Published March 24. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 24. 2014 11:56PM
Montville - Margie Faustino has earnest brown eyes, wears mala prayer beads wrapped around her wrist and speaks passionately about politics. If you spent a few minutes talking to her, you wouldn't be surprised to learn that she's considering a career in education.
What you might not expect to hear, however, is that she's a three-time high school dropout.
Faustino, 20, completed her graduation requirements in January at Palmer Academy, Montville's alternative high school, and will attend the graduation ceremony in June. She credits Palmer's nontraditional approach with helping her get her education back on track after facing challenges, including homelessness and anxiety.
For more than 30 years, Palmer has been providing another option for Montville teens who struggle to stay engaged in the traditional high school environment. The small program - with fewer than 30 students, three full-time teachers, two paraprofessionals and a social worker - allows staff to try out new approaches to education and give kids the kind of individualized attention they can't get at Montville High School.
In September, Palmer transitioned to a type of curriculum called project-based learning and adjusted the response to behavioral problems, and administrators said they're already seeing promising results from the changes. They're even discussing opening up the school to Montville High students for a few class periods so they can take advantage of the real-world skills and self-guided exploration the program emphasizes.
Currently, to take classes at Palmer, a student must have an individualized education program, or IEP, that explains how to best address that student's needs. Montville High Principal Jeffrey Theodoss said there could be "a whole litany of reasons" why a student ends up in the alternative program, but in the end, there are "hardworking kids (at Palmer) who are learning a little differently."
Palmer students are held to the same standards, take the same tests and earn the same diploma as those attending Montville High, said Palmer Principal Heather Mileski.
"Project-based learning" may sound like the latest in inscrutable educational jargon, but it describes a surprisingly simple concept that's been around for at least a century. David Ross, senior director of programs at the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit that promotes project-based learning, said BIE explains it this way:
Most adults spend their time focusing on projects, whether they're work-related or personal, like planning a wedding or doing home improvements. A project-based approach to education attempts to engage students in a similar way by exploring the answer to a question rather than simply having students read textbooks and sit through lectures.
That means teachers will help guide students through the process of asking questions that interest them, researching the answers and communicating what they discovered to others.
What it doesn't mean, emphasized Ross, is an arts-and-crafts biology project like building a three-dimensional model of a cell that isn't designed with rigorous standards in mind.
It's a model driven by the students' curiosity, and one that Faustino said she and her friends at Palmer connected with. "People want to learn," she said. "And when you give people the energy and the right tools, they're going to take that and put it into their life."
Last August, about a year after giving up on high school for the third time, Faustino ran into Palmer Academy teacher David Gollsneider at a gas station near her house. He told her about the new project-based learning program Mileski was planning and convinced her to give it a try.
So Faustino walked into Mileski's office and signed up for her final four credits of high school.
With the new teaching method, "you could see a change in every student at the school," said Faustino. She was so impressed by the program that she gave a speech about its success at a packed Board of Education meeting earlier this year - a monumental task for someone who ended up at Palmer in part because of her struggle with social anxiety.
In addition to teaching subjects differently, Mileski said, project-based education helps emphasize what she calls 21st-century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Those skills are inherent in the research and problem-solving approach and will help students in the workforce and most other areas of their lives, explained Mileski.
Students like Faustino agree that the projects can have an impact beyond the classroom.
One of the first projects Palmer Academy students worked on was called "You are your choices!" - an exploration of the health effects of different lifestyles and habits. As a result of learning about nutrition and exercise during the project, Faustino said she lost 35 pounds. She's also worked on cultivating healthier habits, making meditation and yoga a larger part of her life.
"Now I go grocery shopping and I'm all freaky about it," said Faustino, who threw out a box of Cap'n Crunch on a recent visit to her grandmother's house, saying it was unhealthy.
The project has even influenced her career plans: Faustino said she wants to work with special education children one day, perhaps as a healthy lifestyle coach. "My goal is to someday have a business where special education kids and teens can go after school to do homework, fun activities, field trips, socialize with peers and have a certified therapist working with them daily," she said.
Although the results of project-based learning can be difficult to track, educators say data indicate that it works.
Palmer tests its students in reading and math a minimum of three times a year. When students last took the assessment in January, with a semester of project-based learning behind them, 80 percent of students' reading scores had increased more than the usual amount between exams. And 87 percent showed higher-than-average improvement in math, said Mileski.
Discipline referrals have steadily decreased since starting the new program, said Mileski. She believes the 21st-century skills taught through project-based learning have contributed to the decline in behavioral problems.
There's some evidence to show that project-based learning improves test scores - or at the very least doesn't hurt them - and a lot of evidence to show that it improves students' attitudes toward school, according to BIE's Ross. He believes teachers prefer it, too. But he said things can go awry if standards aren't enforced.
Project-based learning methods have been around since at least the late 1800s, when education reformer John Dewey promoted the idea, said Ross. But the approach got a "bad name" in the 1970s, when some people were doing experiential and self-directed education without the rigor.
Mileski said Palmer students adhere to the same educational standards as Montville High students, they just do it differently. Rather than subjects being divided into discrete blocks every day, students focus on one project for a certain amount of time, and the project will include some of the subjects - English and social studies, say. Then they move on to another project, which might teach science skills.
Math and reading skills are also reinforced by daily intervention blocks, in which students work on individualized assignments with paraprofessionals.
Teachers and administrators plan projects carefully to make sure all core areas are accounted for. They have the freedom to add short-term projects if they feel the students didn't pick up enough from a previous project, said Mileski, who keeps hefty three-ring binders filled with project ideas, organized by content area, on her desk.
A potential problem with the project-based approach is that it requires strong organizational habits, said Mike Sullivan, who directs Coastal Connections, an alternative program associated with East Lyme High School that offers an individualized educational experience. He has incorporated project-based learning strategies into the program but said some students need extra help handling all the deadlines and planning inherent with a long-term project. But it's a valuable skill to teach, said Sullivan - something that is critical in the "real world."
Blurring the lines
Project-based learning wasn't developed solely with schools like Palmer in mind. In fact, Ross said he's never heard of another project-based program that only admitted students with IEPs. So it's not surprising that Mileski and Theodoss have been discussing opening the school up to students who wouldn't historically come to Palmer.
Theodoss said sending a few Montville High students to Palmer classes - just as some Palmer students currently attend classes at Montville High - will help "blur the lines" between the two programs and provide more opportunities to everyone.
"Kids who are educated together do better," agreed T.J. Butcher, a licensed professional counselor with a Connecticut teaching certification in special education. He added that refraining from isolating a specific group of students is "beneficial to us as a culture and a society."
Palmer Academy's program would be well-suited to any inquisitive, self-motivated student who doesn't enjoy sitting in a classroom, said Palmer teacher Ed Lilienthal.
Sullivan said the Coastal Connections program is already attracting a variety of students. Coastal accepts kids recommended by East Lyme High School - including general and special education students - as well as some from other districts who pay tuition.
"Traditional high school isn't for everybody," explained Sullivan. He said some people think alternative programs are for kids with behavioral difficulties, but in reality they are simply "a different way to approach learning" - one that "puts all the pieces together."
Asking the 'why'
An ideal day at Palmer Academy might be something like last Wednesday: juniors and seniors discussing advertising strategies in one room while, across the hall, freshmen and sophomores are recording PSAs that will be shown to Montville High students.
But as with any group of teenagers, kids sometimes struggle to stay focused. In keeping with Palmer's nontraditional model, the school has developed an unusual way of dealing with disruptions.
On Wednesday, one student stopped working on his presentation and walked out of his classroom without a word to any of the three adults present.
"It's an identified need, it's something that we've worked out with him," explained Lilienthal, one of the teachers in the classroom. The boy used to leave school abruptly, walking out of the building and toward his house. Palmer staff discussed the behavior with him and learned that he just needed to take a break sometimes.
Now, the student might leave and sit in the hallway a while or visit the principal for a few minutes before returning to his desk - something that likely wouldn't be permitted at Montville High.
"It's a controlled situation," said Lilienthal, who added that the staff has set boundaries for the student's breaks.
That's a typical way of handling things at Palmer - it's part of a strategy called "life-space crisis intervention."
"One of the questions we always ask is the 'why,'" said Mileski, adding that Palmer teachers and administrators meet each afternoon to discuss any behavioral issues they've been observing. When they notice a pattern with a particular student, they ask, "Why is this student making this choice?" The next step, she said, is helping the student develop the appropriate skills to modify the behavior in the future.
Butcher -who trained in therapeutic crisis intervention at Cornell University and now lives in Salem - praised that approach. Helping kids in a moment of crisis usually doesn't get very far, but sitting down with them when they're calm and coming up with a plan to address the problem can be "very powerful," he said.
The approach helps students look at the situation critically. Oftentimes, explained Butcher, inappropriate behavior is "an unconscious thing - it's how they've learned to cope." Imposing consequences usually isn't effective in changing those coping mechanisms, he said.
"Relationships are the only thing that works in terms of improving behavior," said Butcher. He said he recognizes how challenging it can be to change a school system, but feels every teacher should be skilled in crisis intervention.
Mileski said she tries to foster a sense of community at the school: staff members try to get to know students as individuals, discussing their lives and interests during down time, and apply that knowledge when they notice something's wrong.
Faustino, who came to Palmer after years of being uncomfortable at school, said the approach was a relief for her. She said she was bullied in seventh grade, homeschooled the following year, and found herself so anxious when she returned to public school that she was skipping classes.
Then she started attending Palmer Academy and found that "it was easier to be coming to school." Teachers seemed friendlier, said Faustino, and there was a sense of camaraderie among the students.
It was more than just talk, she said: Palmer staff helped her find a job, gave her a place to shower and do laundry, helped her find therapy and fill out health insurance forms, gave her a winter coat and helped her overcome her difficulty in math so that she could manage her finances. And one teacher taught a cooking class and explained how to stretch meals to make them last - vital for teenagers living with a limited income or unpredictable circumstances, as many Palmer students are.
"There's so many benefits for kids here," said Faustino. "If I ever thought about becoming a teacher, I'd want to come here."