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CR northwest passage: Ninth-graders in the Headwaters program at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids pose for a photo. The high school rolled out the program this school year. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Passage High School)

To help make the adjustment from eighth grade to high school less worrisome for students and their families, a Coon Rapids school got creative this year.

Northwest Passage High School, a public charter school, created Headwaters, a program for freshmen to help better acquaint them with high school and Northwest Passage’s project-based style of learning. The school launched the program this school year.

Northwest Passage Director Peter Wieczorek said the transition to high school can be challenging for every student, but Northwest Passage’s style of learning is different than a typical public school’s, so it often takes some additional getting used to.

“We were seeing a gap and longer learning curve there,” Wieczorek said.

To help get students better acquainted with high school, Northwest Passage teachers came together to brainstorm Headwaters, a program focusing on real-world skills that students need to be better at project-based learning, teacher Brandi Greer said.

“We’re working on building community in the building,” said Greer, who is in her 18th year of working at Northwest Passage. “We do a lot of things together as a building.”

A common phenomenon known as “ninth-grade shock” can cause decreasing student grade point averages, course failures, repeating the grade and higher-than-average drop-out rates, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study.

Headwaters was created to combat all of that.

Students are assigned an advisor for the year, whom they share with no more than 14 other students.

The Headwaters program has four advisory groups of up to 15 students apiece, summer orientation, adult and peer mentors and community building. While Headwaters is a stand-alone “school within a school” model, Wieczorek said the students still participate in the rest of the school’s curriculum and activities.

The cohort could fit up to 60 people. Right now the class has 50.

As a class, the students in Headwaters take trips and work on skills while getting to know each other, Greer said.

Headwaters aims to create smaller learning environments to work on tight-knit community building among classmates, Wieczorek said.

To achieve this, Northwest Passage dedicated one of its three buildings to the ninth-grade cohort to further acclimate students with high school, the new style of learning and each other.

While small advisories are rather common at the high school level, Wieczorek said he doesn’t know of any other schools doing the “school within a school” model locally. Northwest Passage staff put the program together on its own, basing it on research and evidence to benefit the students, he said.

School staff members have praised the program for carefully and purposefully setting up students to succeed in a high school setting, Wieczorek said. Additionally, parents have said it’s alleviated a lot of stress associated with the transition from eighth to ninth grade, according to Wieczorek.

One Northwest Passage parent, Sarah Modean, said she transferred her son to the charter school because he needed a different approach to learning. She said since he began school in the Headwaters program, he is “a different kid.”

“He admitted to me that he ‘likes school,’” Modean said in a survey the school sent out about the new program.

In the same survey, other Northwest Passage parents echoed Modean’s remarks.

The school year is broken up into five sessions, each of which have a different theme where students learn various skills.

The school year’s first session theme was food, where students learned about brainstorming.

Currently Headwaters’ theme is the body, and students are learning about research and content.

All the themes and skills relate back to state learning standards, Greer said.

Future themes include civilizations and Minnesota. The last session for the year will be students’ choice.

Of Greer’s 18 years working at Northwest Passage, she said this one has been the “most amazing and dynamic one yet.”

“It’s awesome to see them ... have a voice in their education,” Greer said. “When students have a voice and a choice in what they’re doing, they’re doing awesome things.”

Wieczorek said the Headwaters program has been successful so far. It’s taken the school’s basis of experiential learning and done more of it, he said.

“The initial trial has been really positive,” Wieczorek said. “It’s something we’ll continue to do.”

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