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VUHS teacher starts strong in online voting for $100,000 prize

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Posted on September 11, 2014 |
By John S. McCright



VERGENNES — A representative of the smallest state (in terms of population) in New England is in a contest with representatives of each of the region’s five larger states to win a $100,000 prize for her school. In early voting it looks like she has a chance to win.

Vergennes Union High School Spanish teacher Kristine Kirkaldy has been chosen to represent Vermont in the running for the prestigious Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s Lawrence O’Toole Award that would bring with it a $100,000 prize for VUHS. To win the award she must receive the most votes in an online poll that is open to all members of the public.

Voting at www.nmefoundation.org/grants/larry-o-toole-award opened at noon on Tuesday, and educators from Massachusetts and Connecticut, states with many times the population of Vermont, jumped out to an early lead in balloting. But as of Wednesday afternoon, Kirkaldy and the Maine candidate, Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce, each had more votes than the representatives from the four other New England states combined.

The Lawrence O’Toole Award is given annually to a school, community organization or district to advance student-centered approaches to learning for all students. Student-centered learning enables pupils to gain academic knowledge as well as master the critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills they need to thrive.

This year, for the first time, the public can vote for the winner online and the candidate with the most votes at the end of the voting period (Sept. 9-30) will win the prize. Those interested in voting for Kirkaldy and VUHS may do so online at www.nmefoundation.org/grants/larry-o-toole-award.

“I don’t view it as voting for me but rather voting for all of my colleagues at VUHS and (Addison Northwest Supervisory Union) that have worked alongside me over these past few years to transform teaching and learning for all stakeholders,” Kirkaldy said on Wednesday. “If you think about it, voting for me is truly a vote for schools across Vermont and for the Vermont Agency of Education as we model best practices in proficiency based education.”

Kirkaldy, a Middlebury resident, has been the driving force behind VUHS’s shift to a competency-based education system. She has led the challenging transition from traditional report cards and Carnegie units to a system that includes performance-based graduation requirements, also known as PBGRs. Under those requirements, VUHS students will have to maintain portfolios in which they track and demonstrate their mastery of subject matter in order to earn diplomas; they cannot graduate simply by sitting in classes and passing courses.

As an advocate for students’ dreams and aspirations, Kirkaldy facilitates the school-wide committee to revise graduation requirements for performance-based assessment, and also leads in-service professional development around performance-based graduation requirements.

VUHS has been moving to implement performance-based graduation requirements for a couple years now, adding components of the new system piece by piece, with Kirkaldy and other VUHS staff training teachers and managing implementation of the program. This year’s 7th-grade class will be the first that will have to fulfill all nine PBGRs in order to graduate

“It has been tricky to plan for the different grade levels with some having PBGRs while others are still under the old model,” Kirkaldy said. “Next year when all four high school grades are in the PBGR model it will allow us to use all professional development time to move this initiative forward.”

Kirkaldy said the $100,000 O’Toole award would not only aid in training teachers and developing curriculum to match with the PBGR goals, but it would also fund community forums in which different stakeholders — parents, taxpayers, government officials, etc. — could learn about what’s going on in the school. The award would be particularly helpful in Vergennes, she added.

“As a rural community, we need the resources to increase opportunities for our students to demonstrate their learning outside of the classroom,” Kirkaldy said.

Stephanie Taylor came to VUHS last year and was elevated to the job of principal of all six grades at VUHS this year.

“The transition to a PBGR model was the primary reason I chose to come to VUHS,” Taylor said. “I was excited by the idea that this community had made the transformation to a proficiency based model on a school-wide basis.”

Kirkaldy said Taylor’s experience leading grades 7-9 last year means she’s up to speed on performance-based grading.

“Stephanie’s energy and enthusiasm has enabled us to continue our work by reassuring teachers that the administration supports and values what we have already accomplished and shares our belief that this is necessary to ensure personalized, student-centered learning,” she said.

Kirkaldy believes that the work being done at VUHS meshes well with the goals of Vermont’s education leaders, and that the O’Toole Award money could help advance both.

“It is wonderful that the Agency of Education adopted the Educational Quality Standards this past spring as those requirements support, through law, the work that we have been doing at VUHS,” she said.

The Larry W. O’Toole Leadership award was established in 2011 to honor O’Toole and his success in laying the groundwork and establishing the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 1998. O’Toole was the former president and CEO of Nellie Mae Corp. 

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