level leadership. This leadership development has allowed everyone to honestly see everyone, including the learners, as leaders.

Wil: In the school where I was previously, I was in leadership roles as the Chair of the Social Studies Department and a member of the school improvement team. What that meant in terms of leadership was very different. Without any official title, I have way more leadership responsibility and expectation at Early College. Leadership isn’t about titles here. Rather, it’s about being empowered to actually make decisions about the school; decisions that impact students, teachers, and everyone at the school.

Chris: Our school model is built around this idea of leadership. From students who are just starting all the way up to our principal, we each have a role and that ties back to the trust we have in each other.

Q: What is the greatest impact you’ve seen on learners who attend Tri County Early College?

Chris: For math students, I believe it is often the most stress-inducing subject they touch. They come into the subject with a fixed mindset. Either they’re good in math or they aren’t. To come into an environment where I’m not asking them to fill out a worksheet breaks that mold of what they expect. Instead, I am giving them an open-ended problem where they get to choose how to approach it—I’m able to say, “Wow, that was a really good idea in how to approach that problem. You’re a good math thinker.”

I’ve had multiple students tell me, “No one has ever told me I’m good at math.” It’s silly because they really are. What they aren’t good at is math class. They’re great problem solvers and thinkers, but because they haven’t been good traditional math students, they think they have nothing to offer.

Ben: The theme of coming out of your comfort zone is something every student would speak to. We work with rural students in an area of high poverty, so we get a lot of students with adverse experiences and improper coping mechanisms. What learner-centered education does is like a double-edged sword. If you focus on the learner, the students are going to discover a lot more about themselves that they might be hesitant to confront. So, we have to play that well and ensure our students have the support they need and actually feel the support is there for them.

When we focus on the learner, we level the playing field. Everyone quickly realizes the skills that we push are open-ended and can’t be attained by memorization. We take the focus off of classes and tests—the ways we originally understand how school works—and bring everyone out of their comfort zones. We give them responsibility over their education, and they quickly realize which skills they have and which ones they don’t. That’s where we come in—making sure they don’t feel bad about the skills they don’t have and highlighting the ones they do have.

I want to share a particular experience I’ve had. Each year, I work with students who aren’t yet able to pursue college-level English coursework during their junior or senior years. They’ve always seen themselves as “low achievers.” Even if it’s just in English, they carry that identity into other areas of their lives. When I give them open-ended pathways to explore in that small group and one-on-one with me, they start to shift. I had one student who halfway through the semester began to realize she liked English and simply misunderstood what exactly English was. Something as simple as that, to have a student tell you she likes the subject she thought she hated, is really great.

Q: What do you wish people would ask you more about your work?

Chris: Rather than focusing on the typical teacher challenges everyone knows about, I want people to ask more about the intellectual challenges involved in trying to improve as a teacher and as a member of a faculty deeply engaged with trying to improve a school. Of course, the daily struggles with balance, working with students, etc. can be difficult, but the real engagement for me is in the research, planning, and in-class applications that keep me motivated as a professional.

It’s a wonderful and meaningful puzzle—how to be a good teacher—but one that I don’t think is often recognized. When my children were small, I stayed home with them. The way that our culture perceives that “mom” work is very similar—we focus on the small daily challenges more than the big picture of the interesting work involved in deciding how to be a good parent.

Ben: Two things have come up for me. I wish people asked, “How can I help?” Our school is committed to providing an experiential teaching and learning environment that teaches the transferable skills students need along with the content of their courses. We’re constantly reaching out to engage community and business leaders, parents, and the students themselves to get them doing real work, making real strides towards careers and college, and addressing real problems in their communities (local, regional, national, or global). So, we need all the help we can get, and I believe it takes a community to educate the whole child.

The second thought branches off the first. I wish more people asked, “Why is your school different? What is your education philosophy?”  Often, people who ask about my work are intrigued and ask lots of questions about what we do. They usually agree that we provide valuable experiences that are good for students in today’s world. But, rarely do I get the chance to explain the context for this difference, as people are very used to understanding schooling in one paradigm. I’d love to stumble upon more conversations where people are discussing whether schools are meeting our students’ needs, what the purpose of schooling is, and what the most valuable things we can do in schools are—even if those things may contrast with our typical experiences growing up.

Wil: My thoughts are similar to Ben’s. I’ve had a lot of conversations about my work since making the transition to Early College, and I have enjoyed talking about the distinctions of PBL and competency-based education. I wish more people asked me about my philosophy of education. I think a lot of people’s ideas about education are based primarily on their experiences of education. I think we as a society would benefit greatly from a lot more conversations about education, how learning takes place, how to structure good learning environments, the role of various entities and stakeholders in the education of children, and so on. I believe a practical discussion about these questions would encourage more people to rethink our education system and support a shift where schools like ours become the norm.

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