Monument Mountain Regional High School received a grant of $336,709 from Mass IDEAS to redesign teaching and learning at the school.

Monument snags six-figure grant for reimagining teaching and learning

Great Barrington — Schools and nonprofits receive grants all the time, but Monument Mountain Regional High School just received a whopper, even as the school itself is currently shut down to all but remote instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week, the school learned it had received an implementation grant of $336,709 from Mass IDEAS, an initiative launched by Next Generation Learning Challenges with support from the Barr Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Monument was one of only three schools in the state to receive such a grant.

Mass IDEAS’ stated organizational goal is to “incubate high-quality, innovative school models in order to transform K-12 public education across the Commonwealth.” And that’s precisely what the funds will be used for at Monument.

This grant follows a January 2019 grant of approximately $150,000 from Mass IDEAS for planning purposes that allowed the Monument team to school itself with professional development and visit model schools in other parts of the country, such as Casco Bay High School in Maine High Tech High in San Diego. Click here for more information on the planning grant.

Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Kristi Farina. Photo: Paul Kakley

In a statement announcing the latest grant, Monument Principal Kristi Farina said the funds will support a school redesign proposal developed through the Mass IDEAS planning grant process. No, the vintage 1960s high school building is not yet being reconstructed, though there are many who hope it will be one day soon.

Rather, Farina said, “The proposal aims to expand opportunities for students by creating an academy model, expanding advisory and wellness, shifting the schedule and approach to governance, and expanding 21st century learning pathways and proficiencies.”

But what does that mean in plain English? In an interview, Farina explained that “there are practices that are being used across the country … trying to shift what education is going to look like for the next generation. We’ve learned a lot and came back with some things that we think could improve outcomes for students here, and that’s what this grant is really all about.”

The aforementioned “academy model,” if implemented at Monument, would be a shift from what Farina calls the current “antiquated model” that schedules students for eight periods and has them travel to each class for four years.

Instead, instruction could be restructured, Farina explained, so that when students arrive at the school in ninth grade, “they have a team of teachers that they are kind of in a cohort with.”

Succinctly put, the National Academy Foundation defines the academy model as one that blends an academic curriculum with career-themed instruction and work-based learning. According to Education Week, “research has also shown that at-risk high school students graduate at significantly higher rates than their better-situated peers if they attend—and complete—programs in a network of ‘academy’ model schools.”

It’s a collaborative approach to learning and a team approach to teaching. Farina said several Monument programs would be particularly well-suited to this approach, including career/vocational technical education, science, engineering and humanities.

“The academy model is obviously not fine tuned yet because that’s the work of this next year and that’s what the grant is going to support us in doing: figuring out the exact details of how that can look at Monument,” Farina said.

Farina said her team also wants to realign and rethink outcomes for students “around a shift from earning credit to an idea of a demonstration of proficiency to earn credit.”

“Our vision is that students will have more voice and choice in the work that they do so they know what the outcomes should be and they have different opportunities to demonstrate that for us,” Farina concluded.

Sean Flynn, coordinator of Monument Mountain Regional High School’s career and vocational technical education program, makes a point during a 2018 meeting of Monument Next Steps. At left is Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Leading the work since January 2019 were Monument’s team, which includes Farina, CVTE and internships director Sean Flynn, English teacher Emery Gagnon, art teacher Krista Kennedy, parent and Main Street Hospitality Group Vice President of People Eva Sheridan, and student Greta Luf. Community member Iona Smith and student Elana Doren will be joining the team as the work moves ahead.

Farina said her team envisions that students will see more personalized experiences, with a core program for ninth-graders that builds a team approach to support the transition to high school, a strong advisory component to ensure that each student is known and mentored. Another expected outcome is that students will see more closely connected career opportunities.

This will be accomplished, she added, through the expansion of co-teaching and more inclusive practices, the further development of advisory and a robust wellness program, and a shift to practical assessments while building in interdisciplinary, project-based learning with opportunities for student voices and choice.

Monument graduating senior Greta Luf. Photo courtesy Facebook

Luf, a graduating senior, won’t be around much longer, but said she hopes “the implementation grant helps Monument create structures for student voices to be ingrained in our school decisions and conversations. I also hope that the grant helps us work together. Overall, we have made a lot of important changes in my four years at Monument, and I know that this implementation grant will help us progress even further.”

Added Flynn: “We want our students to strive for excellence and to consistently challenge themselves. The Mass IDEAS grant reflects this same spirit and is driven by the belief that through our collective effort and ownership, we can provide our students with the preparation they all will need to compete in a 21st-century economy, lead lives of purpose, and be contributors to a democratic and opened society.”

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said Mass IDEAS described the Monument team’s vision as “extremely compelling.” The funders, he said, cited an appreciation for “the team’s innovative risk taking” and its “contributions to the Mass IDEAS community.”