Rigor, relevance, and relationships define the student and faculty experience at Colchester High School. From daily primary instruction to transformative district initiatives, intentionality and innovation are at the heart of what we do for the learners we serve. Despite recent strides in personalization, flexible pathways, and proficiency-based learning, we have room to grow in the areas of student leadership and community partnerships, both of which are vital to the economic and civic future of Vermont.
People who spend time in the outdoors develop a sense of place, an emotional connection to where they live, and a personal stake in the future of their communities. Experiential and expeditionary learning (EL) engage students with direct experiences and develop assets such as perseverance, mind-set, grit, and self-efficacy. A personal connection to our landscape can also help students struggling to build emotional intelligence, overcome digital addiction, and gain equitable access to the tools and supports that help them regulate their bodies and minds in an increasingly confusing world. Inspired by the century-old pedagogy of John Dewey and local scholar Amy Demarest, I have challenged my students to "let the place do the talking" through several units here in Vermont and abroad. In these classrooms students report higher levels of engagement, a deeper personal connection to content, and expect long-term retention of their new learning. Charter and private schools around the country have adopted EL models school wide. Students and families seek out these classrooms because they work. It's time to further normalize the EL and place-based model in Vermont public schools as an opportunity for all learners.
As a Rowland fellow I will reimagine the physical space in which students learn. I will design a new academic pathway that combines the practical skills of leadership, inquiry, risk-taking, and collaboration with strong primary instruction and academic rigor. I hope to increase the capacity of Colchester High School, and other schools in this state, to engage secondary students with the natural landscape and the unique community resources here in Vermont, creating a new generation of rooted and invested Vermonters.
Over the past decade, Vermont schools have moved education on a path from rigidity and standardization to flexibility and personalization-a radical shift intended to redesign public education to fit the needs of the 21st century. The biggest obstacle we face, though, is public education's troubled history of inequity. Since its creation, public education has struggled to move beyond its outdated industrial model that has disempowered marginalized populations over time. At Winooski Middle/High School (WMHS), we confront the ramifications of this history each day as we work to create a system that will remedy the wrongs of the past while preparing our diverse population of students for the demands of the future. As we look to flexibility and personalization to address the latter, though, we heighten the need to design for equity; without doing so, we risk perpetuating injustice and widening the opportunity gap. My Rowland Fellowship will address the questions: "How might we design flexibility and personalization through a lens of equity? And how might we embed a reflexive and inclusive process focused on equity into the fabric of Winooski?"
To guide the project, I will use the Liberatory Design framework-an equity-centered design process created by the Stanford school and the National Equity Project. The first phase will focus primarily on research. At the outset, I will form a Liberatory Design team comprised of student, parents, and educators. Together, we will empathize with the community and use our insights to define the equity challenges facing WMHS. Through readings, discussions, and field site visits, we will also dedicate much time to learning about proficiency-based, flexible learning environments and the cognitive demands they require. During the second phase of the project, the Liberatory Design team will develop prototypes that address our own equity challenges and test them with stakeholders to receive feedback for refinement. By the end of the year, we will have designed and started to implement structures that will help all students access more flexibility. With a system grounded in equity, we will see our students develop a deeper sense of purpose and have the means to pursue flexible and more meaningful journeys.
If we could design our schools today, based upon everything that we know about how students learn best, would these schools look anything like the educational institutions that we currently work in? Unfortunately, the answer is likely no. So what would the ideal school look, sound, and feel like? How much seat time, screen time, or outside time would students have? And classrooms. how would they be different? Do we even need them?
My project is the development of the Paine Mountain Experiential Learning Center, which serves the schools and students of the Central Vermont Supervisory Union. For the past 8 years, I have been working in the STAR Program, an outdoor and experiential alternative program for Northfield Middle High School. In that time, I have developed and implemented a highly engaging, experiential curriculum designed to re-engage struggling students in their learning. The curriculum is totally integrated, as I weave together all four core subject areas through the lens of place-based service learning. Students, who often come to me feeling disenfranchised and frustrated, are empowered to recognize their potential to act as agents of change within the communities of which they are a part.
With the success of the STAR Program, our school district is launching an initiative to bring this type of highly engaging, highly relevant learning to more students. This project aims to utilize experiential and place-based education to connect more students with the various communities of which they are a part. This project will expand the capacity of our nature-based programming, availing it to more students within our district and the rest of central Vermont. We will also develop extensive mentoring programs between all grade levels in our system, especially as it applies to opportunities to connect with the greater Northfield and Williamstown communities. There is also a priority of creating teacher professional development and experiential coaching positions, which will extend more place-based practices into all classes in our district. Lastly, we will be launching the Paine Mountain Experiential Learning Center as a center for community and family learning, with workshops, courses, and certifications available to not only our students, but their families and other community members as well. Our aim is to give students the critical life experiences to be able to better understand themselves in relationship to the world around them.
Rising rates of poverty in our community, an increasingly diverse student body, and the current divisive political climate in our nation have created greater urgency for equity work at Randolph Union High School, necessitating an intentional, organized, and structural examination of our policies, programs, and curricula. While efforts to address inequity currently take a variety of forms at our school, limits of time and capacity have restricted these efforts to piecemeal work. Although the positive effects of our advisory program, professional development pursuits, and team-based curriculum efforts are beginning to ripple outwards, we need to examine the larger structural inequities that exist in the school in order to make bold, tangible progress in the area of social equity. The time and resources made available through a Rowland Fellowship will enable our school to conduct this study of inequity in an intentional manner and through a structural lens in order to make meaningful change for our school community.
As a Rowland Fellow, I will tackle the work of examining inequities in order to develop policies, programs, and curricula that together can work to empower students and teachers. The project proposal is framed around three essential questions: 1) How do our school policies, programs, and curricula impact the most underserved students in our communities, and how can these structures be reshaped through an equity lens? 2) What professional development and other resources do faculty need in order to commit to teaching through an equity lens? 3) How can we build on the student-centered structures we already have in place in order to integrate equity practices throughout the school? I plan to work with students and colleagues to visit schools already immersed in this work, in addition to working with organizations like the Equity Literacy Institute, Seed the Way, and Safe Art, among others, to conduct needs assessments of our school policies, programs, and curricula, and design revision and implementation plans for changes in these areas.
Developing more equitable school would ultimately create a safer space our students, providing them with the resources they need in order to make educated, compassionate decisions about their world. This work would ensure that instead of feeling isolated, teachers and students feel supported and well-equipped to have challenging but vital conversations about the issues in our communities. Students would feel represented in our curriculum and culture, and would develop an understanding of the societal structures that perpetuate inequality, taking this knowledge and power with them when they graduate. Given the current troubling state of our nation, in which racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric are being increasingly normalized, efforts to educate and create equitable learning environments are of the utmost importance. Ultimately, I envision this work dismantling the divisive and negative dialogues seeping into our school, creating a space where students and teachers feel empowered to challenge the most toxic narratives of our society.