Being a school principal, if you work hard enough and enter with the right motivation, can be one of the best possible jobs around. I did it for 21 wonderful years. It’s also relentless, grueling, exhilarating, vexing, work that sometimes seems to defy gravity. Max DePree once defined good leadership as serious meddling in other people’s lives. I think he was right on, especially about leading a school. Its an element of the job that eludes many.
Mike Berry has been doing serious meddling for almost a decade now in a village in the North Country of New Hampshire, principal of a regional high school that has become a mecca for good teachers, new ideas, and most significantly, a place families can count on to take excellent care of their children. That “taking care” of young people, and of each other is something you can feel in and around the school and it takes many forms.
Over the past three years I’ve appreciated the chance to watch Mike’s work and see some of the outcomes. White Mountains Regional High School is a New Hampshire “School of Excellence” and Berry himself was recently named one of five New England NESSC 2018 “State Champions”, an award given to a select group that push for equitable learning for all students. In Mike’s case, I know specifically what that work looks like, doing more for more kids in his words.
At White Mountains, beware Mike’s serious meddling in your professional life. Its not okay to be complacent. But also expect his energy and support, any unique resources you might need, and pats on the back at just the right time. To work at WMRHS is to choose an active professional life and major commitment to growing your practice in a public setting. That’s some of the magic there, you don’t get to work in private. Berry has converted several classrooms into Silicon Valley worthy collaborative spaces, with all the tech supports needed for documentation, and curation of work. If and when a teacher leaves, their legacy of curriculum thinking and instruction will remain behind in their portfolio of work, intellectual property to be treasured and kept in play. I’m reminded of the wonderful Ivory Coast proverb, “when a teacher retires, it’s like a library burning”. Its not likely to be that way as much at White Mountains.
Among big ticket items, the school has converted to a Humanities approach in grades 9-11 rather than separate disciplines in social studies, history, literature and language arts. That move was based on Berry’s teaching experience, achievement data from Boston and elsewhere, and the simple notion that big ideas and questions are the best way to avoid learning silos. You can find the arts, classical readings or political theory, social media, contemporary issues and more in those classes. An Innovation Academy, focused around STEM and STEAM ideas, will occupy a portion of the building next year. The Spartan Steam Innovation Academy (SSIA) is pushing the frontiers of inquiry teaching, experimenting with alternatives to traditional groupings, scheduling and curriculum thinking, extending beyond the veneer of “PBL” to deeper, more authentic projects, problems and scenarios. Two central ideas of SSIA are, one, to push for more rigorous, long-term individual and small team projects by using the ERC Grand Challenges link as a different and more engaging approach to presenting content; the other is a focus on building each student’s intellectual and inter-personal “tool kit”, skills that help with research, presentation, teamwork, reflection, inquiry and curation.
ERC is proud to be consulting to these efforts, as well as supporting Berry and his Leadership Team in their plans to keep growing and improving and maintaining smart risk-tolerance. Mike has really latched on to two of our big ideas --“moving to a culture of learning” (much harder than it sounds), and living out the old innovation mantra, “first different, then better”. He’s taken those notions and is running with them, cooking them into the work of the school with help from lots of eager staff. His team recently presented their work at the NESSC Conference in Norwood, MA, drawing large attendance and great reviews. They talked about the evolution of their work, and how working in collaboration and in a public setting has fueled their work. On that team with Berry were Molly Campbell, Patsy Ainsworth, Abby Roy and Melissa Jellison.
In more good news, the school learned recently that they will become a regional center for TRRE, a program from the University of New Hampshire that prepares teachers to do high-quality work in rural settings. Practicing teachers from around the region combine 15 months of graduate degree coursework with a full-year teacher residency and initial NH teacher licensure. Having White Mountains Regional High School as a North Country center for TRRE students will allow them to be in one facility under the tutelage of supervising faculty while they focus on creating inquiry-centered classrooms.
And there’s more! Other developments include a new 9th grade Integrated Math & Science initiative, and, one I was pleased to help prompt, a growing collaboration between the school and WhatIf Math out of Boston, see link an exciting new approach to thinking about, teaching, and learning math. Co-founder Art Bardige is headed to the school this spring to work directly with the Math Team and the SSIA. Berry hopes to be among the first high schools in the nation to fly the WhatIf Math pennant, looking ahead to a different, more utilitarian and engaging approach to math.
In another innovation, Berry now employs two school-wide “integrationists”, versatile thinkers and do-er’s with private sector experience who can inject concepts and skills from art, design, music, social media and beyond, to enhance engagement, research and presentation. That’s a job description I hope we will see more of as schools cope with the research on student disinterest in traditional classroom learning. A recently added “elective”, Progressive Styles, taught by Mike Martins, has become a hot spot for students with a range of musical and artistic interests and not one, but two White Mountains students were recently admitted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
As you can see in this last picture, the WMRHS Spartan van is getting around. Serious meddling is paying off. And the winners are the students, families and professionals of a school on the move!
Dr. Larry Myatt,
Education Resources Consortium