Mount Mercy Academy begins changeover to Project-Based Learning

The expectation for Mount Mercy is that the process will be ongoing and constantly evolving.The expectation for Mount Mercy is that the process will be ongoing and constantly evolving.

Although Mount Mercy Academy’s excellent performances on the NYS Regents Exams enabled the school to be recognized as the fifth-rated school in Western New York, including a first-place ranking in social studies and a third-place ranking in English, the school has dropped Regents Exams and begun the process of becoming a school that has a Project-Based Learning (PBL) curriculum. The changeover, expected to be a three- to- five-year process, began with the start of the 2021-22 school year.

It may be new to Mount Mercy Academy, but many local schools, particularly private schools, are already using this model. In addition, higher education institutions all over NYS are reinforcing the use of the PBL model as a real-life approach to education. The University at Buffalo offers a PBL math class for advanced students.

Michele Melligan, Mount Mercy’s Head of School, has been the catalyst for the school’s change in its curriculum. Melligan believes it was the right time for the change. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic was the driving force behind the timing. NYS has not mandated the Regents exams since the start of the pandemic,” Melligan stated. “Covid has provided an opportune time to allow students to thrive in a new and innovative approach to learning.”

Project-Based Learning involves critical thinking and a more in-depth analysis of information and learning through questioning and problem-solving for solutions to that question. Students learn from trial and error, they learn to manage their work more efficiently, to have the opportunity to explore areas of interest and to develop a new appreciation for learning. Perhaps the ultimate benefit of PBL is the chance to apply information gleaned in the classroom to real-life situations and to experience deeper connections to the material they studied. 

“I believe that this real-world/hands-on approach will allow students to strengthen their skill sets and further prepare them for their lives beyond the classroom,” Melligan commented.

Melligan feels that PBL is an approach in which students and teachers alike will benefit emotionally. “In a time when both students and teachers are stressed from the residual effects of the pandemic, PBL builds collaboration and teamwork through the relationships that are formed during PBL,” Melligan related. “Students are encouraged to work in groups which provides them the ability to give their own input, listen to others and evaluate one another. They build positive relationships with teachers and may form relationships with community members when working on projects, gaining insight for careers and beyond.”

Students, according to Melligan, will also learn how to more effectively solve problems that are important to them, including real community issues that are directly related to the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy.

The expectation for Mount Mercy is that the process will be ongoing and constantly evolving. The school is developing a strategic plan that will outline the expectations of a vision that encompasses the next three to five years. In addition to the development of the strategic plan, Mount Mercy is working with consultants and providing ongoing professional development for its faculty. 

The school has a partnership with Erie 1 BOCES to provide Professional Development training in Project-Based Learning. Melligan anticipates that this will be a continuous relationship, implementing the anticipated three- to five-year timeline of the strategic plan. The staff has access to an outside consultant at the University at Buffalo who works one-on-one with anyone who has questions or needs assistance within one’s specific area of expertise. The consultant will also provide data and feedback as to how the model is working, what the advantages of PBL are and where there may be areas that need improvement.

Despite the change in curriculum, no impact on college admission is expected. A survey was conducted of New York State institutes of higher education, as well as institutes outside of New York. The results from all those surveyed showed that Regents Exams had little to no effect on college acceptances. 

Although the school is only four months into PBL, Melligan is pleased with the progress Mount Mercy is making and the response from those affected by the change. “Overall, the feedback I have received from parents, students and faculty is positive. Most are excited and thrilled about teaching not to the test, but being able to tailor teaching to an exploratory model,” Melligan remarked. “There are some who have embraced the model more than others, but this is to be expected. Everyone is at a different stage in the process and acceptance of it, but that is OK!”

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