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How Student-Led Conferences Could Help Rural Schools

Eight years ago, the Pittsfield school district in rural New Hampshire had one of the state's lowest-performing schools. Parent involvement was low, with less than 20 percent of parents showing up for parent-teacher conferences.

Then, in 2012, the district received a $2 million grant from a foundation to focus on student-centered learning, which gives students more choice over their learning and also increases the responsibility students have over their academics. As part of this model, the district adopted student-led conferences, which put kids in charge of relaying their academic progress to parents.

This model is examined in a recent story by The Hechinger Report, which suggests that student-led conferences could help rural schools deal with chronic issues, like low college-enrollment rates and a lack of parent participation. 

In Pittsfield, officials say the conferences are teaching students invaluable lessons and skills. Students must organize the conferences with school officials, invite their parents through a formal letter, and prepare a work portfolio. During the conference, they present their work to their parent or guardian, as well as their progress toward various goals.

District officials say the process is helping students set goals for their future, and parent participation has increased. Now, 90 percent of parents attend conferences. A key feature of the process is that the district accommodates parent schedules, which is often needed especially helpful in rural districts where there are few public transportation options and work commutes can be lengthy.

Other rural districts have adopted the student-led conference model. When I visited Piedmont, Ala. in 2014, students and district officials told me that they used the model to encourage more parent involvement and put students in charge of their learning and progress. The district has adopted an extensive technology program and has a town-wide wireless network, which allows students to conference with their parents even if those parents can't attend in person, such as those who are in the military.

According to the article, there are some potential challenges to this approach. In Pittsfield, school officials have seen parents and children disagree about long-term goals that are brought up during the conferences, such as attending college out-of-state. Parents of juniors and seniors also may start seeing the conferences as "familiar and even rote," after attending for several years, which means the content of conferences may need to change for older students.

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