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Somerville High School Embraces Collaborative Education Plan

Somerville High School sign
Along with a new high school building, Somerville is planning a new, collaborative outlook toward education. (Scott Souza/Patch)

Just as Somerville High School is physically transforming during the $256 Somerville School High School Building Project, the school is in the process of academically transforming as part of the Barr Foundation "Wider Learning Ecosystem" initiative. Somerville has joined with the Center for Collaborative Education to create an academic structure aimed at better preparing the city's students for the future.

"We are moving beyond multiple-choice tests to more performance-based testing where they have to demonstrate they are learning in real-world ways," Dan French, Executive Director for the Center for Collaborative Education, said. "The world is changing and we need to put a much greater focus on application as key to opportunity over pure content knowledge. We want to help students meet the demands of the future. It's different now than when everyone went to high school and took four years of math and four years of English."

As part of the program, this school year freshmen and sophomores will engage in one- or two-day trips to explore interests off campus. As the program progresses, the goal is to have them taking part in extended internships, college labs with dual high school and college credit and gain experience in practical work environments as juniors and seniors.

"The benefits of getting this authentic first-hand experience are many," Somerville Principal Sebastian LaGambina said. "Students will be better prepared for their post-secondary endeavors by gaining exposure to fields that they are considering. This experience will also allow them to evaluate the field before majoring in that field at the college level. Students electing to enroll in college classes while at Somerville High School will get a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in college."

LaGambina said the program will build on the relationship the school already has with Tufts University and Bunker Hill Community College, as well as its newly formed partnership with Cambridge College. He added that the school will be hiring a "Beyond the Classroom" coordinator to forge more partnerships and help students find programs that suit their interests. He compared some of the potential internships to the work already being in the school's Center for Technical Education.

While the concept sounds appealing, changing the well-worn habits of generations of academic tradition can be a challenge. That's why French said planning for the Wider Learning Ecosystem initiative included four different committees that involved more than 50 faculty members. The hope being that having more input into the process will allow for greater buy-in from teachers.

"The future is not going to be about memorizing content," French said. "Content will be there for everyone at the click of a button. It will be about collaborating with many different types of people and many different types of personalities. High school students are going to need to be able to engage with the world around them. We are trying to make the walls of the high school more permeable as a way to prepare high school kids for college and prepare them for life."

The Center for Collaborative Education is working with schools throughout the state on similar transformations with French saying there have been some great advances at The Fenway School in Boston. But he acknowledges that implementing the concepts at a 400-student school like Fenway is different than one more than three times its size.

"A school the size of Somerville High is much more of a challenge. It takes much more attention and much more dialogue," he said.

Adding to the challenge has been the upheaval from the building construction, but LaGambina said that students will benefit greatly from both projects when they are completed .

"We are almost there," he said. "I anticipate being in the new building in September of 2020. This initiative is tied into the new building education plan and is being rolled out methodically over the next few years."