VERGENNES — Although hurdles must still be cleared, the Vermont Department of Education has jointly awarded Vergennes Union elementary and high schools a five-year, $767,426 grant to establish an afterschool program at VUES, preserve and enhance the VUHS afterschool and summer school programs, and enhance the VUES summer school program.
Grant authors Jill Strube, June Sargent and Carol Spencer are optimistic that conditions can be met that the DOE has set for the schools to obtain what is a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant.
Spencer, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union curriculum coordinator, and Strube, VUHS afterschool and summer program coordinator, are the main grant proposal authors. They talked on Monday with DOE grant program coordinator Emanuel Betz and came away convinced the funding was on the way for programs they say are proven to boost academic performance.
“I was very optimistic,” Spencer said. “We are going to get our grant.”
Among the updates to the grant proposal they are filing will be more detail on Strube’s existing VUHS programs, an agreement to extend the afterschool hours at VUES beyond the initial proposal, job descriptions for the program’s site coordinator and project director, and more information about how the local schools will start kicking in local funds in the fourth and fifth years of the grant.
“We had about an hour-long conversation and worked out the details,” Strube said. “Some of it was just additional information they needed from us.”
DOE officials were concerned about the recent VUHS budget defeat’s implication for local funding, but Strube said that board has not considered removing its share of the funding for the afterschool and summer program. Possibly that is because Strube said the 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders who have been attending those programs have fared well academically.
Although the state DOE awards the money, it comes from a federal program, and Strube said reporting requirements include comparing attendees with non-attendees in the categories of scores in the NECAP standardized test, grades and regular school attendance.
And the VUHS afterschool and summer programs have been shown to make a difference, she said, just as did the Burlington afterschool program Strube ran before she came to ANwSU.
“In all three categories, the kids who attend … always have higher grades on the average, attend school more days per years, and do better on their NECAPs,” Strube said.
Sargent, the VUES principal, believes the addition of afterschool sessions to VUES and what amounts to the doubling of the school’s summer program will also boost VUES students’ performance, especially those from lower-income families who statistically do not perform as well as their peers in most Vermont schools.
VUES has made progress toward that goal, and Sargent said this grant — called a 21C grant for short — will further the process.
“We have set as a goal to reduce the achievement gap between students that receive free-and-reduced lunch and those that do not. It has been considerably high, and it has been regressing through the years,” Sargent said. “And we want to continue to see that gap narrow.”
Specifically, VUES can expand its remedial offerings and ask kids to attend them. The grant will also allow the school to move toward being a licensed childcare center, meaning federal childcare subsidies available to low-income families can help fund the program — and help it become sustainable.
“We feel we can target students for intervention services that may not have been available in the past. We’ll have more financial support to hire people to come in and help us with that,” Sargent said.
The VUHS program will be scaled back to just the 7th- and 8th-grade middle school, but Strube said the introduction of the programs at a younger age was more critical.
“A huge part of this is if the kids start going to afterschool programs and summer school programs as elementary school students, then it’s an expectation in middle school,” Strube said. “I think once it becomes ingrained at the elementary school, then the expectation is, ‘Of course we attend the afterschool program.’ Then it’s going to boost the high school program.”
VUES will again this summer offer essentially the same summer program it began in 2012, Sargent said, although she hopes to “implement a lot of the stages this year.” The full, more comprehensive effort — including free meals in the summer and afterschool busing — will begin in 2015.
The afterschool program should begin this fall, while the VUHS efforts should remain on track, except for the grade level change, according to Strube.
By 2015, among the VUES afterschool offerings will be math, literacy and science courses and tutoring; homework help; arts sessions, including drama, music and fine arts; wellness activities including martial arts, yoga, and the Girls on the Run running program; foreign language; technology, including Lego Mindstorm, Claymation and digital photography; and mentoring from VUHS middle school students.
Summer programs will run for four or five weeks until at least 1:30 p.m., and possibly later if local funding allows. As well as remedial offerings, the program will “feature weeklong themes integrating academic and enrichment activities,” according to the grant application, and, “activities will be held both inside and outside making use of the school’s outdoor classroom and nature trail as well as Falls Park in Vergennes, the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm and the Vergennes city pool.”
Classes will blend geology, poetry, gardening, local maritime history (with a visit to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum), hot air balloon construction (with a visit to the Middlebury airport), and solar energy (with a visit to the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm).
ANwSU teachers will be recruited, but Sargent hopes community experts will also play a big role. “The key will be reaching out to the community and bringing in people to support the instructors we’ll have within our own employees,” she said.
The VUHS summer school program, called SAIL (Summer Adventures in Learning) and the VUHS afterschool program known as KEYS (Keep Energizing Youth in our School) have relied on a $487,000 C21 grant awarded in 2009.
Strube said that last summer KEYS attendance during the VUHS academic year had grown to around 150. Meanwhile, SAIL summer attendance has grown steadily, from 40 in the first year to about 100 in 2013.
Many courses have been hands-on, including Power Mechanics, Super Science, Basketball Math, Farm and Garden, Food Sustainability, Math Art and K-9 Packages.
Others have been geared toward remediation, such as Language Arts Skills and Math Skills, while still others have helped prepare students to take SAT tests or handle the Performance Based Graduation Requirements that are being phased in at VUHS.
Sargent and Strube were thrilled to learn the city schools were chosen after narrowly missing the cut in 2013.
“Let’s put it this way. I checked email about every five minutes that day waiting to hear,” Sargent said.
Strube remembered finally getting the word on April 16.
“Ecstatic was the word I used to describe it when I got the email,” Strube said. “It was very gratifying, I have to say. I just think it’s going to be a great opportunity for the kids in the community.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]