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Jim Kenyon: Redefining Schoolwork

Going to school and doing well in class wasn’t a top priority for Alex Gelinas during her early days at Mascoma Valley Regional High School.

Her family had moved from northern Georgia to the Upper Valley midway through her freshman year. “It was a culture shock coming here,” said Gelinas, now a senior. “I had a hard time adjusting. I didn’t feel that I had many friends. I was definitely struggling.”

In the spring of her junior year, Gelinas’ guidance counselor suggested she talk with Sarah Copps. Copps runs Mascoma’s ELO program out of an office not much bigger than a broom closet that can be accessed by walking through a science classroom.

Having grown up in the ’70s, I thought ELO was the acronym for a British rock band. But in education parlance, ELO stands for Extended Learning Opportunities. The New Hampshire Department of Education’s website describes extended learning as the “primary acquisition of knowledge and skills through instruction or study outside of the traditional classroom.”

ELOs are not about “seat time,” as Copps calls it, or showing proficiency on standardized tests. Copps, who doesn’t have a teaching background but holds a law degree, was put in charge of Mascoma’s program seven years ago, which is about the time that ELOs made their debut in New Hampshire.

“The main thing is it’s student driven,” said Copps, who is working with 20 or so students this year.

In New Hampshire, the decision to offer ELOs is left up to each school district. They sound a lot like what we called independent study in my high school days. Except much of the learning takes place off school grounds, which allows ELOs to work like an apprenticeship, said SAU 62 Superintendent Patrick Andrew.

“Not every one of them is a home run, but they’re really valuable when done well,” said Andrew. “They make learning very personalized and can be a very empowering piece for kids.”

ELOs are often seen as a way to put a student on a career path. For instance, Copps is working with a student interested in getting into the restaurant business. As part of the ELO, he’s talked with restaurant owners about putting together a business plan. A banker provided advice on business loans.

Although open to all Mascoma students, ELOs tend to attract students who aren’t “doing well in a traditional classroom,” said Copps. “The hope is that (through the ELO) they can be awakened to learning and bring that positive experience back into the classroom.”

In their first conversation last spring, Copps had no trouble identifying Gelinas’ passion. “I want to be with my horses,” said Gelinas. “That’s when I’m the happiest.”

Her first horse, Big Red, cost $100. “My grandfather got him off a slaughter house trailer,” she said.

Gelinas told Copps about Luke, an American Paint colt that she was training. With Copps’ help, Gelinas designed an ELO that allows her to work with Luke for three to four hours every afternoon. After morning classes, including Spanish III and AP Statistics, Gelinas leaves school at lunchtime for her grandparents’ farm. “My ELO made me want to come to school and work harder,” she said. “I started caring more about my grades.”

For her ELO, she created a blog, in which she covers a variety of topics, including how Luke went from being a stallion to a gelding. She’s written extensively about Luke’s “attachment issues,” too. “I am his momma and he loves me very much, but it has gotten to the point where if anyone else works with him, he is absolutely horrible towards them... So here I am with an overly attached horse and I have no clue what to do.”

Gelinas consulted veteran trainers and read books, including Think Like a Horse, on different training techniques. “She’s taken charge of her learning,” said Copps.

There’s a community service component to her ELO as well. Gelinas gives riding lessons to a 6-year-old girl who is hearing impaired. To pay for her own training lessons, Gelinas got a job serving meals at a retirement complex on weekends.

I think it’s fair to say that Gelinas has learned lessons working with Luke that she never would have gotten in a classroom. “When you are an equestrian your horse is like your child,” she wrote. “We all get wrapped up in horse showing, training...but we forget about what having a horse is truly about. We start just getting in a daily routine where we ride and train and do nothing else. We miss out on amazing experiences, where we could be bonding with our horses.

“Cleaning up their manure, brushing them, feeding them, just hanging out in the pasture and talking to them, is so important in building a bond with your horse.”

When applying to colleges, Gelinas included her lengthy blog. “I never pay attention to how much time I spend because I enjoy it so much,” she told me. “It’s not like writing a paper for an English class. It doesn’t feel like work.”

In the fall, Gelinas is headed to Georgetown College in Kentucky. She picked Georgetown, a small, liberal arts college in the heart of horse country, largely for its equine scholars program. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was be around horses,” she said. “They’re a lot less judgmental.”