VERGENNES — It’s not often that high school teachers can take a semester away from teaching to focus exclusively on creating a more progressive learning environment.
But that is just what Vergennes Union High School Spanish teacher Kristine Kirkaldy will do next fall. She recently became the second teacher from VUHS to win a Rowland Fellowship, which each year awards $100,000 to up to 10 Vermont secondary school educators to fund a semester researching and developing a project focused on “enhancing the institution’s culture and climate,” according to the foundation’s Web site.
Kirkaldy, a Middlebury resident who has been teaching at VUHS for six years, plans to use the grant in order to continue the work she has been doing for the past year on VUHS’s graduation requirements. She will take a sabbatical from teaching next fall to focus on developing an electronic portfolio system for students, in which they will collect the work that best exemplifies what they have done in their years at VUHS.
The project has the eventual goal of increasing the percentage of students pursuing post-secondary education. To Kirkaldy, the portfolio system has the potential to do this by encouraging students to take a more active role in their own education.
“Students feel more involved when they have to think about what they want in their portfolio,” she said. “That way, they’re not just a vessel with the teacher pouring in knowledge. That’s a very old-fashioned idea.”
Kirkaldy will explore ways to develop these portfolios as online projects in order to make them easily accessible and interactive.
“In the 21st century, (portfolios should be) electronic rather than in an overflowing three-ring binder,” she said. “(Students) can add to it, or substitute a new piece.”
Half of the grant money will go to fund a substitute for Kirkaldy during the fall and to pay for travel and research expenses, both for herself and, she hopes for other interested teachers and students. The other half will go to ensure that she is able to continue researching and developing the project after she has returned to teaching.
FELLOWSHIPS FOR CHANGE
The Rowland Foundation was founded by Barry and Wendy Rowland. Barry Rowland is vice chairman of the board of Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and the Rowlands describe themselves as longtime supporters of secondary education in Vermont.
According to the foundation’s Web site, the Rowlands started their foundation to encourage systematic change of school climates for learning, believing that it is “derived from visionary leadership within the school.” They write, “Visionary change is predicated on key partnerships that develop between a school leader and the faculty, often inspired by an individual teacher who is given the encouragement and resources to affect change.”
To VUHS Principal Ed Webbley, the fellowships provide unique opportunities for teachers to pursue educational advances.
“(The fellowship) allows really good teachers to go out and do action research that we wouldn’t be able to afford normally,” he said.
VUHS French teacher Matthew DeBlois won the fellowship last year with a proposal to enhance the school’s student advisory and progress tracking systems. His and Kirkaldy’s projects both dovetail with Webbley’s hopes for an ever-more progressive teaching and learning environment. Within the school, he encourages teachers to take up leadership and have a voice in teaching reform within the school.
“It devolves our leadership,” he said. “This way, not all the leadership is flowing downward through my office. We’ve placed leadership in the hands of the teachers, which is closer to the student.”
Webbley hopes that the knowledge DeBlois and Kirkaldy gain during their fellowships will ultimately enhance secondary education on a broader scale.
“Both Matt and Kristine will be active in educating other teachers throughout Vermont,” he said. “(Their research) will be a very valuable resource for other schools in the state.”
Kirkaldy and Webbley weren’t expecting another fellowship for VUHS this year — the Rowland Foundation had warned them that it was highly unlikely that they would award the grant to a teacher from the same school in two consecutive years. So the call to tell Kirkaldy that she got the grant came as a surprise.
“I was not ever thinking that I would get it,” said Kirkaldy. “It’s incredibly exciting.”
Kirkaldy hopes to eventually see at least 80 percent of students graduate from VUHS with a clear postgraduate plan — college, trade school or a job. Her own project feeds into this hope, but she sees it as only the beginning long process for the school.
“It’s planting the seed of something that’s going to be ongoing and dynamic,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.