A dramatic shift in practice, complex challenges, gleaming successes, and a uniquely memorable PBL World experience, Principal Michael Pellegrino shares how PBL has shaped his time as an administrator and engaged teachers and students in learning experiences that now extend far beyond test scores. 

Tell us a bit more about yourself and your journey as a school administrator. 

I’m Michael Pellegrino, Principal at Waxpool Elementary in Ashburn, VA. I’ve been in administration for 25 years and have transformed several times throughout the process. There was a time when all I was really concerned about was standardized testing scores—and we did very well. I’m not sure I was providing the best education for the students in the building, but it’s hard trying to fix something that doesn’t look broken. At the same time, the old school model of passively learning facts was really no longer sufficient to prepare students to survive in today's world. 

I am very fortunate to work in a county that supports deeper learning, and we chose Project Based Learning as the vehicle to achieve it. We made the decision to go all in and hope that through these instructional practices, the scores would remain the same. Now I can rest knowing my students feel like they can make a difference in society. Solving highly complex problems requires not only skills like reading, writing, and math, but also those 21st century skills—creating, communicating, contributing, thinking critically, and collaborating. 

Can you share more about implementing PBL in your current school context? 

When opening Waxpool, we really made that decision to go all in with PBL, making it a wall-to-wall concept school. We didn't do it because we were looking for buzzwords or the latest trends. We were truly deciding to create 21st century learners, providing students with voice and choice with authentic, engaging activities relevant to their lives. When we opened up, our school was speaking well over 30 languages, so it really helps us meet the needs of all our students, regardless of previous experience, background, knowledge, race, or gender. 

What challenges did you face starting a wall-to-wall PBL school? 

We started slow (go slow to go fast!) then all of a sudden … the pandemic hits. We had the opportunity to go back to traditional teaching, but we made the conscious decision to say, “Nope, we’re going to keep going.” I didn’t care if it was virtual; we were going to figure it out together. And that’s what we did. During the pandemic our goal here was to always have a Gold Standard PBL experience happening in each classroom. One ends, you get two days to reflect, then we’re diving back into another project. One student worked with a teacher online and took it upon herself to create her own project experience to clean up a local pond. Parents realized even their seven-year-old can make a difference. 

Back to those test scores you once were so worried about … How did PBL affect them? 

We didn’t skip a beat. We are still at the top. We made the right choice, and children are getting a better education. If you Google what skills jobs require today, you're going to find the profile of Loudoun County Public School graduates, words such as communicators, creators, collaborators, critical thinkers, and contributors. It’s evident, it’s constant, and it’s helping shape our 21st-century learners. 

What advice would you give to an administrator facing their own challenges with PBL? 

"As an administrator, you can't be afraid to jump on the emotional rollercoaster with the staff. When you’ve been doing so well in the past, you’re nervous. There’s hand holding. There’s an understanding that things are going to be clunky. Once teachers see students self-initiate, they start to see the fruits of their labor."

If you're not experiencing the emotional rollercoaster throughout the process, something isn't right. For us that meant constant check-ins, especially through the pandemic, to fulfill our mission of empowering all students to navigate and problem solve through authentic and digital learning experiences really encompassing PBL. We also made sure to attend PBL 101 and PBL World. Soon enough, learning became authentic, extremely engaging, equitable, and relevant to each individual.

Tell us about your PBL World experience.

Some of our team members had previously been trained in PBL through PBLWorks, while others were entirely new to PBL. In light of these diverse experiences, and recognizing that PBLWorks recently updated the PBL 101 workshop, I wanted to ensure that our entire team had a consistent and comprehensive understanding of PBL. So, we collectively attended PBL World! The goal was for all of us to have a shared experience and leave with a unified understanding of PBL! Which we did! 

"After a few dedicated years to our PBL journey, we were nominated as the PBL School Champion, and we won! It was amazing to be recognized. PBL is working. It’s a part of who we are."

And a fun side note: I got engaged to my wife during that PBL World trip in 2019, right there in Napa Valley.

PBLWorks: Really? That's amazing! Send us a picture! ⬇️


We love stories from the field. If PBL has reshaped the learning experience for your students, we want to hear all about it! Reach out to us at  ✉️ [email protected]. Let's explore ways to share your PBL story and inspire other educators in their journey!