My student was struggling and unhappy in her traditional high school. After coming to NWPHS, she began to bloom. Her confidence has soared and she has learned a lot about her abilities and hope for her future.
What happens when you build a staff of educators with a focus on mindset over content knowledge? At Northwest Passage High School (NWPHS), this approach has generated an unwavering commitment to learner-centered education, high employee retention, and a staff that has a diverse range of experience working with youth inside and outside the walls of a school building.
Overall, their focus on mindset—a desire to support the unique learning journeys of every young learner at NWPHS—has allowed a variety of learner-centered elements to come to the fore. Their open-walled focus comes from their foundation as an experiential, project-based learning environment. Twenty times a year, young learners take part in overnight expeditions that, as exemplified by just one learner, can include state park backpacking trips, MAAP STARS Leadership retreats, YMCA Youth in Government experiences, an autism conference in Iowa, Women in Sciences expeditions to New Orleans, and more.
Expeditions out into the world are but one modality through which young people can make their learning personalized, relevant, and contextualized. When young learners aren’t traveling, they are exploring their unique interests and passions on campus. Educators are trained to look for the “little gems” each of their learners leans into—like reading books or public speaking—so they can integrate broader learning experiences through those modes of learning and expression.
While these interests and learning strategies are being discovered, learner agency is being built. NWPHS learners are expected to do far more than just obtain the credits and grades they need to graduate. Instead, they are given the space to learn who they are and how they can direct their own learning, which results in the creation of personalized learning plans. Each plan includes independent project ideas, seminars or workshops the young learner plans to attend, their expedition schedule, and personal goal statements. Overall, these plans show young people how they can take advantage of what’s available to them here and now, rather than waiting for that next phase, be it college or career, where life supposedly begins.
A learner’s self-confidence grows exponentially through NWPHS’s many supportive structures, including their focus on advisories. When a learner first steps foot inside NWPHS, they are welcomed by familiar faces each morning, creating a socially embedded culture that makes room for taking healthy risks and judgment-free failure. This culture allows learners to develop their personalized leadership style—enabling quiet leaders to lead through action and motivational leaders to make their contribution by handing out words of encouragement.
Northwest Passage High School has been on their learner-centered journey for 15 years. The leaders are quick to emphasize what you see today didn’t take shape overnight. Rather, it was a steady commitment to knowing education could be done better, and taking the incremental steps necessary to make it happen.