Northbridge: True north gateway to early college

When Cathy Stickney first arrived in Northbridge as the superintendent of Public Schools, she was that candidate whose eyes were wide open. After all, Stickney knew going in that the Northbridge Public Schools had a low college-bound aspiration and admission rate; and importantly, a low four-year graduation rate than the statewide average.

Worse yet, 25 percent to 30 percent of the highest achieving students were opting out for vocational, technical, or agricultural specialty schools.

In 2014 Stickney successfully proposed that the State Department of Education designate Northbridge as a Model of Integrating College and Career Readiness—one of only five districts statewide.

For Northbridge, this college and career focus deployed a broad range of contemporary best practice pedagogical approaches—creating student interest-based courses; career academies; individualized higher learning plans; applied learning experiences; internships; and importantly, senior capstone projects designed to encourage student intellectual curiosity and ingenuity.

Any parent who has seen the sparkle in their children’s eyes when they catch their first fish, or pet their first farm animal, or see their first robotics lab, knows that kids learn best by having authentic learning by doing moments where they can reach out and actually touch the subject matter. This approach naturally led to the creation of career Academies that bring together multidisciplinary, inter-professional, and academic career pathways.

Stickney is no stranger to substantive education reform. Early on Stickney optimized her experience at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools as a teacher and literacy specialist. Next, she led the Ashland Public Schools starting as the curriculum and grants coordinator and promoted to Director of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction.

In 2013 Stickney joined Northbridge Public Schools as the assistant superintendent for Teaching and Learning—and thereafter as superintendent of schools in 2014. Over time, the breadth and depth of her professional experience provided a strong foundation in curriculum and instruction across disciplines—recognizing that student success hinges on integrating the common core curriculum, while at the same time, creating engaged career pathways.

In so many ways, Stickney’s experience draws on the philosophy and wisdom of our ageless sages. “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed,” notes Sir Ken Robinson in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.  “The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” 

Early on, Stickney recognized that talented students represented a major brain drain from Northbridge, and a significant loss of operating revenue—read as, Northbridge is obligated under state law to pay the full out-of-district tuition and travel costs amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost operating revenue.

When we finally, interviewed Stickney, we asked why Northbridge puts so much focus on Early College and this is what we learned from the Northbridge Model.

  • With Early College, students get exposure to a college campus and have a chance to talk to college students, faculty, and staff.
  • Students get a preview of college student life – a valuable perspective when making the admission decision that may set the stage for years to come.
  • Early college programs expose students to career pathways in diverse fields of fascination and choice – ranging from agriculture to aviation to architecture to engineering to robotics to bio health, life, pharma, and animal sciences to advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology – career connections fueling student passion for learning by doing.
  • Early college programs provide a window of opportunity to assess student aptitude along a spectrum of core education courses to offer rigorous college degree programs at highly selective liberal arts colleges and major regional research universities.
  • Students who undertake dual and concurrent enrollment make a significant impact in reducing their family tuition debt burden by avoiding necessary student loans through cohort-based, blended pricing. This leveraged tuition advantage is based on economies of scale, efficiencies in operation, and non-duplication of program effort. After all, if the high school is going to provide faculty classrooms, labs, marketing, and administrative support, that contribution should be reflected in competitive pricing.
  • Most importantly, early college increases the likelihood of timely college degree completion. This program completion rate is a critical factor in evaluating the quality of the student academic experience.

“We have continued to develop our Academies to include certificate options, college-bearing course work, and experiences at local businesses, industries, colleges, and universities,” Stickney says.  “We have created a Bio-Stem Lab, and this year, we are adding a Manufacturing Lab.  Local industries have expressed a need for individuals who have attained necessary skills and credentials and are prepared to enter college or the workforce with practical skills and training that sets them apart from their peers. We work closely with the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce and local businesses and industries to prepare our students for the workforce of the future.”

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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